Neither of these tweets, it turns out, were accurate. New York Police Department Chief of Detectives Rodney Harrison said Tuesday morning that a “thorough investigation” had revealed no criminal act.
The Detectives’ Endowment Association now acknowledges it was “evidently” an accident. Its tweet, which had been retweeted more than 12,000 times, has now been deleted.
What is so remarkable about this flap is the language used. Rather than note that the officers’ beverages had toxic substances in them and calling for an investigation, both unions immediately alleged it was a deliberate attack. Groups whose job it is to carry out the law jumped straight to criminal wrongdoing, not allowing for it to be an accident or any other explanation.
Increasingly, in recent weeks, this is the story of how some police departments and organizations have handled the protests and other unrest over the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and others at the hands of police officers. Often using their official Twitter accounts, they have tweeted allegations without substantiation when other, less-nefarious explanations are just as plausible — and, in some cases, have turned out to actually be the case.
The Columbus, Ohio, police department on June 1 tweeted an image of a colorful bus in which it said it found “bats, rocks, meat cleavers, axes, clubs & other projectiles.” It said “there was a suspicion of supplying riot equipment to rioters.”
Mayor Andrew Ginther (D) later suggested the bus showed the violence was worse than the arrest numbers indicated. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also tweeted sarcastically: “But I guess still ‘no evidence’ of an organized effort to inject violence & anarchy into the protests right?”
Reporting since then indicates the bus was, in fact, used by traveling street performers. The clubs were juggling clubs, according to those familiar with the bus. The hatchet was next to a wood-burning stove the bus used. The meat cleaver was from a knife block used to prepare meals. The rocks were crystals and fossils.
The Columbus police have said the investigation is ongoing, but there are very logical explanations for all the items found on the bus. Yet it was held up by police and the mayor as evidence of something nefarious.
The Spokane, Wash., Police Department on June 7 tweeted that it had seized a “bucket of rocks staged downtown” to prevent it from being used for violence.
The next day, though, Spokane Police Sgt. Terry Preuninger admitted that the rocks didn’t appear to be “staged” at all. “In one of those cases, after I saw the photos, it looks like that may have just been something that was there naturally and not something staged for a protest or criminal behavior,” Preuninger said.
The tweet has not been taken down.
The Seattle Police Department on June 6 tweeted that protesters had thrown “improvised explosives” at officers.
The images accompanying the claim, though, appeared to show regular candles accompanied by glass. While potentially dangerous, it is not clear what the explosive was. As The Washington Post reported:
The department’s Twitter account said individuals were throwing “rocks/bottles/and explosives” at police outside the East Precinct when officers escalated their response. Multiple people pointed out that the photo the department tweeted of what it claimed was an improvised explosive may, in fact, show a candle. A label in one of the images clearly says “candle.”
The Kansas City Police Department tweeted May 31 that they had “discovered stashes of bricks and rocks in & around the Plaza and Westport to be used during a riot.”
Kansas City Police Capt. David Jackson scaled that back somewhat, though, when he told reporters, “I sense that they’re probably there for nefarious use.”
BuzzFeed News has reported that reports of bricks being left for protesters across the country — most of them spread on social media but not originating with police — often had logical explanations, including that they had been there before the protests and/or were linked to construction. Jackson said there was no construction in the area.
While it is possible some of these bricks could have been left for nefarious purposes, as BuzzFeed noted, Kansas City police claimed without offering evidence that they were deliberately left for rioting. Jackson’s comments suggested whatever evidence existed was not definitive.
New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea tweeted a similar allegation on June 3.
“This is what our cops are up against: Organized looters, strategically placing caches of bricks & rocks at locations throughout NYC,” Shea said.
As Vice News reported, though, there was no unrest in the area, and others pointed to construction in the neighborhood:
There is one major issue with that story: VICE has confirmed the video was taken on a street corner in Gravesend, a part of South Brooklyn where no protests, looting or rioting actually occurred. Interviews with both workers in the area and location data from both Snapchat and Instagram show there were no protests anywhere near that corner.
Shea has also tweeted unfounded allegations about protesters using concrete mixed in ice cream containers.
“Anyone with information please call” police, he tweeted June 8, appending a New York Post headline that said, “NYPD finds concrete disguised as ice cream at George Floyd protests.”
As many soon pointed out, mixing concrete in such containers is a common method of testing mixtures on construction sites. The markings on the containers even appeared to indicate what mixtures each had.
Shea at another point tweeted pictures of tools allegedly seized from people arrested in protests in the Bronx. The four pictures he tweeted appeared to show the same tools from different angles.
Some of these allegations could turn out to be substantiated. But many of them have not or seemed to inflate the danger actually posed. In each case, a criminal suggestion was tweeted out in a way that raises suspicions about the intentions of the protesters and often their level of organization.
Many of them are the kind of thing you see on social media — using inference and innuendo to raise suspicions about adversaries. In these cases, though, they are promoted by police, whose job it is to carry out the law and not jump to conclusions about criminality.
Shea himself recently warned against such rumor-mongering.
“We are living in a toxic time: One that relies increasingly on the selective use of a combination of things: some facts, misinformation, rumor, false conclusions that can be drawn from all of them, sometimes spill over into social media or mainstream media,” he said.
That has undoubtedly proved true, but perhaps not in the direction Shea meant.