Whenever accusations about cops and misdeeds make their way into headlines, most of us either rush to defend them or revile them. Wherever we rush to usually has to do with what camp we most align: either (A) policing is damn hard work and those who do it don’t get enough credit or (B) police officers have enough potentially unchecked power to make us uncomfortable.
Of course, like with most things, the truth manages to be both.
More than a year ago, I wrote about then-Temple University student journalist Shannon McDonald and the contested reporting she did on Philadelphia Police Officer Bill Thrasher. Last month, something of a conclusion was finally met.
In a ride along with Thrasher in his largely poor, black and crime-charged North Philadelphia patrolling district, McDonald quoted Thrasher as saying some incendiary, racially-tinged comments about the neighborhood. Most controversial was his use of ‘TNS,’ which McDonald reported he said meant ‘typical n—– s—.”
After the story went national, Thrasher was briefly put on desk duty and then summarily canned. His union denied ever making the comments, and by way of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police challenged his being dismissed. Months after the appeals hearing, an arbitrator ruled there was insufficient evidence to fire Thrasher.
He’s been reinstated and the conversation — and politicizing — has swelled again.
First, I’ll need all the disclosures I have on this one. Mostly, I’ve had a very close personal relationship with McDonald since 2007. I’m as biased as anyone else discussing the topic, but I’ll try to wade through that.
Knowing McDonald so well and having discussed the topic from before notice ever arose around the story, I know with unfailing confidence that what McDonald reported is accurate. So that isn’t my point or what interests me.
Let’s cast aside that I know her and trust her — and that I don’t know Thrasher.
HE SAID, SHE SAID
Let’s, instead, look back at the premise that a student journalist was on a ride along with a cop.
I’d find completely fabricating such hateful remarks pathological, so, while even taking the harshest look at McDonald and her reporting, it seems fair to accept something was said in the vein that was quoted. (I’d add that student journalists often subscribe to among the strictest of quoting practices, in my experience, because they’re so near to their training and accuracy being among that education’s foundational underpinnings, but generalities aren’t what we need now.)
Once said comments were reported and published, one of the two parties — student journalist and young cop — seems a whole lot more reason to lie.
Truly, I dismiss any notion that the student journalist has motivation to lie from the beginning. The assignment is about getting the story accurate and writing it well. The content isn’t what a student journalist is grading on anywhere near as much as it is graded on accuracy, clarity and form. The most consistent criticism of McDonald has been that she would have used the opportunity to fabricate or exaggerate — that’s ludicrous because it’s not how journalism has ever worked and it certainly isn’t how it works now (McDonald is still building a niche news site, which I’ve worked on, and never got the job all her accusers said she was using her platform to obtain)
But, upon being accused, Thrasher had his entire livelihood at stake.
He thought he was riding with a friend — a native from the Northeast Philadelphia he called home. Someone young and hardly grizzled or intimidating in appearance.
He said something stupid and ignorant — nothing for which I can too harshly blame anyone because I’ve had my share of talking out of turn. It’s important to note here that McDonald never called for anyone’s badge. She just reported what she heard.
Others called for Thrasher’s head. She never ever did — because that’s not the role of the journalist.
THE ARBITRATOR’S DECISION
Though the arbitrator seemed to make clear his distaste for McDonald as a witness — he called her testimony “hostile” — his role was not necessarily to dictate whether her story was true or not. His job was to mediate between two sides — the police department and its officers’ union — and decide whether there was enough reason to dismiss a cop. (Regardless of whether she turned her notes in or not, which, for the record, she did).
The story hasn’t been deemed inaccurate. We’ve just been reminded that it’s damn near impossible to fire a cop — or keep him fired.
McDonald never called for his firing. She never suggested it. She wrote a feature piece on a cop in a rough neighborhood and tried to encapsulate the experience better by employing the words he used to describe his situation.
I don’t know Thrasher, so I don’t have much anything to say on him, though others have. Truth be told, if he wanted his job — and had a police officer’s union behind him — there was never any question what he would do or say publicly. There was considerably more question as to what McDonald would do, which would corroborate her story in my mind, whether I knew her or not.
At least this is as done as it will be for now. Thrasher is back answering phones, as a journalist friend corroborated a few weeks ago. McDonald is still reporting on her community — despite the push back she received.
She was a student journalist who wrote a good story that became a heck of a chance to politicize the matter of whether cops are under siege or doing the siege-ing.
So people ran to their sides.
Cops are infallible heroes.
Cops are over-empowered boobs.
In the middle of storms with such emotion, names are called and usually no consensus or truth will ever be much found.
McDonald lost some friends and developed supporters. Thrasher became a rallying cry. Nothing was solved. We just hunkered back into the opinions we all always held and spun the narrative into the truths we wanted.
I wish we’d see this, as with other situations of its kind, as a single instance between specific individuals — and keep quiet on the rest we don’t much know.