Recent Police Killings in the United States: A Three-City Comparison

AuthorRonald Weitzer,Angela S. Lee,Daniel E. Martínez
DOI10.1177/1098611117744508
Published date01 June 2018
Date01 June 2018
Subject MatterArticles
untitled Article
Police Quarterly
2018, Vol. 21(2) 196–222
Recent Police Killings
! The Author(s) 2017
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DOI: 10.1177/1098611117744508
Three-City Comparison
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Angela S. Lee1, Ronald Weitzer1, and
Daniel E. Martı´nez2
Abstract
Recent police killings of citizens in the United States have attracted massive coverage
in the media, large-scale public protests, and demands for reform of police depart-
ments throughout the country. This study is based on a content analysis of news-
paper coverage of recent high-profile incidents that resulted in a citizen’s death in
Ferguson, North Charleston, and Baltimore. We identify both incident-specific con-
tent as well as more general patterns that transcend the three cases. News media
coverage of similar incidents in past decades tended to be episodic and favored the
police perspective. Our findings point to some important departures from this para-
digm. Reporting in our three cases was more likely to draw connections between
discrete incidents, to attach blame to the police, and to raise questions about the
systemic causes of police misconduct. These findings may be corroborated in future
studies of news media representations of high-profile policing incidents elsewhere.
Keywords
police misconduct, news media, race relations, police reform, content analysis
Recent highly publicized cases of police misconduct in the United States have
catalyzed street demonstrations throughout the country, the Black Lives Matter
movement, the Blue Lives Matter countermovement, a presidential commission
on policing, and reform initiatives in several cities (Condon, 2015; ‘‘President’s
1Department of Sociology, George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA
2School of Sociology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA
Corresponding Author:
Ronald Weitzer, Department of Sociology, George Washington University, Washington, DC 20052,
USA.
Email: weitzer@gwu.edu

Lee et al.
197
Task Force,’’ 2015; Wilson, 2015). News coverage of police killings has increased
as well, partly because of the advent of video recordings of such events, public
protests after such incidents, and heated discussions on social media. The result
is that police misconduct has experienced an unprecedented ‘‘new visibility’’
(Goldsmith, 2010; Victor & McPhate, 2016).
Researchers have analyzed news media representations of policing incidents
that occurred decades ago, but little is known about the nature of such repre-
sentations today. News consumption has evolved over the years, with cable
television and social media helping to disseminate information much more
widely and immediately than in the past. Video coverage of police actions has
increased as well.1 Because of these developments, news media coverage of inci-
dents involving the police may be having a larger impact on public perceptions
and of‌f‌icial responses than reporting of similar events in the past. Moreover,
publicized incidents of police misconduct can damage the reputation of police
not only in the city where an incident occurs but also nationwide, and this is
especially true when multiple events cluster in a compressed timespan—‘‘when
one dramatic incident occurs shortly after another [and] bears strong resem-
blance to another case’’ (Lawrence, 2000, p. 103). It has been argued that
‘‘this contamination-by-association is occurring today in a cumulative man-
ner—with each incident pollinating subsequent ones—in part because activists
and the media are drawing connections between them’’ (Weitzer, 2015, p. 475). A
2014 poll reported that a sizeable minority of Americans (43%) believed that the
police killings of Michael Brown (in Ferguson) and Eric Garner (in New York)
were not ‘‘isolated incidents’’ but instead ‘‘a sign of broader problems in the
treatment of African Americans by police’’ (Washington Post/ABC News, 2014).
Two years later, the proportion taking the ‘‘broader problems’’ view had grown
to 60% (54% of Whites, 79% of Blacks), arguably because of an accumulation
of publicized incidents since the Brown and Garner killings in 2014 (Pew
Research Center, 2017).
The impact of news media representations on public perceptions is important.
Since most people have limited direct contact with police of‌f‌icers, information
about the police comes largely from the media, including traditional news
sources whose reporting is now often redistributed through social media (Pew
Research Center, 2016). The public does not necessarily adopt the news media’s
version of reality, but by setting the agenda for what is def‌ined as news and
selectively presenting content, the news media strongly inf‌luences public percep-
tions of events and issues (Iyengar & Kinder, 1987; McCombs & Shaw, 1972).
The pivotal role of the media has been demonstrated in studies documenting
enhanced support for the police among people who watch reality-TV programs,
such as Cops, that present of‌f‌icers in a sympathetic light (Eschholz, Blackwell,
Gertz, & Chiricos, 2002) as well as erosion of public conf‌idence in the police after
well-publicized incidents of police misconduct (Kaminski & Jef‌feris, 1998;
Sigelman, Welch, Bledsoe, & Combs, 1997). And these outcomes are especially

198
Police Quarterly 21(2)
likely for people who are frequently exposed to media representations of the
police. One survey found that the more a citizen read newspaper accounts of an
incident involving drunk Indianapolis police of‌f‌icers who beat two citizens, the
greater the likelihood that these readers would deem the of‌f‌icers guilty
(Chermak, McGarrell, & Gruenewald, 2006). Similarly, a national study
found an association between an individual’s perceptions of the police and his
or her exposure to news of police misconduct: Individuals heavily exposed to
such reporting were more likely to view several types of police misconduct as
widespread and to endorse a host of reforms in policing (Weitzer & Tuch, 2006).
News coverage, especially when it includes video recordings or public protests
after an incident, can also af‌fect police of‌f‌icers themselves. Of‌f‌icers typically
rationalize and justify their use of force, whether excessive or not (Waegel,
1984; Weisburd, Greenspan, Hamilton, Bryant, & Williams, 2001), but they
may also alter their behavior in response to public criticism of the police or if
they feel they are being monitored. Of‌f‌icers may avoid certain types of encoun-
ters altogether or may consciously temper their treatment of the citizens they
interact with (Simonson, 2016). A few studies document the latter. Half of the
of‌f‌icers interviewed in a recent Canadian study said that, because of the potential
for video recording by citizens, they now use force less often and use a lesser
amount of force in specif‌ic encounters; and three quarters reported other behav-
ioral changes for fear of being caught on camera (Brown, 2016). In Britain, two
thirds of the of‌f‌icers interviewed in six towns said that the presence of CCTV
cameras in public places made them ‘‘more careful’’ in conforming to procedural
requirements while on patrol and anxious about their conduct being scrutinized
after the fact; some of‌f‌icers stated that the cameras made them more reluctant to
use force against citizens (Goold, 2003). Regarding the ef‌fect of controversial
incidents, a survey of 7,917 police of‌f‌icers across the United States reported that
the vast majority of of‌f‌icers believe that the recent fatal encounters with citizens
and the public outcry generated by them has made their job harder (86%), that
of‌f‌icers are now more concerned about their safety (93%), and that of‌f‌icers are
less willing to stop and question suspicious people or to use force when it is
called for (72%; Pew Research Center, 2017). At the same time, half of these
of‌f‌icers say that wearing body cameras will make of‌f‌icers act more appropriately
when dealing with the public. This view received empirical support in rando-
mized f‌ield experiments in Rialto, CA, and Orlando, FL, which found that
equipping of‌f‌icers with body cameras correlated with reductions in the use of
force as well as decreased complaints from the public (Ariel, Farrar, &
Sutherland, 2014; Jennings, Lynch, & Fridell, 2015).
News media representations of the police are therefore important in multiple
ways: They can inf‌luence public perceptions, catalyze popular demands for
reform, af‌fect the conduct of at least some of‌f‌icers, and help generate initiatives
to curb police misconduct. But these outcomes depend in part on the nature of
news media coverage. This article examines reporting on high-prof‌ile events in

Lee et al.
199
three cities, identifying (a) the main thematic similarities across the cities and (b)
the issues on which reporting varies by city, suggesting local contextual explan-
ations for the incident.
News Media Constructions of Policing Issues
Decades of research shows that political elites are the primary def‌iners of events
and issues covered in the mass media. Journalists typically perceive government
of‌f‌icials as the most credible authority in their domain and rely heavily on them
as sources (Bennett, 1996; Cook, 1998). This is especially the case in crime and
justice reporting, where police of‌f‌icials typically have a monopoly on key infor-
mation. Certain reporters are assigned to cover local crime stories—the ‘‘crime
beat’’—and develop symbiotic relationships with police of‌f‌icials. Some reporters
come to identify with police values and may thus distort...

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