Many in the media took note of how many police officers took the stand against Derek Chauvin in his trial. We watched as former and current police officers testified against Chauvin, thereby breaking the infamous blue wall of silence. However, what many activists remember was the original statement from the police after the murder of Floyd. In the original statement, the headline from the department read, “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” Further, it read: “Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.” As the AP noted, it attributed Floyd’s death to “medical distress” and did not mention that Floyd had been “pinned to the ground at the neck by Chauvin, or that he’d cried out that he couldn’t breathe.”
As we remember the murder of George Floyd, we should also remember that the initial police reports are not always truthful. As the AP reports, “criminal justice experts and police accountability advocates say the problem of inaccurate initial reports — especially in fatal police encounters — is widespread. For so long, reporters just ran with the initial report from the police that, of course, comes from the officers on the scene. Whatever the police department said became the factual narrative. However, this has not always the case, as the deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, LaQuan McDonald, and countless others have shown. As I mentioned when one of the reporters interviewed me after the Chauvin verdict, “If it wasn’t for this 17-year-old (Darnella Frazier) who took the video, Derek Chauvin would in all likelihood still be on the police force training officers. Sadly, this has been going on for a while, and it’s just now coming to light for a lot of Americans because of video evidence.”
Video evidence is bringing attention to another case where the police were not truthful in their initial statements. In 2019, Louisiana State Police said that they tried to pull over Ronald Greene for an unspecified traffic violation, but he led them on a high-speed chase. State police officers initially told his family that he died on impact after crashing into a tree during the chase. Still, according to the AP, “State Police released a one-page statement acknowledging only that Greene struggled with troopers and died on his way to the hospital.”
However, video evidence from one of the officer’s body cams disputes these initial reports. Not only did Ronald Greene not crash into a tree that night, but it also shows that he did not resist arrest. What the 46-minute clip does show, however, is a trooper wrestling Greene to the ground putting him in a chokehold and punching him in the face while another can be heard calling him a “stupid motherf——.” What it does show is Greene saying, “I’m sorry,” as another trooper delivers yet another stun gun shock throughout his body. What it does show is a trooper taunting Greene by yelling, “Look, you’re going to get it again if you don’t put your f——- hands behind your back!” What it does show is another trooper, after Greene had been handcuffed with his hands behind his back and legs in shackles, dragging him facedown.
What it does show is that no one thought enough about this man to render any aid to him as they left him unattended, facedown, and moaning for more than nine minutes. What it does show is Greene wailing as he is face down on the ground while one trooper sits on top of him, pressing his hand onto the back of Greene’s neck and punching him in the face. What it does show is another trooper punching him in his lower back. What it does show is another trooper once he got back into his patrol car, talking on the phone with someone saying, “And I beat the ever-living f*** out of him, choked him and everything else trying to get him under control and we finally got him in handcuffs when a third man got there and the son of a bitch was still fighting and we was still wrestling with him trying to hold him down because he was spitting blood everywhere. And then all of a sudden he just went limp.”
As this case gains more attention, we are also discovering more evidence of an attempted coverup. According to the AP, Lt. John Clary, “the ranking Louisiana State Police officer at the scene falsely told internal investigators that (Greene) was still a threat to flee after he was shackled, and he denied the existence of his own body camera video for nearly two years until it emerged just last month.” The internal investigation determined that the “video evidence, in this case, does not show Greene screaming, resisting, or trying to get away. The only screams revealed by the video were when Greene responded to force applied to him.”
As people continue to fight for police reform, the initial police statement has come under scrutiny. Long believed to be an accurate description of events, it is no longer the case. The truth of the matter is that some police officers do lie on their reports, and, as the case in Louisiana demonstrates, they have systems in place to cover up their lies. It took 474 days before Louisiana opened an investigation on the abuse and eventual death Ronald Greene suffered at the hands of state troopers. One could only guess what would have happened if there were no video. A recent survey showed that confidence in law enforcement fell under 50% for the first time in 27 years. When we go inside the numbers, we discover that while 56% of white adults have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence with law enforcement, only 19% of Black adults do. As Gallup writes, “This 37-percentage-point racial gap is the largest found for any of 16 major U.S. institutions rated in Gallup’s annual Confidence in Institutions poll.” So, if we are serious about police reform, we can start by holding police officers accountable when they give false police reports.
Andre E. Johnson is the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute Scholar in Residence and Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Memphis. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.