AZ's Top Federal Prosecutor Blames "News Media, Social Media, and Some Politicians" for "Rush to Judgment" on Police Shootings

AZ's Top Federal Prosecutor Blames "News Media, Social Media, and Some Politicians" for "Rush to Judgment" on Police Shootings
Ash Ponders / New Times

In a lengthy statement released to news outlets on Monday, Arizona's top federal prosecutor called for the public to curb its rampant speculation about police shootings, which he blamed on "news media, social media, and some politicians."

The statement by John S. Leonardo, U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, follows recent incidents of fatal police shootings that have spurred protests and civil unrest. Several days of demonstrations continued through the weekend in El Cajon, near San Diego, California, after the shooting of an unarmed Ugandan man; and the shooting of a black suspect on Saturday in Los Angeles has added to the unease in minority communities.

Leonardo wrote the piece to coincide with President Barack Obama's "National Community Policing Week," which U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch described in her own op-ed on Monday as a "time for law enforcement and communities to come together, acknowledge our shared pain, begin to rebuild trust and chart a peaceful course forward."

Leonardo's dispatch focuses more on how the spread of ill-informed rumors is leading to distrust of police and "agitation."

A former Pima County Superior Court judge before Obama appointed him to his post in 2012, Leonardo showed he's not afraid to criticize law-enforcement officials when he famously declared in a 2010 ruling that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio had "misused the power of his office."

But on the subject of police shootings, Leonardo stands solidly with what he describes as the "overwhelming majority" of police officers who do their jobs with honor. The problem with the shootings and the public response they're generating, he argues, is that they erode trust in police, a trend that "does not bode well for any of us."

"The growing atmosphere of distrust can, in part, be attributed to a rush to judgment about police-involved shooting incidents by the news media, social media, and some politicians," he writes, adding that often-inaccurate reporting helps fan the flames.

"The resulting agitation and passions sometimes overshadow the actual facts when they eventually do emerge after a full and careful investigation," Leonardo continues. "We cannot afford to allow race, a media frenzy based on speculation and misinformation, or political considerations to interfere with the systematic, thoughtful uncovering of the facts."

Leonardo admonishes "politicians and the media" not to "publicly and prematurely weigh in on the merits of any matter under criminal investigation. Nor should they or we jump to conclusions about whether any particular police conduct was or was not justified, before the facts of the incident are fully and impartially investigated."

The United States, he writes, has "a well-established criminal justice system ... devised to deal with the question of guilt and innocence. Remember that this system is not designed to run its course at the speed of a news media cycle, but is designed to operate thoughtfully, deliberately, and impartially to achieve colorblind justice."

For all its faith in the American criminal-justice system, Leonardo's exhortation does not appear to mesh with Arizona's public-records laws, which in many cases allows for videos and initial reports to be released long before an incident has been "fully and impartially investigated" (assuming that's even possible). The federal government, by contrast, releases hardly any information regarding open investigations, from the U.S. Attorney's Office to the FBI, Border Patrol, DEA and others.

Nor does Leonardo's statement address the growing national trend of police departments outfitting themselves with dashboard-mounted video cameras and body-cams, not to mention the preponderance of eyewitness video recordings that have opened a new window onto the harsh realities of police encounters with suspects.

Jarrett Maupin, a Phoenix civil-rights leader who was arrested last week while leading a group of protesters onto Tempe's Mill Avenue bridges, struck a cynical tone when New Times sought his reaction to Leonardo's message, saying that as soon as the prosecutor himself abides by the rules he advocates, "we will have an immediate breakthrough in community and law-enforcement relations."

Maupin says prosecutors in Arizona and around the U.S. have used race and "incredibly dangerous amounts of speculation" for their own political purposes.

Read the full text of John Leonardo's statement:

PHOENIX - Far too frequently, encounters between police and community members have resulted in the officer or the community member being shot, sometimes fatally. This has led to an increasing erosion in this country of trust in the police by the communities they serve. Attorney General Lynch and FBI Director Comey have characterized this trend as a "slow rolling crisis." It is a crisis because the police are the ones we, as a society, have entrusted with ensuring the peace and keeping us safe — all of us, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. It does not bode well for any of us if we do not trust those sworn to protect us. The reality is that the vast majority of law enforcement officers perform their jobs faithfully and honorably every day under incredibly difficult and dangerous conditions. A very few do not. Unfortunately, the damage done by these few to community trust in and support for the police is incalculable. But we must not allow the highly publicized misdeeds of a very few to overshadow the admirable service of an overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers. To assume the worst of the police whenever an incident occurs not only insults the commendable service of most police men and women, but also undermines their ability to continue to do their jobs — to protect us all.

The growing atmosphere of distrust can, in part, be attributed to a rush to judgment about police-involved shooting incidents by the news media, social media, and some politicians. Premature conclusions and unfounded speculation about what actually happened in these incidents, made within hours of their occurrence and often based on unreliable sources, are frequently inaccurate and inflammatory. The resulting agitation and passions sometimes overshadow the actual facts when they eventually do emerge after a full and careful investigation.

When such incidents occur, we all want accountability and there should be accountability. However, before we jump to conclusions about what happened, who is responsible and what the motivation may have been, it would be best for all of us to take a deep breath, suspend judgment, and remind ourselves that we are a rule of law nation. If someone is to be prosecuted as a result of these incidents, we have a well-established criminal justice system in this country devised to deal with the question of guilt and innocence. Remember that this system is not designed to run its course at the speed of a news media cycle, but is designed to operate thoughtfully, deliberately, and impartially to achieve colorblind justice. While this system may not be perfect, it is remarkably and consistently fair and just. Even with all of its shortcomings, it remains the envy of the world. When the shooter has perished — leaving no one to prosecute — let us await the complete report of trained, professional investigators before we decide who was at fault.

We cannot afford to allow race, a media frenzy based on speculation and misinformation, or political considerations to interfere with the systematic, thoughtful uncovering of the facts. The rule of law, which is at the core of our democracy, requires no less. Public turmoil — fueled by suspicion, fear, racial resentment, frustration, anger, and vengeance — only compounds the tragedy of these shootings. Politicians and the media should not publicly and prematurely weigh in on the merits of any matter under criminal investigation. Nor should they or we jump to conclusions about whether any particular police conduct was or was not justified, before the facts of the incident are fully and impartially investigated. Any determination of guilt or innocence must be left to our criminal justice system. Public speculation and rash judgments on the merits of a case are inappropriate and a disservice to us all.

During this week, which the President has designated "National Community Policing Week," we should keep this perspective in mind as we continue to engage in a serious collective reflection on how we can strengthen trust between the men and women in blue and the communities they serve.


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