Perception is Everything

When watching TV, I’ve always hated sitting through commercials and have found a relief in DVR’s and streaming services. Now I can record my favorite episodes and binge watch at my leisure while fast forwarding through commercials. Recently, my wife and I were catching up one of the more popular crime crime shows, The First 48 on A&E. While watching an episode called The Deadliest Sin, my wife noticed something and became extremely annoyed. She had me rewind the episode (another perk of DVR’s) to make sure she saw what she thought she saw.

First a little bit about the episode. The murder took place in Tulsa, OK., and the suspect in the case was a 24 year old white female. It is a rare occurrence for the show to air a white or non-male murder suspect. This fact has been pointed out in some news articles. Fast forward to the end of the show and the detectives tracked the suspect, again, a 24 year old, easy on the eyes white female, to a home where there were other adults present. Detectives do their thing, make entry in to the home and begin sorting out who is who and detaining persons in search for their suspect. All is good up to this point. As they are leading detainees out of the home, most are not handcuffed except for, you guessed it, the one black male in the house. Detectives are seen speaking with one of the residents, a white male who is not handcuffed. The same man is later seen sitting on the ground, still not cuffed, next to the cuffed black male. To make matters worse, when they finally get their suspect the detectives lead her out in handcuffs and inform others that she has not been searched. Sooooo, the murder suspect that they went there looking for, who shot and killed someone, wasn’t searched?? Detectives went into a home, starting detaining and placing handcuffs on potential harborers, find their woman and don’t search her? What happens when detectives who were outside the home do finally search her? They find a handgun in the small of her back.

Now, I know that there are MANY problems with The First 48 and cities have been abandoning the show and refusing to allow their police departments to work with them. As I pointed out, articles have been written about their handling of cases. At this point in time, one would think that the producers of the show would get their act together and fix their perception problem. But this episode highlights their stubbornness and the many problems of the show. They continue to paint a segment of the population in a very bad light with reckless abandon. When I taught Implicit Bias training to officers, I talked about this very thing, the belief that some people pose a bigger threat than others. One cannot think that because the suspect is a pretty young female, that she poses less of a threat than another, especially a black male. If detectives determine that the murderer and the weapon are in a home and every adult is going to be detained and questioned, then ALL should be detained and questioned.

To be fair, maybe the final product which was released to the public does not accurately show the steps detectives took in detaining people from the home. But that’s the point of this post, perception. The episode deliberately or mistakenly shows the implicit bias of officers and the shows producers. Maybe, we were only seeing what they wanted us to see. The show has been accused of staging episodes before. One watching the show may get the impression that some people are more dangerous and extras steps should be taken in dealing with them. Meanwhile, the real danger was never searched and treated with a more semi causal attitude. Finally as a cherry on top of all this, the episode ends with the lead detective interviewing the suspect. She refuses to speak with him and he ends with saying that if she changes her mind, please let him know because he would really like to know where she went wrong in life. I think it’s safe to assume that something went wrong in the lives of all killers. I wonder how many murder suspects he wanted to armchair psychoanalyze in his career. Again, maybe he does make the same pitch to other offenders, but we wouldn’t know it.

Officers must take account of their implicit bias when dealing with the public, especially suspects. Detain, handcuff and search all with due care as if our lives and co-workers lives depended on it. And The First 48 should work on fixing their perception problem. Because the media has the potential to inform the thoughts and judgements of the public and vice versa, they should take notice of the content that they are releasing on the public airways. Continually reinforcing a narrative that some people pose a greater threat than others could have deadly consequences.

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