It’s the nature of the news media and its audience to prefer coverage of the unusual. Man bites dog is more interesting than dog bites man.
That’s part of the reason that media outlets will seek out anywhere in America and play up a story about a police officer killing a civilian. Another is the possibility that the killing and its circumstances bear on the fairness of law enforcement, and whether those protecting the public are conducting themselves with the professionalism, restraint and humanity that the public rightfully expects.
Because of the preference for the unusual, though, the stories about individual incidents aren’t representative of the broad reality of police actions in response to crime, crisis and danger. Don’t expect, for example, the media elsewhere to pick up the story of a man with a gun who defied and held off police for more than two hours last Sunday in Pleasantville before being taken into custody unharmed.
Pleasantville police got a call from a dollar store in town that a distraught 29-year-old from Camden was in his car with a gun. Patrol officers arrived and with the loudspeaker of their vehicle tried to talk with him and get him to exit his car. He refused, but eventually lowered his window so officers could speak with him.
An Absecon officer trained in crisis negotiation began a discussion with the man, who continued to refuse to leave the vehicle or show his hands. Atlantic County crisis negotiators and a regional SWAT team were requested. Patrol officers from Atlantic City, Egg Harbor and Galloway townships, Northfield and Ventnor arrived to help with crowd and traffic control.
About an hour and a half after the call to police, the man suddenly came out of his car brandishing a SigSauer semi-automatic handgun in his right hand. With its illegal 15-round magazine, such a weapon could wound or kill several people in just seconds.
After hesitating briefly, the man fled behind the store, crouched at a fence with his gun, then jumped the fence and ran into a wooded area — refusing to drop the gun the whole time.
Multiple officers chased and confronted the man in the woods, where he still wouldn’t drop the gun. After more orders to do so and with no place to run, he finally dropped the weapon and was taken into custody.
Someone with that illegal weapon and oversized magazine could in an instant point and fire a barrage before being taken down by return fire. Knowing and confronting that danger for the public required courage, patience, presence of mind and professionalism.
Maybe it also sometimes requires luck. Once recovered, the handgun was found to hold no bullets. We shudder to think of what might have happened if it held 15 rounds.
Focusing on tragedies in police-public interactions is OK and can help with improvements, such as better identifying and removing from public interaction the rare officer much more likely to be involved in such tragedies. But enforcement by police that doesn’t result in tragedy — largely thanks to the skilled work in the public’s interest by the vast majority of officers — is the norm.
A cynical old newsroom adage goes, “It’s a better story if somebody dies,” meaning viewer and reader interest will be higher. Unfortunately, it’s also a less representative story, and the public needs the full picture if it’s going to effectively oversee the law enforcement it needs and demands.