How ABC News Cheers Police Brutality
The torturers call it "legally justified"
“From shootouts caught by dashboard cameras to high-speed chases, police confrontations caught on video are a huge spectator sport on the Web.” That’s how ABC’s “Primetime” puts it: a spectator sport, not potential evidence of police brutality, torture and murder finally coming to light. But that’s how “Primetime” opened its segment on “Cops Busted by Their Own Cameras” this week. The title of the segment was misleading. “Primetime” went out of its way to justify the unpardonable and give voice to apologists of our torture-first, talk-never law-enforcement mentality.
The show—because it is, all told, a show, not a news magazine—began with the Jennifer Aniston-as-Rachel-like reporter (Sylvia Johnson, is it?) voicing-over several videos of cops mauling or killing individuals. There’s the one about the homeless man outside the White House who was surrounded by cops, in a stand-off that was going nowhere: the homeless man held a knife, but he wasn’t attacking anyone. Then a cop comes out of the blue, shoots him, kills him. That was termed justified. Morally wrong, in the words of a criminologist Johnson interviewed, but “legally justified.” Since when has the morality underpinning American law diverged so radically from the legality it’s designed to uphold? Don’t expect Aniston-Johnson to even ask the question.
She also showed the clubbing of a huge black man by two white cops after the black man apparently slugged one of them. The man was clubbed more than thirty times. He died. Aniston-Johnson’s explanation? Well, he had an enlarged heart and was on drugs, so he had it coming, didn’t he? That murder, too, was found to be justified because, “Primetime” tells us what you see in those videos isn’t the whole story.
What “Primetime” was leading up to was a case right out of Flagler County, Florida—my county, and a case I happened to have covered when it originally broke last year: Lisa Tanner was then a 29-year-old woman. Arrested early a March morning for disorderly conduct and resisting, she was brought to the county jail and eventually strapped to a restraining chair, twice, the second time by four deputies while she screamed for her life. The video is brutal. The violence inflicted on her unambiguous. The reason for all this? She was refusing to take a shower for fear that the arresting officer, who was lurking in the booking area despite having done his job (it was against protocol for officers to hang around after filling out the papers for their arrest). So she was made to go through a series of anal orders, which she didn’t follow exactly as she was supposed to, then she was strapped. The whole thing was taped, over 36 minutes, because it was also protocol at the jail to tape all uses of the restraining chair.
Then “Primetime” explained. Tanner, you see, was faking, She knew the camera was on. Also, she is the daughter of the State Attorney. She’d get her daddy to move in and prosecute. In fact, after Tanner’s arrest and ordeal, her father did ask for an investigation, but he also asked the governor to appoint a State Attorney from another district to avoid the conflict of interest. Which the governor did. The charges against Tanner were dropped (more on that in a moment). “Primetime” didn’t mention that. It lied instead, saying that once the video of the arrest became public, subsequent to a second arrest of Lisa Tanner, John Tanner, her father, “immediately launched an investigation, looking for other cases of misconduct at the Flagler County Jail.”
Can a network news television show lie so blatantly? Absolutely. John Tanner, in fact, was invited by the local sheriff to launch an investigation into other cases of abuse, if there were any (there were). “Primetime” didn’t mention that. Nor did “Primetime” note that Tanner withdrew himself from the case, albeit a bit late, when abuse cases began to dovetail too closely with his daughter’s. Meanwhile, the investigation into Lisa Tanner’s torture in the restraining chair was turned over to a State Attorney in another district, following which a grand jury there indicted four of the deputies at the Flagler County Jail and wrote this in its presentment:
We believe that what was done to Ms. Tanner was just plain wrong. Even more importantly, the unanimous opinion of the corrections experts who received a synopsis of what went on before the video and who viewed the video was that the entire operation was improper. In the first place, they and we believe that there was nothing which justified putting Ms. Tanner in the chair. That action was both unnecessary and in direct violation of the Sheriff’s Office’s own policy. Ms. Tanner may have annoyed those who held her. Howeveer, a danger to herself and to others she was not.
In addition, the officers’ imprecise instructions, their gratuitous use of physical force, and their refusal to communicate seemed designed to escalate the situation instead of the reverse. For example, why could they not have simply asked Ms. Tanner to sit in the chair in the first place? Why could they not have told her the reason she was being placed back in the chair? After all, Ms. Tanner was hardly a dangerous criminal. Indeed, her case ultimately ended with her paying a one hundred dollar civil fine for a noise violation.
“Primetime,” of course, never mentioned the grand jury presentment. Instead, it quoted a Florida Police Benevolent flicker calling Lisa Tanner’s time in the chair “an academy-award performance.” It said her father went fishing for cases to help her civil suit. It said the jail cops turned on the video camera “for their own protection” when they saw she was acting up (wrong: it’s also protocol to turn on the camera in the booking area). When “Primetime” went to commercial at one point, it even prompted viewers with a voiceover, while the Tanner torture video was playing: “Is it all an act, staged by Lisa Tanner? You be the judge.”
One other vital thing “Primetime” never noted. She was originally arrested by a cop called Nathaniel Juratovac for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The disorderly conduct? She was outside her house having a beer and she may have spoken loudly, or had a radio on. The resisting? She didn’t follow his directions to the letter when he told her to go to his cruiser. But Juratovac and Tanner have a history: when she was a freshman at the local high school, he was a senior, and he may have had an interest in her which she rebuffed. At any rate, she considered him a “pervert,” as she would characterize him from her jail cell, and his presence, as I noted earlier, was the reason she was refusing to shower in the booking area.
It gets worse. Juratovac was eventually investigated by his own police department (he’s a police officer in Flagler Beach, not a sheriff’s deputy) and charged with perjury, as numerous cases he’d brought forward turned out to have been impossible to substantiate, including the two Tanner arrests. He’s been on suspension without pay since last year.
“Primetime” never even mentioned his existence, let alone his name. No, it just focused on Lisa Tanner’s “performance,” and used the segment to belittle public reactions to police-brutality videos. “But what really happens after the money shot?” David Muir, the wide-eyed host of the show, started off. “Tonight, we’ll show you, and as Sylvia Johnson reports, sometimes that video doesn’t tell the whole truth.” Especially when ABC news is done splicing up the truth and replacing it with that faintly Nazified reverence for cop brutality.