Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

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Watching an interview with NY Police Commissioner Bill Bratton on CBS This Morning, I was reminded of how important it is for authorities to frame a discussion.

Mr. Bratton’s main and consistent response to the questions by Gail, Nora and Charlie about demonstrations in Ferguson was that unrest was caused by “professional agitators”.  The assumption he seems to be making is that legitimate demonstrations would never originate with local, grass roots frustration over perceived police injustice.  Apparently, according to the police chief, law abiding residents of a community don’t confront their own law enforcement for any legitimate reason and unrest in the streets is always the fault of outsiders.  Disturbance (as he told an NPR interviewer) of any kind doesn’t seem to be tolerable.  But isn’t even peaceful civil unrest a disturbance?  This basic disconnection between how police see the world and how people who feel victimized by the police seems to be one of the obvious and intractable problems between police and those who disagree with police policy.

By professional, I wonder if Mr. Bratton means people who are paid, or people who are considered experts such as, perhaps, Human Rights Watch?  And by agitators, does he mean people who are advising others on techniques for protest, not unlike (as he told the same NPR interviewer) the police NY sent to Missouri to advise and seek advice on how to deal with protestors?  Of course outsiders have axes to grind, leaders to taint and riots to incite.  Community leaders must scrupulously police their own ranks to insure protests are legitimate and effective.  But infiltrating protests is not just a technique for illegitimate demonstrator use.  Law enforcement agencies also have a history of using “professional agitators” for their own purposes.

BTW, Mr. Bratton never used the words “protestors” or “demonstrators” to describe anyone in any community who might be legitimately standing up against what they feel as unfair treatment by the police.  It is evidence that police departments, especially in high profile cities, are feeling under siege and their use of language is one of the tools they use to manage their own siege mentality.  It is the responsibility of media to compel them to precisely define their intentions and make clear their strategic use of tactical language.

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