In the past 48 hours, America has been forced to examine itself, the 400-year legacy of slavery, and the way systemic racism is woven into the fabric of our country and our communities. It’s obvious that something is very, very wrong when watching a police officer kneel on a man’s neck until he dies. It’s easy, in cases where police violence results in severe injury or even death, to see how law enforcement can negatively affect the lives of black and brown people, often irreversibly so.
But there are also more subtle ways that aggressive policing winds its way into our lives. It starts when we’re young, with police officers visiting our schools, talking to us about being safe, and advising white children to find a police officer if they’re in trouble. And then there’s social media.
These days, any police department in a town of any size has a Twitter and Facebook account. A quick perusal of several towns in my area shows that they’re all pretty much the same. Lots of balloons, lots of cops with kids, lots of encouraging their communities to honor police officers. A celebration of community ... with a bunch of mugshots thrown in.
That’s right. If you get arrested, there’s nothing stopping the police from tossing up your mug shot and sharing it on Twitter, along with other personal information — like your employer.
Consider what happened in Miramar, Fla., a suburb of Miami, following allegations that NFL cornerbacks DeAndre Baker, of the New York Giants, and Quinton Dunbar, of the Seattle Seahawks, had stolen more than $70,000 worth of cash and valuables at a house party on May 13 (what’s up with the lack of social distancing, guys?) The incident prompted Miramar police to tweet this out on their official social media account:
In a subsequent tweet, Miramar tweeted out the arrest warrant for Baker and Dunbar, including a detailed description of what the crime they were alleged to have committed.
The tweets were met with a flurry of protest on Twitter, including several people asking if it was the practice of Miramar PD to tag the employers of the people they arrested. Tania Rues, the Public Information Officer for the Miramar Police Department, defended the decision to post both the allegations against the men and to tag their employers in a tweet, to Deadspin.
“In cases where we have attempted to speak with suspects and have been unable to do so, we have contacted employers, in an effort to facilitate or expedite a surrender,” Rues said, adding that the department had been in touch with NFL security before issuing the tweet. She also pointed out that when contacted by her department, Baker hung up on the officer speaking to him. Rues insists that Miramar PD was doing whatever they could to get a handle on where Baker and Dunbar were, including reaching out to their employers for help, via social media.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that first, DeAndre Baker is well within his right to hang up and refuse to talk to the police without his lawyer present. It’s what any criminal defense attorney would advise a client under suspicion to do. Secondly, it was unclear how the New York Giants or Seattle Seahawks were going to be able to assist with an arrest in Miami. Even if team GMs contacted players about turning themselves in, they wouldn’t tell them to do so without a lawyer, whose job it is to negotiate a surrender with the police. Having privately contacted NFL security, there seemed to be no reason to alert the Giants and Seahawks publicly. Surely, NFL security advised the teams of the situation and could have given the Miramar PD the teams’ private contact information.
And then there’s this: Dunbar’s lawyer, Michael Grieco, claims to have an affidavit, signed by five witnesses (the alleged victims, according to Grieco), stating that Dunbar did not participate in the alleged crime. As Deadspin previously reported,
Grieco refused to share a copy of the affidavit with Deadspin, but read aloud what he said were excerpts from the document.
Mr. Dunbar did not directly or indirectly participate in any robbery, or assist in collecting any valuables, at the scene or elsewhere,” read one line of the signed statement, according to Grieco.
Any robbery or assault with or without a firearm did not involve Mr. Dunbar,” read another line, Grieco said.
The five people who signed the affidavit had told a vastly different story early Thursday morning, according to police. One person at the scene previously claimed Dunbar had been an armed participant in the robbery, with others reporting that he had been unarmed, but was involved in the fray.”
Baker’s lawyers have also come forward to say there is evidence that will demonstrate their client’s innocence, claiming Baker was playing Madden at the time the alleged robbery occurred and that electronic evidence will prove it. Both players ultimately spent a night in jail, bonded out, and the case is currently in the hands of the Broward County State’s Attorney. However, if four of the alleged witnesses did indeed tell Dunbar’s attorney that his client had no part in the robbery, it’s unclear how the case can move forward against either man, as their credibility will come into question because of the conflicting statements.
Rues told Deadspin the reason they issued the tweets about Baker and Dunbar was because they were inundated with media requests, from both local and national outlets. Rues pointed out that they turned down all media requests and didn’t hold a press conference.
“If we really wanted to heighten the attention on the case, we could have done that by accepting interview requests with the national media,” she said. “The social media post provided and fulfilled public record requests (for the arrest warrant), which we are legally obligated to fulfill, helped provide answers to the innumerable calls and requests received by local media outlets in Miami, New York/ New Jersey, Seattle, as well as the national and international news media and provided an opportunity to expedite or facilitate a surrender.”
While tweeting at the employers of suspects isn’t illegal, it seems ethically questionable and feels off. When asked, Rues said Miramar PD runs its own social media accounts.
Attorney and agent Leigh Steinberg, though, was also bothered by the police tagging the player’s employers. “Athletes deserve to be treated in a similar way as non-athletes, so what is served by using Twitter to broadcast the arrest? You run the risk of tainting a jury pool because of creating so much publicity,” he told Deadspin.
Steinberg was also wary of the message such posts send to the world about athletes in general. “It creates a climate regarding all athletes. Because of publicizing this, it creates a truly unfair impression of professional athletes. There are a couple thousand pro football players, but there are also coaches and all the rest of it. If each arrest is highlighted in a way that makes major news, it creates among fans the perception that athletic behavior has deteriorated.”
Rues bristled at the suggestion that Baker and Dunbar were somehow treated differently than the general public, saying the department went out of their way to make sure they handled Baker and Dunbar’s case like they would any other. Rues pointed me to specific tweets that have announced arrests and included warrants previously, including tweets on Feb. 20, 2020, Jan. 30, 2020, and Dec. 30, 2019.
But scrolling through Miramar PD’s twitter profile page, it appears that announcing arrests is not something that happens all that frequently. Including Baker and Dunbar, such tweets Rues points to comprise only five posts in over five months. And none of the other tweets tag a suspect’s employer. All of the suspects appeared to be black men.
Why does it matter if the police announce arrests on Twitter? And why does it matter if their employers are going to find out anyway? After all, we see mugshots in news reports on tv and in media reports all time. First, the media’s job is to inform the public, and they are expected to do so in an objective way. While the media often falls short of that standard, there is at least an expectation that they question and verify what they are told.
The police, on the other hand, are under no such obligation when addressing the public. When hearing from the police, the public is hearing only the prosecution’s side of an allegation, with no input from the suspect or those representing him.
When it comes to Baker and Dunbar, the case may very well wind up being dismissed. But as we all know by now, social media posts are forever, lending themselves easily to the interpretation that NFL players are “thugs” and “sons of bitches”, a stereotype that particularly rankles Steinberg.
“By using a form of communication that goes worldwide and is read by people all across the county, it just further feeds into the misimpression that NFL athletes are somehow behaviorally challenged. And we know they’re not, because the NFL keeps statistics and you can compare them to young men between 22 and 30. You’ll see that the rates of every type of criminal behavior are much lower. There’s too much to risk.” In 2015, a University of Texas study found that the crime rate among NFL players between 2000 and 2013 was substantially lower than the general public.
Philly Assistant Public Defender Waqar Rehman is also bothered by police announcing arrests and tagging suspect’s employers, calling Miramar’s tweet tagging the players’ teams “reprehensible.”
“Do I think there is something morally wrong with the police tagging the two NFL teams to alert them to the arrest? Absolutely. Especially when we have a criminal justice system in which a mere arrest is often viewed as something akin to a conviction,” Rehman said.
Just this morning, Miramar Police added another post, announcing the arrest and charge of man as an “update” to a “need to identify” post issued on May 26.
The way the two tweets read together leave little room for misunderstanding. The posts definitively declare that the man was the one who vandalized the school in question. The language is not softened by “accused of” or “alleged.” It simply states the suspect was arrested “for breaking into Miramar High School and causing extensive damage.” So much for innocent until proven guilty.
Professional athletes or not, this use of social media by the police should bother all of us. Imagine being arrested for a crime you didn’t commit, or being overcharged for a minor infraction, or being mistaken for someone else. The next day, you find the police have splashed your face across social media and tagged your employer. Even if you are guilty of committing a crime, you’ve been branded as a criminal before you’ve even been arraigned.
As for Dunbar and Baker, what if their prospective teams decided to cut them based solely on the public blowback from the publicity surrounding the arrest? It wouldn’t be the first time a team has decided the media headache that comes with a player isn’t worth it. And once a player is cut, teams don’t go back later and un-cut them. There are no do-overs when someone loses their job, even if they are ultimately proven innocent.
In the grand scheme of what’s happening in America, it’s easy not to care about the little things, like what police departments put on their social media accounts. When I was Public Defender in the late 90s and early 2000s, the police called nearly everly client I had “a piece of shit” when talking about them outside a courtroom setting. Everyone was a piece of shit. And pieces of shit don’t deserve rights or fair treatment. And that was how many of my clients were handled. It’s easier to see someone as sub-human if they’re just “a piece of shit.”
The way those in power talk about the accused is important. It affects the attitude toward those accused within the department and that, in turn, affects the way we all see criminal defendants. Social media is not a weapon to be used against suspects, it should be only one line of communication between the police and the community; a line that is obligated to treat everyone equally, including those charged with crimes.