Mainstream media: out to get copsSteve Hammer

I knew it was going to happen. Within minutes of hearing about a 110 mph chase involving a Marion County Sheriff deputy and a suspect that ended in the death of the suspect and his passenger, I knew that the media were going to go nuts about it. We want our cops to be tough on crime. But when anything happens, the blame gets placed on cops by default, whether or not they're actually guilty.

I heard the action unfold live on my police scanner. I heard the deputy call in that he was pulling a suspect over. I heard him say that the suspect was fleeing. And I heard about the suspect crashing his car into a utility pole near 44th and Michigan, cutting the car in half and ejecting both passengers from the vehicle.

That was on Wednesday. By Friday, the daily newspaper was reporting on unproven allegations involving the deputy, Cpl. Ronald Shelnutt, about abusing his authority and endangering lives.

And while their families and our community mourn the loss of Leonard D. Moss Jr., 22, and his passenger, Kelly L. Baker, 20, and the investigation of the accident goes on, let's not get caught up in prejudgment or hysteria.

It's only right that the incident be investigated fully and the questions of the families answered. That's our justice system. But just as neither Moss nor Baker should be prejudged, neither should Cpl. Shelnutt.

I don't know Cpl. Shelnutt or the complainants against him so I can't say whether the allegations are true.

But the media is most certainly guilty of rushing to judgment against any law enforcement officer accused of anything. And the judgment is usually that the cop is guilty, no questions asked.

That's bullshit. Certainly, police officers are accountable for their actions. Certainly, we the people, through our elected representatives, can and should dictate what's acceptable behavior and what isn't by our cops. This is not a police state. Civilians still maintain control over the police departments.

We want our cops to be tough on crime. But when anything happens, the blame gets placed on cops by default, whether or not they're actually guilty.

In Wednesday's chase, the sheriff's department maintains that Cpl. Shelnutt backed off the pursuit when it became obvious it was reaching dangerously high speeds. There's no evidence that he didn't. In fact, the radio traffic that night indicated restraint, at least to my ears.

Put yourself in the same position. You don't know when someone is fleeing whether they're running because they have 20 speeding tickets or whether they're a serial killer, a terrorist or what. You have to react in a split-second and do what you think is best in the situation.

It's not a video game where you can restart it if you make a mistake. Hopefully, our police are trained well enough to be able to make wise decisions. But whatever decision a cop makes, especially when two people die, is going to be questioned.

That means allegations made in a civil lawsuit several years ago against him are being treated as gospel, with the deputy and the department unable to answer them due to legal concerns.

This, like many issues, is not a partisan political matter. Both liberal Democrats like me and hardcore conservative Republicans have an interest in making sure our city is as safe as it can be and that our law enforcement officers act lawfully in the line of duty.

It's the media, both print and TV, which is so addicted to covering local crime - and trying to scare the bejeezus out of us - that every incident is blown out of its proper proportion to its real-life importance.

And it's the default "the cops are guilty of abuse" attitude by the media that leads to distrust of the media by the police and the distrust of the citizenry towards the police. And it leads to the police being suspicious of everyone.

I'm not a D.A. like the ones on Law & Order. Cpl. Shelnutt may indeed be guilty of something. If so, our duly elected sheriff, Frank Anderson, will bounce him out of the department as quickly as he can.

And, even though a grand jury cleared him, if the plaintiffs prevail in a civil trial, I'll accept their word. But a TV reporter or newspaper guy shouldn't play judge and jury and automatically assume he is guilty.

I'd hope that everyone gets the same treatment. Innocent until proven guilty, right?

Listen. Enough people in Marion County were dissatisfied with our previous sheriff and his hand-picked successor that Sheriff Anderson won the election by a healthy margin. I trust him and I trust his ability to root out bad apples in the department, if they exist.

The bigger question we should be asking is: Are our police departments equipped, trained and staffed at the proper levels? Do they have the tools they need to do their job? And is there civilian control of the process?

During the 1990s, President Bill Clinton pushed key legislation through Congress to ban assault weapons, add 100,000 community police officers and provide for more domestic-violence shelters. The result was the lowest crime rates in 25 years.

Now, we've spent at least $200 billion in Iraq, money that could have been used at home for health care, prescription drugs and, yes, more and better-equipped police officers.

That's the debate that should be heard in this country, rather than using the media to do a high-tech lynching of any cop accused of anything.


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