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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."
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 hes not guilty of out-and-out
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
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.
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