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Ruben Navarrette: Police should channel Joe Friday and just give us the facts

Summary: All of this bloodshed is occurring against the backdrop of a wave of anti-Asian violence. Much of this hatred may be due to the fact that some people — including former President Donald Trump — blame China for COVID-19. But some of it might stem from the historical fact that some Americans have never welcomed Asian immigrants in the first place.

Ruben Navarrette column
Ruben Navarrette commentary
Tribune graphic

SAN DIEGO — In my tribe, distrust is a family tradition. My father was a law enforcement officer for 37 years. I've been a journalist for 32 years. We both had jobs where, on the regular, people lied to us.

It leaves you broken, cynical and suspicious. When you spend all your time in sewers, everything looks like a rat.

On the bright side, we're able to zero in on the truth because we can often detect a lie.

Related: COMMENTARY

But what happens when cops and journalists lie to one another?

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Journalists shouldn't automatically trust cops . Comments about crimes, suspects, or motives must be verified before being passed along to the public. When cops and journalists get too cozy, it's easy to forget that.

I wonder if that's the problem in Georgia . It was there that eight people were recently killed - six of them Asian women — in three separate attacks on Asian spas. Four of the murders took place in Cherokee County, and the other four occurred in Atlanta.

All of this bloodshed is occurring against the backdrop of a wave of anti-Asian violence. Much of this hatred may be due to the fact that some people — including former President Donald Trump — blame China for COVID-19. But some of it might stem from the historical fact that some Americans have never welcomed Asian immigrants in the first place.

Officials at the Cherokee County Sheriff Department quickly got in over their heads with a tragic story that went national, global, and viral. Lacking the ability to communicate — and falling prey to a social media era where everyone, including peace officers, feels the need to share opinions — Sheriff Frank Reynolds and Capt. Jay Baker each made separate comments to the public and media. Both were clumsy and made the situation worse.

For one thing, the cops seemed to display more empathy for the shooting suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, than for the victims and their grieving families. The official line became that the suspect was tormented by urges that he couldn't control.

According to Reynolds, Long told investigators he had "some issues, potentially sexual addiction." Baker added that Long saw the spas as a "temptation" and that the suspect was "pretty much fed up and had been kind of at the end of his rope." Baker — who was, ironically, the department's Director of Communications and Community Relations — also told reporters that the day of the killings was "a really bad day" for Long.

Initially, Reynolds and Baker both said that the alleged shooter denied that the attacks were racially motivated. A week later, after being criticized, Reynolds softened up. During an appearance on CNBC's "The News with Shepard Smith," he suggested that he's keeping an open mind.

"I did not hear anything about race ... other than us asking the question, although, we're not going to rule that out," Reynolds said.

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When host Shepard Smith asked Reynolds about reports the suspect made anti-Asian statements at the targeted massage parlors, the Sheriff said: "I don't know that it's true. I've heard that from social media and media, but I've not heard that from our investigators."

I feel better. There is nothing so reassuring as having a White man tell you that attacks on people of color aren't due to racism.

At some point, Reynolds and Baker became defense lawyers. Whether they intended to or not, they provided an alternative possible motive for what Long is alleged to have done. It's not racism. It's a sex addiction.

Now, if there is a trial, imagine how difficult it'll be to seat jurors who don't already have reasonable doubt as to motive.

Meanwhile, the racism deniers in rightwing media seized upon that alternative motive and short-circuited what should have been a national dialogue on anti-Asian racism.

The mainstream media also dropped the ball. They simply passed along the officers' amateur psychiatry at face value without investigating the claims.

We still don't know if Long actually said he has a sex addiction, or if investigators put those words in his mouth because they wanted to steer the topic away from the touchy subject of racism.

Mistakes were made, and the department knows it. Baker is no longer allowed to comment on the case, and Reynolds has said that his department will have no further comment on the case until the investigation is over.

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Overall, it pays to be skeptical of law enforcement. Here's the thing. Journalists are supposed to come to that instinct naturally.

So what went wrong in Cherokee County?

Ruben Navarrette can be reached at ruben@wctrib.com.
© 2021, The Washington Post Writers Group

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