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Essay: Police Brutality, Media Coverage & Public Outrage: Negative VS Positive Outcomes

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One recent case that got mass media coverage was the school shooting in Parkland, Florida on February 14th, 2018. At 2:19 pm, former student Nikolas Cruz, who was expelled for disciplinary reasons, entered the school carrying an AR-15 rifle and proceed to open fire on his classmates and teachers, leaving seventeen dead. He then fled the scene, and was arrested at 3:40 pm. In this case, the media was instrumental in helping police piece together the chaotic events and eventually solve the crime. During the shooting, terrified students began recording the horrifying events unfolding within the high school using their smartphones. These videos were posted on social media sites, such as twitter, instagram, snapchat, and youtube, enabling the public, as well as law enforcement, to get a look inside the high school as the crime was taking place. After Cruz was arrested, police began investigating his online activity and it became crystal clear that Cruz was seriously disturbed. His social media was full of hate speech and threats of violence similar to the horrific events he perpetrated. He was even reported to the FBI when people felt that he went too far online. Surveillance footage of Cruz during and after the crime was published on many internet news sites such as CNN and the New York Times. The video footage, both from students and surveillance cameras, coupled with the massive amounts of incendiary social media activities made it obvious that Cruz was the perpetrator of the shooting and he went on trial for the crime earlier this year.

Another recent event that was very influenced by media coverage was the protest and subsequent murder in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017. A group of white supremacists organized in the streets for what they called the “Unite the Right” movement, and were met by large numbers of counter-protesters. The right wing group was protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in a local park. A young man named James Fields Jr. was at the rally in support of the white supremacists. Fields made the drive from his home in Ohio to Charlottesville to participate in the controversial protest. He was seen chanting racist and anti-semitic propaganda during the rally. Fields then returned to his vehicle, a Dodge Challenger, and circled around to an intersection that was full of counter-protesters. According to witnesses and video of the incident, he then sped down the street, crashing through the group. A thirty-two year old woman named Heather Heyer was killed due to the injuries she sustained during the attack. Media coverage was a massive help to the police in solving this crime. Because of the protests and the clash of left wing and right wing groups, there was a substantial amount of media outlets present even before the vicious attack. There had already been violent clashes between the two groups prior to the attack, which were stopped by authorities on the scene. Along with news crew cameras, many people captured footage of the incident on their smartphones, and there was even drone footage of the attack providing an aerial view of exactly what transpired. An examination of Fields’s social media uncovered racist and anti-semitic messages, with Fields showing his admiration for Adolf Hitler’s policies and actions, the Holocaust included. The overwhelming amount of evidence provided allowed authorities to arrest Fields and charge him with with a plethora of federal hate crimes. He pleaded not guilty to all charges and is set to stand trial in the near future.

Case Studies: Negative Media Impact

On the opposite side, the media, especially social media, can have very negative effects on police trying to do their jobs. Anything that authorities do is closely analyzed by the public for any minor or major wrongdoing. The case that elevated this issue into the national spotlight was the murder of Eric Garner in New York City in 2014. Garner was no stranger to the NYPD, having been arrested thirty times on minor charges. According to those close to him, he felt as if he was being targeted and harassed by police. The forty-three year old father of six was known in his Staten Island community as a gentle giant with good intentions. He was given the nickname “Big E” due to his large statue, standing at six feet three inches tall and weighing around three hundred and fifty pounds. Garner suffered from a multitude of health issues, including asthma, heart disease, and obesity, which put him in a vulnerable situation. On July 17th, 2014, Garner was confronted by police once again, this time for reportedly selling cigarettes without the proper certifications. Garner’s friend, Ramsey Orta, began filming the interaction between Garner and the NYPD on his smartphone. In the video, Garner is seen lifting his hands to the air in a non threatening way, while telling police not to touch him. An argument ensues, and moments later, Officer Daniel Pantaleo wraps Garner in a chokehold and wrestles him to the ground by his neck. While on the concrete, Pantaleo’s arms still wrapped tightly around his neck, Garner can heard screaming “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” The video ends with a shot of Garner lying motionless on the pavement while police attempt to restore order in the surrounding crowd. Garner was transported to local hospital, where he was officially pronounced dead. The incendiary video was circulated through social media and other news outlets, giving the public a chance to react to the disturbing tape. Protests in support of Garner against police using excessive force, sprung up across the country. Garner’s last words on the tape, “I can’t breathe!” became a rallying cry for demonstrators in their fight for social equality and justice. The video, and the subsequent outrage that followed thrust the issue of police brutality into the national spotlight in a way that nothing else had before. Nationwide, people who had no history of being wary of police began to question their relationships with local law enforcement.

Eric Garner’s case elevated the issue of police brutality, but the case of Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri shot it into outer space, and again proved how detrimental the media can be to police. At 11:51 am on August 9th of 2014, the Ferguson Police Department received a call about a convenience store robbery. Officer Darren Wilson responded to the call, and encountered Michael Brown and a friend, Dorian Johnson, walking on the street away from Ferguson Market, a local convenience store. Wilson, still in his vehicle, confronted the two men about the alleged robbery, and at this point, the details become a point of contention. Johnson, who was present during the incident and witnessed the situation, stated that officer Wilson pulled his vehicle in front of the pair, and then reversed, nearly colliding with them. According to Johnson, Officer Wilson then attempted to open his door to exit the vehicle, and the door rebounded off of Brown’s and Johnson’s bodies. Officer Wilson then allegedly grabbed ahold of Brown by his neck and prevented his efforts to escape. Wilson drew his gun and threatened to shoot Brown, then proceeded to fire his weapon. According to the autopsies performed on Michael Brown’s body, he suffered a close range gunshot wound to his right hand, which is consistent with this shot. Johnson stated that he took cover behind a nearby car and saw Brown running away from Officer Wilson, who was in pursuit. It is at this time that Brown allegedly turned towards the officer with his hands raised in the air, attempting to let Wilson know that he was unarmed and that the shooting was unnecessary. However, Wilson proceeded to fire shots at Brown, who died. On the other hand, the authorities painted a different picture of what happened in the street on that day. According to the Department of Justice report on the incident, it was Brown who reached into the vehicle to punch and grab Officer Wilson, not the other way around. Brown’s DNA was found Wilson’s clothing, and Wilson also had injuries to his head and neck that seemed to support this series of events. Authorities then claim that Michael Brown sustained the gunshot wound to his hand during a scuffle for Wilson’s weapon. Brown then fled the scene and Wilson chased after him. Bloodstain patterns on the roadway, coupled with the gunshot wound evidence seem to confirm that Brown turned back towards Officer Wilson before he was shot. According to authorities, Brown posed a physical threat to Wilson, who killed Brown in self defense. These contradictory reports of the event sparked a national interest in the case. In Ferguson, demonstrations seeking justice for Brown began, causing even more tension between police and citizens, specifically the minority populations. This event, along with similar incidents across the country allowed equal rights groups, such as Black Lives Matter, to gain national attention. Then President Barack Obama acknowledged the traumatic, premature death of Michael Brown, and also pleaded with the citizens of Ferguson to remain civil. The protests soon turned violent, and physical clashes between protesters and law enforcement became more and more destructive. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon brought in the National Guard to try and get a hold on the chaos unfolding due to the protests. With the streets in disarray, Darren Wilson testified in front of a grand jury, whose job it was to determine if Wilson should be charged with a crime for his actions. On November 25th, 2014, one-hundred and eight days since Michael Brown was shot, the grand jury came to the conclusion not to indict Wilson for his role in Brown’s death. This decision only raised more tension between citizens and authorities, with people losing faith in those meant to protect and serve.

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