“Arrested 17 Times”

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.

Peter J. Smith for The Wall Street Journal
The weapon believed to be used.

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.

7 thoughts on ““Arrested 17 Times”

  1. Thomas R. Griffith

    Sir, this (pre-trial-by-media) seems to be the norm regarding relations between the authorities & the media which could lead to an eventual backfire when the majority of idiots die off resulting in police / state run media being mere topics of discussion in history classes. In the beginning, the media assisted via wanted posters and a short story with follow ups. Then came the embedded reporter dilemma resulting in crimes and waves of it not being reported or sorta reported. Crime stats plunged and only the dumbest of the dumb remained clueless to the use of fuzzy math, flutes & cliffs.

    And as we see here, the utilization of the media to affect the outcome of a felony jury trial that may never be, is so ludicrous that it hinges on being the right thing to do, if one is against the idea of shooting people. Then again, when in the hell is jury tampering the right thing to do and what can a real CDL do about it. *If I was asking Qs I’d go with – ‘all’ of yours above plus, is it a good time to request a change of venue and request a jailhouse interview to explain the alleged 17 to show a history of harassment / profiling and…? Thanks.

  2. Bruce Coulson

    This is old news for the business community. Many job applications require a list of the number of felony arrests. Not convictions, mind you; arrests. And nothing about what you were arrested for; merely the total Obviously, if you lie, when it gets found out you can be dismissed for lying on the application; if you’re honest, then it’s very unlikely you will be hired, even if you’re applying for a warehouse/stock boy job and you were arrested for DUI (later charged only with a misdemeanor).

  3. bacchys

    So much for not being able to discuss an ongoing investigation.

    Funny how that only seems to matter when there’s a suggestion they’ve done something wrong…

  4. Gloria Wolk

    Excellent analysis. What would happen if you offered to give the police dept. a course on critical thinking skills (and a brush-up on constitutional rights)?

  5. Bruce Coulson

    Companies undoubtedly know that it’s unlawful; they also know that the people that fill out these applications are generally unaware of that fact. Those rare few who might realize this also are clearly in need of a job, and thus unlikely to take the time and resources to contest the question. They need a paycheck now, not in however long it might take for a court ruling.

  6. SHG

    All true.  What you raise is one of the fundamental failings of law, that its viability depends on enforcement, and enforcing one’s rights is often more of a burden than it’s worth.

    Of course, if a guy has an arrest record, but no conviction, and doesn’t get the job, reporting the unlawful demand would be a smart and useful thing to do.

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