The Roundup

Police, Media Tread Lightly Around the Issue of Race in Recent Shootings

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Posted 04.09.12

Was race a motivating factor in the recent murder of three Tulsans—and the shooting injury of two others—all of whom were black? Investigators with both the Tulsa Police Department and the FBI have been consistently telling media it’s “too early to tell,” and the media—most of those reporting from Tulsa, anyway—have been cautious in asserting racial motivation in their reporting.

Poynter pointed this out today, writing: “Maybe it’s the Trayvon Martin case, or maybe it’s just the system working as it should, but news organizations are moving cautiously on the story of this weekend’s shootings in Tulsa, Okla., which may — may — have been racially motivated.”

Headlines in the Tulsa World (“Two arrested in north Tulsa shootings that claimed three lives”), on NPR (“ ‘Premature’ To Call Tulsa Shootings Hate Crimes”), CBS News (Tulsa shooting spree racially charged?”), and CNN (“Could Tulsa shooting be a hate crime?”; see video below) question the role race played in the shootings for which Jake England and Alvin Watts were arrested yesterday. An AP story headline said “revenge”—not race—was a “possible motive.”

Most headlines ignore the race factor and allude simply to the crime and recent developments in its investigation.

There has also been confusion by the media as to England’s race. Officers described him as “white,” which is what much of the media is reporting, but he appears to be American Indian, and his friend, commenting in the Los Angeles Times, described him as Cherokee.

A story published by the New York Post, written by This Land Press contributing editor Joshua Kline, calls the shootings “hate slays” in its headline. “Though police yesterday wouldn’t label the carnage a hate crime, one of the suspects raged on Facebook hours before the killings that his father had been gunned down by a black man two years ago,” Kline wrote.

At press conferences Saturday and Sunday, members of the media asked repeatedly whether or not the crimes were racially motivated and if the suspects would be charged for hate crimes. Police Chief Chuck Jordan said on Sunday: “That’s way too premature for me to make that comment. Again, I said you could look at the facts of the case and come to what would appear to be a logical theory, but we’re going to look at all the facts of the case. I certainly couldn’t make that determination right now.”

He seemed to be echoing comments he made on Saturday: “There’s a very logical theory that would say that’s what it could be. But I’m a police officer; I’ve got to go by evidence. I’m not going to make the statement at this time that that’s what it is when we have no evidence (of that) … It’s just not time for us to say that. Right now, I’m worried about three of my citizens being murdered. If it takes us in the direction of a hate crime, then that’s certainly where we’ll go.”

FBI agent James Finch told reporters on Sunday: “I’ve heard questions about hate crime. Folks, this is where the really tough work starts in an investigation. This is where we can’t afford to make mistakes. It is very premature to talk about hate crimes. We have yet to analyze all the information to understand the motivations of the subjects in this case.”

Jordan said the Tulsa police officers investigating the case would look into England’s recent Facebook postings, though his account was deactivated on Sunday. Many of the media had already published his updates, though, which included: “Today is two years that my dad has been gone shot by a fucking nigger it’s hard not to go off between that and sheran I’m gone in the head,” posted Thursday afternoon, and, “Chilling at that house people talking shit on me for some shit I didn’t do … it just mite be the time to call it quits I I hate to say it like that but I’m done if something does happen tonite be ready for another funeral later,” posted Friday night.

Susan Sevenstar, a family friend of England’s, told the Los Angeles Times: “If anybody is trying to say this is a racial situation, they’ve got things confused. He didn’t care what your color was. It wasn’t a racist thing.”

Jordan said on Sunday that hate crime charges are usually filed to achieve “enhanced sentences,” but that, in this case, “We’re talking about murder charges, and that’s about as serious as it gets.” Ultimately, though, the decision will be up to the district attorney.

CNN reporter Jason Carroll quoted a city councilman, though he didn’t say which one, who said, “This is something I clearly see as being a hate crime.”

Residents of north Tulsa, where the shootings took place, reported repeatedly, before the suspects were apprehended, being fearful, believing the shooter was purposefully targeting black people.

When CNN’s Zoraida Sambolin asked Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett about racial tension in the city and whether he believed the shootings to be racially motivated, he said: “No, there’s no racial tension in the town at all now. We’ve gone beyond that years and years ago—decades ago, really.”

Holly Wall, News Editor