The demise of mainstream journalism, Chapter II

Philadelphia Inquirer Pimps for Philly Cop Chief

When I was starting out as a reporter back in 1972, working for a little family-owned daily, the Middletown Press in central Connecticut, I had editors and a publisher who demanded the best from us. If I was covering a story — whether it was a police blotter report, a town meeting, or a controversial decision by a local zoning board — and I failed to ask an important question, I inevitably got a call from the editor telling me to get it answered and inserted into my article.

These days, leaving important questions unasked is not just commonplace, it has become the norm. This is particularly true when it comes to not questioning the assertions of government authorities.

A few days ago, I wrote about how the New York Times has been simply parroting, unquestioned, the official Washington line concerning Russia and President Vladimir Putin in its reports on the crisis in Ukraine, where a US-backed coup last year ousted the elected government and installed a bunch of fascists and corrupt oligarchs.

Now we have the once-celebrated Philadelphia Inquirer, which in the wake of a spate of police murders of unarmed blacks in Los Angeles, Ferguson, MO, Staten Island, NY and Cleveland, OH, shamelessly pimped for the brutal and murderous Philadelphia Police Department and its complicit Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey.

In a Saturday banner headline over a pair of articles, the Inquirer declared “HOMICIDES DOWN,” over an article that was sub-headed “Changes in police approaches are seen as key to a safer city.”

For starters, the headline was misleading. Homicides in Philadelphia were not actually down in 2014 from the prior year. We learn in the article itself that in 2013 there were 247 people killed in the city, while last year, the number killed was 248 — an increase of one. Both years do represent a 7% decline from 2012, but that decline is old news, hardly meriting an all-caps banner headline this year, particularly as close to 250 murders in a city of 1.5 million represents a lot of killings (New York, with 8 million people, had 328 murders in 2014, and considered that total horrific). The number of non-fatal shootings in Philly, to be sure, was down to 1047 this year, compared to 1128 in 2013. But again, that is hardly a number to boast about in a city of 1.5 million. In any case, it probably has more to do with the marksmanship or lack thereof, of the shooters, and the luck of the victims in getting to a hospital quickly, than with the quality of policing or changes in policing policies.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, protesters over a police killing, and 2014's last police victim, Brandon Tate-BPhiladelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, protesters over a police killing, and 2014's last police victim, Brandon Tate-Brown

Where the Inquirer reporting of this story really falls down, though, is when the article starts supporting the sub-headline’s assertion that “changes in police approaches” are somehow responsible for the rather anemic if over-celebrated “decline” in homicides.

The paper’s two reporters, Dylan Purcell and Aubrey Whelan, do note:

Nationally, homicides and violent crimes have steadily gone down over the last decade, according to the most recent FBI figures.

But then they go on to write that Commissioner Ramsey:

…attributed the citywide drop in crime to a sustained strategy focused on data-driven policing that targets known offenders, community outreach, and accountability — from officers working foot patrols to commanders responsible for developing crime-fighting strategies.

Now, to be fair, Ramsey’s recently introduced “sanctity of life” policy for police appears to have cut police-involved shootings, with the cop-killing incidents down from 16 in 2012 and 12 in 2013 to 4 last year. And it is certainly conceivable that some of his policies (both “tougher” and more progressive ones), which include targeting known gang leaders for monitoring and harassment by police on the beat, foot patrols in high crime areas (which can be fairly militarized in nature), controversial “stop-and-frisk” tactics targeting primarily young men of color, and diversion programs that supposedly steer young first offenders charged with minor offenses into community programs rather than to prison, may have had something to do with what little progress may have been made in reducing the city’s violent crime, but that’s really just conjecture. In any event, there is no way of knowing this from the Inquirer article.

Never asked by the reporters, who should have put the question directly to the self-congratulatory police commissioner, as well as to the several academic criminologists they interviewed, is this: If violent crime is down all over the country, including both in cities like Philadelphia where police are taking an increasingly militarized approach to their jobs, and where the so-called “broken windows” philosophy of arresting people for the slightest infraction in high-crime neighborhoods is operative, and in cities where a different, less confrontational “community policing” strategy has been adopted, then isn’t it more likely that the drop in crime has other explanations than what the police are, or are not doing in Philly?

If cities like Lincoln, Neb., and Kansas City, Mo., can adopt community policing models that feature long-term assignments of officers to foot patrols in specific neighborhoods, cooperation by police with local communities, a metric that judges officers and their superiors not by numbers of arrests made, but by their success in building community relations and reducing crime, a non-authoritarian relationship between officers and members of the community they patrol, efforts to anticipate and solve problems before they reach the point of requiring an arrest, and an avoidance whenever possible of SWAT teams and tactics, and if those communities are also experiencing a decline in violent crime, how then can Philadelphia’s police chief claim that his city’s “data-based” approach to policing, aggressive cops, and a continued use of such controversial tactics as “stop-and-frisk,” are the reason for Philadelphia’s drop in crime?

The simple fact is he can’t. There is in fact good reason to doubt that police tactics have much to do with the nation’s falling crime rate. As I wrote earlier in an article in, some experts on police and crime, like Ted Kirkpatrick, a former corrections officer who now heads JusticeWorks as a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, have other more reasonable explanations:

“When something goes sour, like an increase in crime,” Kirkpatrick says, “everyone looks for a way to explain why. Yet when things go well, like this long-term fall in the crime rate, nobody bothers to look at why.”

Militarized “pro-active” policing may have had some effect on the drop in crimes in the US. But Kirkpatrick says, “I don’t think it’s the big thing.” Crime is down even in many cities where police forces have been cut for budget reasons, and experts agree that the decline in crime began before the militarization of policing really started to take off.

Other factors likely play a bigger role. One is increased immigration since, contrary to common belief, communities with greater numbers of immigrant families show the biggest drops in crime thanks to those families’ “stronger social fabric.” Another factor is an aging population—older people commit fewer violent crimes.

And all this is important because Ramsey is not just the chief of police in one of the nation’s largest cities. He was also recently named by President Obama, in the wake of the recent high-profile slayings of unarmed black men, youths and a young boy by white police officers, to head a special task force to propose changes in policing aimed at reducing such killings. Ramsey, it must be said, has a sorry record in this area. He formerly headed the metropolitan police force in Washington, DC, which has a pretty ugly record when it comes to brutality. And during his current tenure as head of the Philadelphia Police Department, brutality and the shooting of unarmed people have continued apace, with the officers involved generally going unprosecuted and continuing in their jobs.

As Khadijah Costley White, an assistant professor of journalism at Rutgers University writes:

Under Ramsey’s supervision, the Philadelphia Police Department has participated in some of the most notorious assaults on local residents. Most people recall the video of a dozen police officers brutally beating three men in a car in 2008. The brutal beating and arrest of 29-year-old Askia Sabur also went viral. Ramsey had very little to say when it came to condemning these incidents of violence from his officers. Moreover, the ACLU has an ongoing lawsuit that specifically cites Ramsey’s failure to discipline and train police officers engaged in the city’s racially biased stop-and-frisk program (which led to an unarmed teenager’s ruptured testicle last year).

White notes that she recently won a court judgement against the Philadelphia Police and a squad captain for falsely arresting her during a demonstration and breaking her finger and her bicycle after she complained to a Police public affairs officer that protesters, in the bitter cold, were being penned in an area outside a public hearing, while police were staying warm inside the building.

Ramsey’s appointment by Obama to head a police reform panel was also heavily criticized by the Washington-based Partnership for Civil Justice, which wrote:

For civil liberties advocates, Chief Ramsey became synonymous with militarized and repressive policing… including against peaceful protesters, engaging in mass false arrests, brutality and evisceration of fundamental rights. …By the time Mr. Ramsey left Washington, DC, it was in disgrace and with a complete repudiation of his policing style, policies and tactics.

I don’t know why the Inquirer, once one of the country’s best papers, has become such a shameless apologist for the powerful. In the case of the national media, it is probably the absorption of news organizations into large media conglomerates that depend on government leniency in TV and radio licensing for much of their profits, that has made them into sycophants. But the “Inky” is locally owned. It may, sadly, simply be a sign that the whole journalism profession in the US has lost its way, given up its adversarial “best practices” tradition of “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted,” and adopted a mindset in which all reporters are simply controversy-averse “embeds” on their beats.

Whatever the explanation, in the end, the Philadelphia Inquirer has clearly in this case published as its lead story a puff piece praising Chief Ramsey, without asking the hard question: Yo Chief! How can you say that your policies are responsible for a crime drop that has been underway nationally for years?