A More Reasonable Expectation

The public trusts police, at least in part, because the media won't

By Crawford Coates  |   Jan 19, 2018

“And I would say, ‘Fuck you, police officer!’ I’m sick of you. Screw you. You’ve had your chance! You’ve had your chance to police my community without murdering us and you have failed for 300 years. Enough!’ That’s what I would say. More people might get hurt. I’m willing to risk that.”

That quote comes from Elie Mystal, a Harvard-trained lawyer and legal editor for WNYC’s More Perfect podcast. Haven’t heard of More Perfect?

Perhaps you’ve heard of Radiolab, a popular and influential podcast also presented by WNYC. Radiolab presents quirky, slickly produced scientific reporting from a fundamentally human perspective—or, I should say, perspectives. The show is hosted by Jad Abumrad and former ABC News science reporter Robert Krulwich, and the differing voices they present and represent are precisely what makes Radiolab so compelling. These individualized voices tease out the human stories, and ambiguities, behind science. They make the show charming, funny, and, at times, profound. Even if you haven’t yourself listened to Radiolab, if you listen to podcasts the program’s sway has probably reached you. I am one fan among many. The show is now in its seventeenth season.

Presented by Radiolab, More Perfect purports to dive “into the rarefied world of the Supreme Court to explain how cases deliberated inside hallowed halls affect lives far away from the bench.” The episode from which the opening quote is derived has been recast as a Radiolab segment itself. It is now Radiolab. The topic: Graham v. Connor.

Here’s a fuller version of that quote:

“I would suggest a whole more radical standard than [the Graham Standard]. … I would suggest that they have to be, the cops have to be right in fact, which is something we usually do not apply to the law. … So if you shoot me because you think I have a gun I had best have a gun, and if I don’t have a gun your ass is going to jail. Because you were wrong. I don’t care if you really thought so. I don’t care if I was telling you I had a gun! If you are not right in fact then you have to go to jail. I think that would be a standard that would allow us to prosecute these police officers. … And I would say, ‘Fuck you, police officer!’ I’m sick of you. Screw you …”

Mr. Mystal, according to an online biography, “quit the legal profession to pursue a career as an online provocateur.” That explains that. But it doesn’t, to me at least, explain why Radiolab would privilege this voice on this particular topic.

Online provocateurs are a dime a dozen these days. Why do I care?

Why Bother

If you listen to the program from which this statement is taken, you will also hear my boss, and Calibre Press co-owner, Jim Glennon. You will also hear (although not identified) Chief Scott Hughes, a Calibre Press instructor, and an officer we have come to know and admire, Officer Anthony Espada. They got involved in this project at my encouragement. Again, I like Radiolab and, beyond that, I like National Public Radio (NPR). I worked to encourage my colleagues to get involved. I don’t regret it.

I have never myself been a first responder. When I began working with first responders more than a decade ago (at the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, (JEMS)), I worked with firefighters. I went on my first ride-alongs. I began to see how we, the public, had little idea of what really happens on our streets and behind closed doors or cover of darkness. We don’t experience the suffering, the dying, and the destruction that we expose our first responders to routinely (although some experience more than others). It’s a convenient denial. First responders sometimes say, “We see more in a week than most people see in a lifetime.” That’s true.

Another reason I enjoy my job is that I am given room to think my own thoughts. Jim Glennon, my boss, trends conservative. I trend liberal. We disagree, sometimes often, but respectfully and based on facts. I’d like to think it makes the company stronger. Jim didn’t want to talk to NPR at first. But I pressed him that it was worth the risk. The next thing I know, he’s regularly chatting with Kelly McEvers, host of All Things Considered.

“A very smart woman,” he told me. “She gets it.”

Progress, it seemed.

See this: I want our citizenry and community to feel that they’ve been heard and understood by law enforcement and public safety generally. There’s a breach of trust there, both imagined and real, and we need—all of us, including journalists—to work to at listening to each other if we want things to improve. Perception is reality. A more trusting public, of course, would be good for law enforcement. Do I wish the podcast had been more explicit about the experiences and challenges of being a first responder? Of course!

How about?

  • A police officer.
  • A person hoping to live in a safer, more peaceful community.
  • Experts on human performance and the psychology of crisis.
  • Experts on American violence in general and police violence specifically.

Just a few of the missing voices! I know, and sometimes argue with, many such people. But it’s not my show.

Conclusion

The reason we who love Radiolab love Radiolab is it’s ability to take cut-and-dry science, as traditionally presented, and explode it into a multifaceted, very human mess of reality. That is fascinating. Listening to Mr. Mystal, esq., however–legal counsel for the program, again–is fascinating for the opposite reason. Mystal obliterates the other side entirely. Sadly, he speaks for many.

The judgement of the Graham Standard’s quality isn’t—can’t be—how many cops end up behind bars. Police work is difficult and outcomes are often less than ideal. If we, the public, want to hire the best candidates from the most diverse possible pool of applicants, we must first allow ourselves to see the world as it is, with empathy for all, including the cops.

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Crawford Coates

Crawford Coates

Crawford Coates is the author of Mindful Responder: The First Responder's Field Guide to Improved Resilience, Fulfillment, Presence, & Fitness--On & Off the Job and the publisher at Calibre Press.
Crawford Coates

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