Z on TV: Baltimore media should be tougher police watchdogs

David Zurawik: Baltimore media should be spending more time investigating police.

It's time for media in Baltimore to get real with the police.

A police department doesn't get as sick as the Department of Justice says Baltimore's is without lots of help. And if the media want to really make Baltimore a better place to live, they have to push back against the police — as unpleasant as it might be. In their timidity and abrogation of a watchdog role, too many in the media have become enablers.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in TV news and video coverage of the police.

In that DOJ report, The Baltimore Sun is cited 10 times for stories and reports like "Undue Force," the 2014 series that cataloged the cases of citizens abused by police in a four-year period.

Meanwhile, none of our local TV outlets — WBAL, WJZ, WBFF, WMAR — is cited once for its reporting on the police.

For all the hours of local TV news and the way crime and police coverage dominate those hours night after night, there was not one story reporting police malfeasance or unconstitutional behavior during a five-year period that rose to the notice of the Justice Department investigators.

There are many factors involved in shaping the content and tone of a news organization's coverage. I won't presume to know all of them for all of the stations here. But I do know there is one core fact at the heart of the relationship between cops and TV news: Police control access to most of the information, people and images involved in the city's crime. And if your newscast is heavily dependent on that access for its content, you are inclined to play by police rules.

You stand where they tell you stand at a crime scene. You photograph only what they say you can photograph. And you don't go looking for stories like "Undue Force." You don't investigate the police.

And if you do what they tell you to do, they will give you a quote from a "police official" and access to the blood-on-the-sidewalk shot for the lead of your late news.

But that's a devil's bargain that sells out the citizens you are supposed to be serving with full and honest information.

The Sun has not been alone in pushing back against the blue curtain that tries to keep citizens from seeing anything the department doesn't want them to see. Baltimore's City Paper is cited once in the DOJ report, and J.M. Giordano, its photo editor, was thrown to the ground and roughed up by police while covering Freddie Gray-related protests in 2015. (City Paper is part of the Baltimore Sun Media Group.)

Citizen videographers affiliated with groups like We Cop Watch have also tried to fill the void left by Baltimore's compliant TV news operations — particularly in certain undercovered communities. And they have done so without a major news organization backing them up.

Baltimore police have a bad history when it comes to people trying to photograph them.

It includes the city agreeing in 2014 to pay $250,000 to a man, Christopher Sharp, who says police seized his cellphone and deleted video after he filmed them arresting his girlfriend at the Preakness in 2010.

Sharp's case is worth noting in the wake of the DOJ report because in 2012, it led the Department of Justice to issue a letter of "guidance" to the Baltimore Police Department. The letter urged policy and training changes aimed at ensuring that officers respect the First, Fourth and 14th Amendment rights of citizens who are filming them.

And that "guidance," in turn, led to the department issuing a directive to its officers, telling them they can't arrest people or seize their cameras just for filming them.

But within hours of that directive being issued, Baltimore police were caught on video threatening a man near Cross Street Market with arrest for — you guessed it — filming them making an arrest.

All of that was in 2012. Remember that the next time you hear one of our city officials saying how everything is going to change for the better now that the Department of Justice has spoken in 2016.

The DOJ report includes incidents of citizen videographers being abused and denied constitutional rights by police.

One case involves a man filming his friend being handcuffed by officers outside a nightclub. The man being handcuffed was ultimately released, but the friend who filmed him was charged with three offenses and arrested.

"During the arrest process," the DOJ report says, "the man watched as an officer openly went through his phone. When BPD released the man after he spent two nights in jail, he discovered that the video of the incident had been deleted."

The man was later acquitted of the charges, according to the report.

The report also cited a 14-year-old boy who was allegedly punched by police while he was trying to film them.

"In another incident from 2010, an African-American man stated that he witnessed officers use excessive force during an arrest and punch a fourteen-year-old boy who attempted to film the arrest on his cell phone. The African-American man recounted that the officers used the word 'n****r' frequently," the report said.

If you want to see how a TV news operation can be part of the solution with aggressive coverage, go online and watch "Policing the Police," from "Frontline" on PBS. The report, which premiered in June, looked at policing in Newark, N.J., but it could just as easily be about Baltimore or any other city with a high crime rate and troubled police-community relations.

Newark reached a settlement with the DOJ in March that seeks to correct what the Justice Department described as excessive use of force and other discriminatory and illegal policing practices.

Jelani Cobb, who writes about race and policing for The New Yorker magazine, reported the piece for "Frontline."

"I see the tension between African-Americans and police as a gauge of race relations in the country," Cobb says at the start of the report. "I wonder what it would take for policing to be different."

The media here have to start asking that question as well — and demanding answers.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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