The Outrage of the Victim’s Rap Sheet Must End

In the press conference addressing the killing of Akai Gurley by probationary Police Officer Peter Liang, Commissioner Bill Bratton made one thing absolutely clear: “the victim, Akai Gurley, had done nothing to provoke a confrontation with the officers.”

From the time of the shooting through the following day, the NYPD sought to excuse the killing by justifying why a cop would have a reason to be afraid of doing his job, but at least it shows the small degree of class, of integrity, by not following Rule 3 in the Cop Public Relations manual, smear the victim.  In an incident that left little to admire about the NYPD, this alone spoke well of its integrity.

By the next day, it was gone.

Gurley has 24 prior arrests on his record, police said.

First, arrests are not convictions, but perhaps that’s just poor journalism, that whoever wrote this doesn’t understand the distinction. But why did the cops have to dive head first into the cesspool and release this?  And why did CBS feel the need to include this in their story?

The New York Daily News ran a headline, Akai Gurley had criminal record, innocent when shot by cop, which they later switched out for “Protesters call for arrest of rookie cop who shot Akai Gurley as victim’s sister says he didn’t deserve to die.”  You won’t find the headline now, but it was there:

Daily News

The cops released information about Gurley’s prior criminal history because that’s what cops do.  Whether the info is accurate, or what it actually means, remains unclear.  To the unfamiliar, it seems significant. To those of us who work with rap sheets, it’s meaningless. But then, it’s not meant for those who know. It’s meant to taint the unwary.

When there is a question about whether the victim of a police shooting did something to cause his demise, the rap sheet, his prior criminal history, shows that he was a bad dude.  People love propensity evidence, which makes the ignorant believe that if someone committed a crime before, he’s likely to have done so again.  Thus, he deserved whatever happened to him.

But Akai Gurley did nothing here to deserve to be shot. He was “totally innocent.”  Just a guy walking down the stairs, minding his own business, unarmed (as if that would have changed anything in itself), and BOOM.  So nothing on his rap sheet could create a justification to shoot him without regard to what it might be. So why?

The answer, sadly, is obvious. The cops seek to smear him, to taint him, to dehumanize him, so that we won’t care too much about his death.  This is the way the police turn a human being, a father to a 2-year-old daughter, into a “thing” unworthy of concern.  To be even more blunt, this is how police suggest that his death is no big deal because he was a criminal, unworthy of living.

That the police do this is no surprise. This plays to the crowd.  This is how people who are either inclined toward the cops, or on the fence, shrug off the killing of an innocent man at the hands of a cop.  No big deal. What’s for dinner, dear?  People who fall for this cop lie can’t be helped.

But why does the media, the newspapers and television news, repeat this smear?  Doesn’t CBS know better?  Doesn’t the Daily News have any grasp of how it’s being used, how it’s feeding the cop smear to the public?  Don’t they comprehend that this is totally irrelevant, extremely prejudicial without any probative value whatsoever?

And if you think the Daily News’ recognition of its horrific headline shows some recognition by the media, even if a little too late, consider this turn of a phrase:

The police confirmed that — though the victim has been under arrest before, more than once — at this particular moment, he’d had no weapon on him, and no weapon was found at the scene of the crime later, either.

“At this particular moment”?  As in, the “victim” had weapons on him at other particular moments?  As in, the shooting was “accidental”, but the “victim” still might have had a weapon on him and it was just lucky for the victim that he didn’t “at this particular moment”?  Had Akai Gurley had a friggin’ bazooka on him, it would have been wholly irrelevant as P.O. Liang shot him unintentionally, without any claim of justification. Had he been a serial killer, it would not have made the shooting any more righteous.  But of course, Gurley wasn’t a serial killer and didn’t have a weapon on him.

So none of this, none, is either material or relevant to anything. Yet, there it is, in published media reports, tainting the victim because the cops always smear the people they kill.

In a video a few months ago, it was clearly shown that cops arrested a kid on a Bronx stoop for not consenting to be searched without cause.  I took the TV reporter, who happens to be a good personal friend of mine, to task for what was said at the end of his report.

Welcome to life in the Bronx.  But then, the story takes one turn at its end that mires it in the usual media muck:

Santiago was on parole at the time of the incident after he had spent six years in prison for gang assault back when he was 14.

Given the video, that “Santiago” (a curious use of his first name) had not only committed no crime, but was the victim of flagrant police abuse, what purpose was served by the gratuitous inclusion of the victim’s criminal history and parole status?  Is this meant to suggest that kids on parole can be beaten at will by police, or is that just a reminder that he was once a criminal and so his beating shouldn’t get anyone too bent out of shape?

He explained to me that this wasn’t his first rodeo, that the cops fed him the information and had he not included it, he would have been accused of bias against the cops for “concealing” the perp’s motive to refuse consent. I called bullshit.

Where is the New York Times editorial condemning the smearing of victims of police shootings and abuse?  Where is the Messiah du Jour, writing about how the media wrongfully taints the victims to blunt the public’s grasp of the harm?  Where is every journalist who reports on these matters and tosses in the off-hand taint to appease the cops’ hope that by smearing the victim, we won’t care as much about the fact that a cop killed him for no reason?

Or will we perpetually be reading the myth of the loosies, because then we just won’t care enough about another dead man at the hands of the cops?

13 comments on “The Outrage of the Victim’s Rap Sheet Must End

  1. Linda

    Everyone has a “past”, has done good and/or bad things. Sadly, average person doesn’t understand that just cuz someone was arrested doesn’t mean they were convicted. It’s my opinion words like “Arrested doesn’t mean convicted” should appear in newspaper stories when a person’s past is written about. Big deal the journalist would be accused of bias (by the cops) for not writing about the victim’s past. What about all the innocent people who are arrested, have their names plastered all over newspapers for a crime they did not commit, and have to live with this stigma the rest of their lives? Newspaper sensationalism doesn’t cut it with me.

    1. SHG Post author

      You might do better to make your point without tying it to your personal opinion, since everybody has their own opinion and there aren’t many who come here wondering, “what does Linda think about this?”

  2. Paul

    I made the mistake of reading the comments to the CBS story. There were hundreds of comments and most of them called Gurley a thug and much, much worse. Many said that Gurley’s shooting was justified to protect the cops. That one sentence with his prior arrest record caused many readers to ignore everything else in the story that said Gurley was completely innocent.

    If somehow this reaches a grand jury or (somehow) a real jury, some of those commenters will end up serving. The police released Gutley’s arrest record because it helps them, and as long as there are people who say Gurley deserved to be killed by a cop because he had an arrest record then the cops will continue to smear future Gurleys.

      1. lawrence kaplan

        Actually the case of Santiago Hernandez was worse than you make it out to be in this post. You write that he was arrested for not consenting to be searched without cause. But if you go back to the original post you will see that he did consent to be searched by the policewoman, even though it was without cause. It was only because after he was searched he had the temerity to ask why he was searched–imagine that!– she cuffed him and then other officers joined in and beat him.

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