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April 7, 2009

The Journalist and the Cop: A Philly Story

There was a fascinating story out of Philadelphia last week that brought up all sorts of issues related to media ethics, police misconduct and race. And it all comes from an encounter between two people under the age of 25.

Here's how it started: Shannon McDonald, a senior journalism student at Temple University's Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab, went on a ridealong with a Philadelphia police officer in the predominantly black Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, one of North Philadelphia's most violent and crime-ridden areas. During the ride, the officer, 24-year-old William Thrasher, threw around racial slurs, referring repeatedly to the acronym "TNS" (typical n-word s-word), before ultimately stating that "most of the people who live in this area are bad people."

Once McDonald's article was published in a campus publication and on the Web, reaction was swift. Thrasher was demoted to desk duty. The Guardian Civic League, an organization of black police officers, demanded Thrasher's firing. Internal affairs opened an investigation, while Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey slammed the officer, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer "you can't serve people you don't respect."

Meanwhile, when the topic came up on the city's two conservative talk radio stations, the majority of callers either defended the cop, accused McDonald of fabricating the whole thing, or implied, "Hey, he's right." These were the type of conservatives who sincerely believe that the most unjust racial double standard in America is that black people are allowed to say the n-word and white people aren't.

A few points on this:

Shannon McDonald has got writing and reporting chops way beyond the average college student. The article, despite its less-than-pleasant subject matter, is full of lush and beautiful prose, and I also give her credit for going ahead with a story that she had to have known would bring lots of heat. When I was her age, I was reviewing campus a cappella shows for the school paper.

McDonald should stick with journalism, because she's got a knack for it that few undergrads do. Unless both Philadelphia dailies are out of business by the time she graduates – a distinct possibility, I may add – I'd love to see her pursue a reporting career.

Second, the cop made a John Rocker-like error – he spouted off racial slurs, on the record, in front of a reporter. Just for that, he's guilty of shockingly bad judgment, even if he’s not guilty of out-and-out racism. 

But as disturbing as the racial slurs, to me, is that a police officer could say about the neighborhood he's patrolling, "Most of the people who live in this area are bad people." Really? Aren't there people in that neighborhood who are busting their asses to get into better circumstances? Aren't there young students who dream of a better life, even as they wake up to gunfire every morning? Aren't there grandmothers, who have lived on the same block their whole lives and never caused any trouble at all? And if there's nothing but bad people there, why even patrol it?

Third, the vast majority of police, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, are brave, honorable men and women who do a difficult job and do it extremely well. Philly, in particular, has seen several cop killings in the past two years. I see that as reason not to give Thrasher a pass, but rather to chastise him for making the department look bad.

Should Thrasher be fired? That's not for me to judge. He did a stupid, stupid thing, but he's very young and hasn't been on the job even two years. I leave it to the proper authorities to decide his professional fate.

You know what's especially sad about this story? Philadelphia has a long and ugly history of racial tension. These days, when you still hear that sort of thing around town, it usually comes from people who are older and from a different time. It gives one pause to hear such things coming from someone who's not only a police officer, but just 24 years old.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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