(Analyzing the NYT’s framing could be a full–time job.)
On Thursday, the New York Times published “In Ferguson, Officer Defused Eruptions as Crowds Grew Tense,” a profile of St. Louis County Police’s Good Cop, Lt. Jerry Lohr. Lohr, with the Times‘ help, is here to counter what you’ve been hearing for months about the Ferguson cops and their abuse of the black community rising up in anger over the death of Michael Brown. Naturally, the Times opens its story with descriptions of the violence protesters have been perpetrating, burying accounts of tear gas and omitting rubber bullets altogether. But to the main point, the Times writes:
Before, during and after that first night of violence, few law enforcement officials have done more on the ground to ease the volatility of protesters than Lieutenant Lohr, who is white. And few of his white colleagues have been able to connect with the largely black crowds better than he has.
To give him credibility, they write:
“We were having a conversation one day out here, and he seemed like a pretty decent guy, so I grew to like him,” said [protester] Mr. Williams, who is black and lives in Ferguson.
Lohr, who “never wears riot gear,” appeals to white liberals (Times readers) because he seems to represent the idea that a simple dialogue is all that’s needed to bridge racial and power disparities.
He also helps them forget about the army of cops, in Ferguson and in every city in America, and increasingly in every small town, who nearly always wear riot gear to quell protests, no matter how peaceful.
The main effect of the Times piece, intentional or not, is to advance the cops’ strategy, which is to deploy a Good Cop who distracts from the Bad Cops, makes you think the especially bad ones are just “bad apples” running rogue, and implies that simple reforms or mere rooting out of the excessive few is all that’s needed.
The good cop/bad cop routine is typically used in interrogations, but it’s easy to see how the principle can be applied more broadly.
Slate asked retired police officers and experts to confirm that the practice is used, and they explain it:
Joseph Pollini, a retired lieutenant commander, told us that it’s definitely used on occasion. The typical set-up, he said, will have the intimidating “bad” cop first, followed by the more personable “good” cop, who assures the suspect that everything will be “fine.” Maki Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says that it’s used “all the time,” mainly by detectives. “When a person is confronted by two individuals, one friendly and one hostile, he or she will ultimately create a much better relationship or zone of comfort with the friendly one,” Haberfeld explains. “Especially if the hostile one is truly threatening.”
In Ferguson, after media messaging got out of hand, with police portrayed as unruly and too aggressive, the police sent in the good cop, to calm the crowds and send the message via the media that not all cops are riot-geared warriors and that dialogue is feasible.
This isn’t the first time that Ferguson police have tried this, and it isn’t the first time the media have helped. In August, we suddenly began hearing stories about Ferguson’s Captain Ronald Johnson, who the Times wrote “immediately signaled a change in approach. Captain Johnson told reporters he had ordered troopers to remove their tear-gas masks, and in the early evening he accompanied several groups of protesters through the streets, clasping hands, listening to stories and marching alongside them.” He might as well be one of them.
A week later Johnson got his own laudatory Times profile, in which he says, “I’ve just tried to stand on that line of what’s right.” This too, obscures the basic power imbalance the police will always wield. Cops are getting more and more weapons from the Department of Homeland Security while decrying the protestors’ “violence.” According to the Bureau of Justice, “U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010…Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.” Meanwhile, “In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven’t indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment.”
As Malcom Harris wrote at the time:
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was hey I’m really sorry about my partner he was totally out of line, can I get you a water? Coke?
— Malcolm Harris (@BigMeanInternet) August 15, 2014
After making headlines for mediating, Capt. Johnson observed a “turning point” in the police response to protesters. That could be read another way, as a call for turning point, as a request for passivity — in the several months since, Johnson has faded from media headlines, but the protests continue, as Governor Nixon announced a state of emergency before a non-indictment, the St. Louis County exonerated the now-retired-and-married Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, and police continue to violently repress.
By portraying a single cop’s narrative, the Times distracts from the rest of what Ferguson’s protesters are dealing with. But especially by playing up a “good cop,” the Times is playing right into police strategy, as those in riot gear lie in wait.