On Sunday afternoon, a bystander snapped a photo of a white Cleveland cop aiming his gun at an unarmed African American woman.
Within hours, the photo had gone viral on the Internet as commenters compared the incident to other recent police controversies also captured on camera, particularly the Nov. 22, 2014 of Tamir Rice by Cleveland police.
“Never been more upset to live in Cleveland,” one person wrote on reddit.
“Unbelievable,” added another.
“Here we go again…,” wrote a third.
“Hopefully this makes the news and the cop responsible here is ID’d,” argued one commenter. “If it’s true he showed zero restraint threatening car crash victims then he does not deserve that badge.”
By Monday evening the photo, originally posted on imgur, had been viewed almost two million times.
At first glance, the image seemed to confirm the worst fears about the Cleveland police, a department that just two months ago agreed to give the Department of Justice oversight after a string of deadly police-involved shootings.
A police report released on Monday, however, paints a much different picture of the incident.
According to the report, the officer in the photo had just witnessed the woman hit two cars in an attempt to flee authorities, two young men had jumped out of the back of the car and fled on foot, and the woman allegedly ignored a command to stay inside her vehicle.
“As Sgt. [Robert] Bartos came to a stop the driver’s door also began to open,” according to the report, which was first obtained by Cleveland ABC 5. “Being alone and unaware of the driver’s intentions with the motorcycle still running, and only the clutch and rear brake engaged, he drew his weapon and ordered the driver to stay in the car.”
When the woman, identified as 40-year-old Moratta Davis, showed her hands to the officer, “Sgt. Bartos holstered and was able to shut off and safely dismount his motorcycle,” the report continues. “He then secured Davis in handcuffs, placing her under arrest for attempting to leave the scene of two accidents.”
According to the report, Davis was also arrested for drunk driving after Bartos found an open 24-ounce can of Milwaukee’s Best beer in her car.
“There is a motorcycle officer that’s by himself and she gets out of the car and he needs to control that situation,” Cleveland Police Union President Steve Loomis told Fox 8. “Better safe than sorry.”
The police report hasn’t closed the book on the incident, however. Under the DOJ consent decree, an officer pulling his weapon is automatically deemed a “use of force” and will be investigated.
But the discrepancy between the two scenarios — one initially suggested by the viral photo and the other described in more detail in the police report — is a reminder not only of the increased scrutiny police departments are under across the country, but also the way even photographic evidence can be quickly taken out of context in the age of the Internet.
As soon as the report was released on Monday, a flood of commenters again took to reddit to shame those who, they claimed, had initially rushed to judgment.
“One would also hope that it would teach the necessary lesson to the many people on here who need to learn it, that a photograph or short video is insufficient information to make any definitive judgement on situations like this,” one person wrote.
“Context? Pitchforks don’t need no stinkin’ context,” added another in a reference to the mob-like wrath of the Internet.
“Whoa! Somebody on the internet lied to make cops look bad? No way!” added another reddit user, continuing the sarcasm.
“Of course, how else would the picture go viral? Posting it to twitter saying a cop drew his side arm on a car full of drunk people just involved in hit and run, having witnessed two people run from the car, and holster said sidearm after the other passengers had their hands up….just doesn’t have the same ring to it,” responded a third person.
Loomis, the police union president, also lambasted what he said was a rush to judge cops.
“That’s okay because we’re out doing the job,” he said of cops having their photos taken. “What’s not okay is the scrutiny and the armchair quarterbacking from people who have no training.”
The incident in Cleveland comes amid a heated debate over racism, police use of force and monitoring of cops in this country.
In April, white police officer Michael Slager in North Charleston, S.C., was charged with murder after a bystander videotaped him fatally shooting Walter Scott in the back during a traffic stop. Scott was black.
Just last week, a white university cop in Cincinnati was charged with murder after shooting an unarmed African American driver during a traffic stop.
On Sunday night, however, the country was reminded of the danger that cops face when Memphis Police officer Sean Bolton was allegedly shot and killed by convicted bank robber Tremaine Wilbourn after the officer interrupted a drug deal.
“Every 48 hours a policeman gets killed in this country,” Loomis told Fox 8. “We are not living in Candy Land here. The people we deal with for the most part are violent people, they are angry people, they are people who don’t want to go to jail, and they will do whatever they need to do, whether it’s hit-skip a bunch of cars to get away from us or shoot a policeman.”
According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, 24 police officers have died this year as a result of a deliberate shooting or assault (as opposed to an accident or heart attack).
As of Monday, Aug. 3, that number stood at 570.