Most people have reacted with horror at the killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by Chicago police. But viewers of CNN on Thursday night would have been greeted by one of our elite media’s worst tendencies: their near-total reliance on the police themselves to analyze the police brutality that is so endemic in this country.
Witness, for instance, CNN’s two big primetime shows, Anderson Cooper 360 and Cuomo Prime Time. Both covered the Adam Toledo story, and both turned to cops for their supposed expertise on the situation. Both, crucially, also came at the story from the same vantage point: that police are generally justified in what they do, and that the key thing in the Toledo case will be to show that things went wrong. When you cover a story this way—instead of starting with the idea that killing a 13-year-old child with his hands up is not justifiable, or that the police inherently cannot be trusted as honorable guardians of community safety—you are bound to let that framing lead you certain places. And that is what happened with both Cooper and Cuomo.
Cooper began his show by interrogating Adeena Weiss-Ortiz, the lawyer for the Toledo family. His first question to Weiss-Ortiz was, “So police say the footage shows that less than one second passes between the time when Toledo is seen with a gun and the officer fires a shot. If that is true, would the officer’s actions be justified?”
Right away, we see the framing: police say that Toledo was a threat, and aren’t police justified in shooting at threats, even if the threat is a 13-year-old boy who everyone can see in a video has his hands up in the air?
The two went around and around for a while on this question. “Everybody wants to pinpoint Adam with a gun in his hand. Nobody at this time can pinpoint Adam with a gun in his hand. We don’t know what if anything he had in his hand,” Weiss-Ortiz responded at one point. (For what it’s worth, it sure looked to me like Toledo had nothing in his hand.)
Then, Cooper turned to an additional source: Charles Ramsey, who ran the Philadelphia and D.C. police departments. During Ramsey’s tenure in Philadelphia, a 2015 federal probe found that he was in charge of, as MSNBC reported, “a force that routinely shoots civilians, is inadequately trained, and lacks a transparent review process of police-involved shootings.”The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, a progressive legal group, said that, during Ramsey’s tenure in D.C., he “implemented, oversaw and deployed a militarized policing force including against peaceful protesters, engaging in mass false arrests, brutality and evisceration of fundamental rights.” Nevertheless, Ramsey gained a reputation as a serious reformer. He also became an adviser to, you guessed it, the Chicago Police Department in 2016. (The advice really seems to have taken.)
You might think that such a resume, complete with conflict of interest around Ramsey’s role in Chicago, would preclude him from being called in to CNN. Instead, he is a trusted voice on law enforcement and legal matters who is treated as a vital and dispassionate observer. He told Cooper that the Toledo shooting was perfectly justified:
When he spins around like that, if he had a gun in his right hand, that could have easily just flown right out of his hand, either as he was shot, or he was trying to get rid of it right as he was shot, but it was less than a second, literally, less than a second from the time, the officer saw that he had a gun in his hands at the time he fired that shot.
I believe that is reasonable. I know, right now everybody is, you know, blood in the water about policing. And I have not hesitated to speak up whenever officers inappropriately use force of any kind. This isn’t one of those cases.
Note how smoothly Ramsey slides over from talking about “if” Toledo had a gun to just going with the idea that “the officer saw that he had a gun in his hands.” Note also that “literally less than a second” between Toledo—who, again, is a 13-year-old child—spinning around and being shot is seen as right and proper. Do you think that a cop should wait for more than “less than a second” before deciding whether to kill a child? Sorry, CNN is telling you that’s not how it works.
“It does give you a sense of the extreme difficulty of, you know, what a police officer is facing when anybody in this scenario is facing these things,” Cooper lamented.
Chris Cuomo went one better. He actually brought on John Catanzara, the head of the Chicago Police Union. That went about how you’d expect:
Cuomo pressed Catanzara about his attempts to smear Adam Toledo as a gang member (“no matter who the kid is, no matter who the man is, it should matter that the decision in the moment was justifiable,” he said), but he also allowed Catanzara to opine at great length about why nothing had gone wrong in this case. Catanzara’s status as a man who initially defended the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol, backed Donald Trump’s reelection, has a history of racism and Islamophobia, and is facing charges for filing false police reports, didn’t come up.
For balance, Cuomo then turned to…another cop, former acting Baltimore police commissioner Anthony Barksdale. (Van Jones was also called in.)
Barksdale’s tenure as deputy police commissioner coincided with major drops in violent crime, with the city experiencing fewer than 200 homicides in 2011 for the first time in nearly three decades. The Police Department formally disavowed zero-tolerance tactics and advocated “targeted enforcement,” though it carried out those strategies using plainclothes units often linked to brutality and misconduct.
[…] Barksdale, 47, has since emerged as an outspoken critic of the agency — as well as the federal consent decree outlining sweeping reforms aimed at curbing Baltimore police misconduct.
“Baltimore leadership, just stop with the crime comments. You took the city down this path. You chased after a consent decree handcuffing your own cops, while turning the city over to criminals,” Barksdale tweeted in November 2017.
In September 2018, he tweeted: “Things were supposed to get better under the consent decree, right? Wrong!”
Barksdale’s views that government interventions into policing amount to “turning the city over to criminals” were not discussed on CNN.
He did offer a somewhat critical opinion about the killing. “I’ve been in that position myself, and in a foot chase, and even I also let adults, turn with weapons in their hands, and I didn’t shoot. I didn’t fire shots,” he said, adding later, “when the kid turns, I don’t see a gun in his hand. And that’s where I have a problem.”
Luckily, Cuomo was there to provide yet another pro-cop angle:
CUOMO: Does it change the analysis, if you give the benefit of what the officer said, which seems to sound like “Stop. Show me your hands. Drop it. Drop it,” does that seem to suggest that he thought there was a weapon in the hand, hence the “Drop it” part?
BARKSDALE: It is really important. You can get tunnel vision. If you’re in a situation like that, depending on the individual, my response is going to be different.
So, if this officer was afraid, if this officer had more information about that area, have there been shootings, is he alone, is he scared, and it’s nothing wrong with saying you’re scared. And then you react. That’s possible.
Jones then lamented that white people get away with all sorts of terrible behavior and don’t get shot. After some additional back-and-forth, Cuomo returned to Barksdale for this exchange:
CUOMO: Bark, I know it’s still early. But from what you’ve seen, at this point, before hearing any in-depth debrief from the officer, do you believe that this is an investigation that should yield that there should be a charge here or no?
BARKSDALE: I’m going to say no. It may be justifiable, based on what the officer articulates.
But here we go again with the – to me, diminishing a life, I didn’t need to hear anything about a gang. It didn’t even matter to me. It’s a kid. Why? Why do that? It’s so–
BARKSDALE: Yes, he can articulate it. The cop, he can articulate this one. It’s ugly in Chicago, needs to do some training, just like Minnesota, and they need to get serious about it. Because, Van’s right, we’re seeing this over and over again. And it’s sickening.
A couple of things. First, note the “Bark,” a term of endearment that shows just how cozy these cops are with their media buddies. Secondly, we have, for the second show in a row, a former cop being treated as a trusted source and, lo and behold, saying that he sees no ultimate issue here, beyond the inherent tragedy of a kid being killed. “It’s ugly in Chicago, needs to do some training.”
And that was how CNN handled the police killing of a 13-year-old boy. The notion that the network would bring in, say, an advocate of police abolition, or even a critic of policing who was not also an eager collaborator with the Trump administration seems fanciful. But is it too much to ask that CNN not turn to so many people who are so directly implicated in the horror that is American policing in the 21st century? Is it too much to ask that CNN and its ilk dispense with the fantasy that police are neutral, trusted sources, rather than people with an inherent bias who were trained to lie frequently on the job? I suppose it is.