The New York Times chose a suitable approach to exploring the attitudes of American police officers in the aftermath of the high-profile police killings that have launched the Black Lives Matter movement: Ride-alongs.
Sunday’s front page featured a story titled “One Police Shift: Patrolling an Anxious America,” which includes scenes from post-Ferguson policing in 10 U.S. cities. Reporters from the Times accompanied police officers in their normal course of duty. “Policing in America today is a rib dinner paid for by a stranger, and a protester kicking a dent into your patrol car door,” notes the story’s lead. “It’s warning a young man speeding down a country road to beware of errant deer, and searching through trash cans for a gun on the streets of a big city.”
Any good sampling of police attitudes will invariably kick up some unflattering comments about Black Lives Matter. Lt. Scott Finn, of the Prince George’s County Police Department, gave reporter Jess Bidgood his take on the movement, saying it needed a longer banner:
“ ‘Black Lives Matter When the Police Kill Them,’ ” Lieutenant Finn says, as if arguing with protesters. “Have that be your name.”
Finn is entitled to his opinion, just as New York Times readers are entitled to know a bit more about the man who uttered it: Edward “Scott” Finn is a former bartender and officer who joined the Prince George’s force in 1996. His tendencies on patrol became a focus of a Washington Post investigation of the Prince George’s police department back in 2001. Reporters Craig Whitlock and David S. Fallis found a long trail of troubles.
According to that investigation, Finn:
• Was investigated for shooting an unarmed man. He was eventually cleared.
• Drew an anonymous complaint in March 1999 from another officer after an incident in which a Capitol Heights man alleged that Finn “shoved his head against a patrol car.” The anonymous tipster said that Finn “has two speeds: start and overdrive. His over aggressiveness is what makes a calm situation get out of control.” A civilian review board concluded that Finn should be charged with lying. He got a promotion and a raise.
• Responded with several other officers to an “incoherent” 911 call in Suitland, Md., in September 1999, and after arriving at the scene arrested 29-year-old Elmer C. Newman Jr., an African American man who was high on cocaine. Whitlock and Fallis take it from here:
Exactly what happened next — and why — is the subject of a pending lawsuit filed by Newman’s family. But one hour later, Newman collapsed on the floor of a police holding cell and died.
Police said they arrested Newman because he had attacked the officers. They denied using excessive force and said Newman’s injuries were self-inflicted.
The state medical examiner found otherwise, concluding that police had fractured two of Newman’s ribs, broken two bones in his neck and caused other injuries, according to an autopsy report.
Finn was exonerated by his department and received another pay raise.
• Drew complaints for harassment and a threat in 2000 from a Forestville woman.
• Appeared on a list generated by a police department computer to flag officers who’d drawn misconduct complaints.
The Erik Wemple Blog contacted Finn this morning and asked whether he’d mentioned this history to the New York Times. “I’m not sure if I did or not,” he replied. When we asked whether that history was relevant to the topic at hand, Finn politely excused himself from the conversation.
The New York Times has concluded that it is indeed relevant. After it was contacted about this matter, the newspaper issued this statement:
The officers included in this story were made available by the local police departments. The Times conducted a preliminary background check on each officer. In Lt. Finn’s case, his background check found that he had been cleared of all previous charges. However, an Editor’s Note will soon be appended to the story to reflect previously reported complaints about Lt. Finn’s conduct that should have been made clear to readers in our story.
That’s the proper response.