The New York Police Department announced that it has identified the suspect in the shooting of Sgt. Craig Bier. The image of the wanted man is all over the television and newspapers, and according to the information carefully leaked to every media outlet who cared to listen, the evidence to suggest they’ve got their man seems pretty strong.
A law-enforcement official with knowledge of the matter said Mr. Thomas was identified as the alleged shooter in two ways: A fingerprint on a magazine for a Ruger 9mm handgun, which was found at the scene and believed to be the weapon used in the shooting, was tied to Mr. Thomas, the official said.
In addition, a set of keys dropped at the scene were traced to an apartment in a Queens public-housing project where Mr. Thomas appears to live, the official said. According to the official, mail inside the apartment contained Mr. Thomas’ name. The apartment was unoccupied when police arrived there.
Whether this evidence pans out, or is susceptible to other explanation, remains to be seen, but given the opportunity to sell their case to the public before anyone has a chance to dispute it, the NYPD has made sure to prejudice as many people as possible.
But there’s one additional detail that has been passed around to anyone listening:
Mr. Thomas has 17 prior arrests for charges that include criminal possession of a weapon and criminal possession of controlled substances,
Did you catch that? Not 17 prior convictions. Seventeen prior arrests. No hint of what became of the arrests. Tried and acquitted? Dismissed? Were they for serious crimes or trivial offenses? Was he a regular on the stop and frisk tour of Queens? Was he ever convicted of anything? Anything at all?
And what of the crimes, since the police just happened to mention possession of a weapon and controlled substances. Did he have a gun or a pen knife? Did he have ten kilos of heroin or trace amounts of cocaine?
While printing such meaningless drivel remind us that the media remains as clueless and unskeptical of police vagaries as ever, two things emerge from the fact that the police have chosen to leak this bit of inside information, which for all we know was sealed and should never have been known, no less revealed.
First, by the fact that they speak of arrests, the implication is that there are no convictions. The public has a tough time distinguishing the significance of these two point, assuming that anyone arrested deserved to be arrested, since the police don’t wander the streets arresting black guys for nothing. Except they do, with enormous frequency, but we prefer to pretend otherwise or we would feel constrained to do something about it. That would interfere with television viewing and make life unpleasant. Nobody wants life to be unpleasant, at least for themselves and while there’s a show on they want to watch.
Second, the smearing of a person by propensity, the suggestion that they are of a criminal nature, inclined to commit crimes, and therefore likely to have committed the additional crime for which they are now sought, remains as powerful as ever. As every cop and prosecutor knows, tainting a person as being of a criminal bent creates the framework with which to view every allegation against him. He’s a criminal, and therefore it’s easy to believe that he does criminal things.
This isn’t to say that the suspect isn’t the guy who shot Bier in both legs, Nor is this to say that there is any conceivable justification for whoever did the shooting for having done so. Thomas may be guilty as sin.
But even if so, let him be proven guilty by evidence, not be pre-arrest taint spread thick across the media to make sure that every watcher of TV news or reader of a newspaper knows before a piece of evidence is offered in court that he’s just a criminal type of guy.
And it might serve the public interest for someone in the media to give a bit of thought to not only showing reluctance to dutifully serve the police by spreading its smear campaign, but by giving an iota of thought to what the cops are leaking and consider that 17 arrests, or 197 arrests for that matter, isn’t the same as a single conviction. In New York City, 17 arrests could just as easily mean the guy likes to go out for a walk at a time that just happens to coincide with the end of his local beat cop’s shift.