How Bias In Police Reports Impacts The Way Journalists Cover Policing NPR's Ari Shapiro speaks with Phillip Atiba Goff, Center for Policing Equity co-founder and professor of African American studies and psychology at Yale, on the role police reports in news coverage.

Police Reports Are Biased. What Can Journalists Do To Better Cover Policing?

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Man dies after medical incident during police interaction. That's how the Minneapolis police first described George Floyd's murder. The statement didn't mention that an officer held his knee on George Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes. It did mention that Floyd physically resisted officers. Former officer Derek Chauvin's defense team leaned on that detail during the murder trial. For decades, journalists have treated official police reports and statements as trusted primary sources. And now, some are questioning their reliability and objectivity as part of the reckoning spurred by George Floyd's murder. Phillip Atiba Goff is co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, and he's a professor of African American studies and psychology at Yale University.

Good to have you here.

PHILLIP ATIBA GOFF: Thanks, Ari. Nice to be here.

SHAPIRO: I mentioned the details that were in the first police statement after Floyd's murder. What information typically gets left out of these kinds of police reports?

ATIBA GOFF: So it's a great question. And we obviously don't know. You can't have a record of the things that don't exist. But what we do know is that in city after city, there are communities that are concerned that the elements that police are responsible for, especially when there's a bad outcome, are left out because oftentimes in the worst of those situations, the only person left alive to record the incident is the person that did the dirt.

SHAPIRO: And so police are spinning this in their favor. When did that start making its way into media reports, news reports about the police?

ATIBA GOFF: So it's always been a portion of what's been wrong with law enforcement. So back when law enforcement was a large portion of organized crime, there was a move to professionalize law enforcement in the '20s and then the '30s because the police reports had nothing to do with what was happening. In reality, they were just a cover for mafia and mob activity. It's always been a thread. But what we've seen in the last seven years, since Ferguson in particular, is that folks have started to see there's a pattern in the ways in which facts are omitted.

SHAPIRO: I know it can be hard to separate these things out, but you're saying there's a pro-police bias in these kinds of reports. Is there also a racial bias?

ATIBA GOFF: Yes, and I'd say that there's both and, right? So I want to be clear. I'm a social psychologist. If I'm writing down the story of what happened during this interview, there's going to be a pro-Phil (ph) bias here, right?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ATIBA GOFF: So, like, that's not the...

SHAPIRO: This loser asks dumb questions, and I...

ATIBA GOFF: (Laughter)


ATIBA GOFF: We're going to talk about the - all the technology screw-ups, none of which were my fault. That's a human thing. And so we don't need to be sort of villainizing people who are doing a human thing. It's also the case that between the two of us, if I'm writing down the story of this interview, there's likely to be a pro-Black bias. I'm Black. I'm pro my group. Those are normal human functions. So when police are writing down reports, they're writing down things that are either subtly or explicitly pro-police.

The problem comes in when the slightly pro-Phil bias and slightly pro-Black bias I have, it becomes untethered to reality, and I'm writing down out-and-out lies. And that starts to become part of the culture when you can do it and avoid any consequence. And the issue has been for a long time, we've asked police to police themselves. And unfortunately, that doesn't always work. Because when one person does something wrong and gets covered for it, that becomes two, it becomes 20, it becomes 100, it becomes an entire department.

SHAPIRO: So how should journalists who cover policing - often on deadline, often with limited information - respond to this knowledge that you're sharing?

ATIBA GOFF: So I want to be clear. I'm not saying all police lie about everything all the time. What I'm trying to say is communities have known for some time that a police report is not the whole story, and it's not the way that the community would tell the story. So at the very least, start with police claim. That's the first thing. Contextualize it by who the heck is saying it.

SHAPIRO: Just that phrase. Rather than, this happened - police claim.

ATIBA GOFF: Just the phrase police claim frames the whole conversation in terms of police are saying this, and we now have enough evidence that we're reasonably skeptical of when they are and when they're not telling the truth. And when they say that someone died because of and that person obviously is nowhere around, we want some corroborating evidence. And that's got to be a part of the way that we get out of the situation we're in right now.

SHAPIRO: That's Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity and professor of African American studies and psychology at Yale University.

Thank you so much.

ATIBA GOFF: Thanks, Ari.

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