From Freddie Gray to Tyre Nichols, early police claims often misleading

The first police statement made about Tyre Nichols said he had complained about “shortness of breath” — failing to mention that he had first been Tasered, pepper-sprayed and beaten for roughly three minutes.

The initial news release about the death of George Floyd said that “officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs” — failing to mention that one officer put his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as Floyd begged for his life.

And the incident report filed after Breonna Taylor’s death listed her injuries as “none” — failing to mention that she had been shot several times and was pronounced dead on the scene.

A Washington Post analysis of seven high-profile cases in which people died after use of force by police officers — from the fatal injury of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015 to the death of Nichols last month — found a familiar pattern: The initial police version of events was misleading, incomplete or wrong, with the first accounts consistently in conflict with the full set of facts once they finally emerged.

In cases where the police are later accused of excessive and unwarranted use of force, the first draft of history is almost always written in part by those same officers, who often portray the police in flattering ways and the alleged suspect in less flattering ones.

“The police own the narrative in every interaction they have with the public, because they write up the reports, and sometimes the reports are written to justify the actions the officers have taken and sometimes to cover up what actually happened,” said Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University who researches criminal behavior by police.

The Post analysis found several consistent themes throughout the seven incidents involving Black people who died in encounters with police: The officers were often, but not always, White; the initial police accounts regularly described the victims in terms assuming they were guilty of a crime; and the initial police version frequently used clinical language that seemed to obscure their own role in the incidents.

Police in these cases frequently used passive language in their first statements or reports, with phrases such as “the incident occurred,” “a struggle ensued” or “a confrontation occurred.” Early police statements and reports also often describe the victim with language assuming culpability — “the arrested individual,” “the suspect,” “the defendant.”

“When we use passive language in our own lives, usually we’re trying to create some distance from what happened, whether it’s ‘the milk fell’ instead of ‘I spilled the milk,’” said Lauren Bonds, executive director of the National Police Accountability Project, a civil rights organization that advocates for victims of police violence. “It’s a very intentional kind of framing to avoid responsibility or push responsibility onto another person.”

Several police departments contacted by The Post said that it is not uncommon for preliminary information to change as more facts become available or an investigation continues. The departments sometimes find themselves balancing the public’s right to information and the goal of transparency, spokespeople said, with the reality that a more complete picture of an incident frequently emerges in the following days, weeks and months.

“Information about critical incidents often evolves,” said Ryan Luby, a spokesman for the police department in Aurora, Colo., where 23-year-old Elijah McClain died in 2019 after being forcibly restrained by police and then given a high dose of ketamine by paramedics. “Any perceived omissions of information are not intentional — what is intentional is our desire to communicate with the public.”

Experts on police violence and misbehavior say that initial police statements should be viewed “cautiously” — and that restoring trust with the public will require greater accountability by police departments.

“It’s very damaging to the police department because it does damage to their reputation when they put out these press releases and it turns out they’re false,” Stinson said.

He added that the prevalence of body-camera footage and bystander video has changed the public’s understanding of these incidents: “What’s different now is that people can see the lies with their own eyes by watching videos, whether it’s on cable news, the local TV news or on YouTube,” he said.