Monday, June 29, 2020

Media reporting of assault case unconsciously stirs anti-police sentiment

The language being used around the recent sentencing of an off-duty Toronto area police officer for the assault on Black man Dafonte Miller some three-and-a-half years ago is interesting, and possibly instructive.
Mr. Miller was caught by Michael Theriault, and his younger brother Christian inside one of their cars, either trying to steal it or to steal something from it (Miller denies this part, insisting he was just walking along, but the judge ruled that the evidence shows that Miller and his friend were in fact "car-hopping"). The Theriault brothers gave chase and and beat up Miller horrifically, Miller losing an eye permanently in the process. Charges of aggravated assault were brought against the two brothers, although in the end Michael was found guilty of the lesser charge of assault and Christian, who played a lesser role, was found not guilty.
Anyway, whatever the facts of the case, and whatever you feel about the verdicts, it is the language used in the press that I have found interesting. Because Michael Theriault, 24 years old at the time of the incident, was a police officer of two years standing, and, although he was off-duty at the time, every single report I have read has stressed that he was a police officer. Often the headline specifies "off-duty cop" (e.g. CTV, Durham Region News, Toronto Sun, The Star), while other outlets have chosen to label him simply a "Toronto cop" or "Toronto police officer" (e.g. CBCGlobe and Mail, Global News, National Post, even the BBC).
So, this fits neatly into the recent news cycle about police violence against Black people. But it occurred to me that other assaults and killings hardly ever mention the perpetrator's occupation, and certainly not in the main headline. The press does not talk about an "off- duty welder" or a "Greek baker" carrying out a crime. Why, then, is the occupation of this particular criminal of such central concern, if not to fit in with the police-assaulting-Black-people narrative?
So, who is looking good here? Not Mr. Miller, who should not have been poking around in someone else's car. Certainly not Michael Theriault, who had no call to batter anyone, black or white, in such a horrific way (he should have called the police!). And not the media either, who can reasonably be accused of having abandoned journalistic objectivity and having chosen a "side", deliberately or otherwise stirring anti-police sentiment by the way in which they have reported the incident.
Possibly the only bright spot may be, perhaps surprisingly, the judiciary, which seems to have been able to keep its head (and its impartiality) in the heated circumstances. Justice Di Luca realized that this was a specific case to be judged on its own merits and the available evidence, and not an opportunity to investigate institutional racism or policing procedures. He managed to keep the facts of the matter separate from public opinion and from the heated discourse currently underway. Full marks to him.
And I say this, not because I am particularly pro-police or anti-Black, but because it would have been very easy for the judge in the case to blindly follow the anti-police Zeitgeist.

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