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Friday, December 2, 2011

Op-ed: Do perp-walks serve a purpose?

Posted By on Fri, Dec 2, 2011 at 5:26 PM

Christian Rash stands accused of a variety of crimes: receiving stolen property, eluding police, retail theft, and driving without a valid license. He may also very well be a jerk, based on my very limited exposure to him and fellow defendant Larry Brown -- which came by way of brief news segments on WPXI and KDKA earlier this week. 

And yet, Rash may have performed a valuable public service: demonstrating the idiocy of one of TV journalism's most pernicious devices -- the perp walk. 

The perp walk, of course, is when police haul an accused criminal, in handcuffs, before a bevy of reporters and news cameras. The ritual typically requires journalists to toss some inane questions at the suspect -- "What do you have to say for yourself?" "Did you do it?" The suspect then offers one of small number of stock responses: a hardened-criminal badass stare; a fruitless attempt to duck his head and hide; or some muttered profession of innocence. He is then shoved into the back of a waiting police car, and driven off. 

The perp walk is a mini-trial in its own right. It generally takes place before a real trial has weighed the charges, and yet the verdict of a perp walk is almost always "guilty." (Is there any way to convincingly declare your innocence when you're handcuffed and surrounded by police and reporters?)

But earlier this week, the accused went off the script.

Brown and Rash got their 15 yards of fame after a police chase at the Ross Park Mall:

According to police, two men stole items from Macy’s and then returned to the store a short time later to rob it again before fleeing in a stolen vehicle.

Not a particularly noteworthy crime, you might think. What was more notable was what happened afterward, when it came time to haul the suspects off to jail. As KDKA's Kym Gamble told us, "Let's just say this was not your typical prisoner transport."

"I want to listen to this," Brittny McGraw urged viewers over at WPXI. "One of the subjects even joked as police were leading him out of the police department."

Both stations then treated viewers to a brief clip of Rash being led away. Gable's off-camera voice asks, "Want to tell us what happened?"

"I saved a bunch of money on car insurance by switching to GEICO," Rash says into the proffered TV news mikes, without breaking a smile.

I guess we're supposed to be struck by Rash's wanton disregard, his failure to recognize the gravity of the situation. Consider McGraw's intro: "One of the subjects even joked as police were leading him." My God, has he no respect for authority?

Of course, it seems equally possible that Brown has no respect for dumb questions. "You've just been accused of a series of felonies -- crimes that could land you behind bars for years! Care to make a full confession for our viewers?"

I'm not faulting Gable for asking the question: It's hard to think of a not-dumb question that can be asked in these circumstances. ("You're being charged with a series of crimes tonight: How does that make you feel?") If anything is to blame here, it's the local TV news tradition of: a) emphasizing crime reporting far beyond its actual importance to viewers, b) exposing people to public denunciation before they've been convicted, or in some cases even charged; and c) milking the spectacle for as long as possible. 

And as we've seen in the high-profile case of former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the perp walk may be a distinctly American institution:

Things like that don't go on in France or in Europe ... European law, like European culture more generally, is very sensitive when it comes to questions of the protection of personal dignity. And personal dignity is understood, in particular, as control over one's public image. So that events like this are really, thoroughly condemned by --- not just by French criminal law, but by French privacy law and not just by French law, but by European law much more broadly.

Another, more practical, objection to the perp walk is that it provides very little information, but rather a bit of police-state porno.

To be sure, when a crime is of public interest, a perp walk can serve some purpose. It gives the accused a chance, however brief, to respond to allegations. That may be better than nothing.

But if we're honest, we'll acknowledge that this isn't really about the accused at all: "[P]erp walks aren't disappearing anytime soon. Police love them. The media love them. And by the time any of the perp-walked suspects are proved innocent, everyone else has moved on."

And very often -- in the vast majority of cases where the accused isn't an internationally famous financial expert -- the perp walk just serves to reinforce the image of young black males as violent criminals. 

Still, Rash's joke, at the media's expense, may suggest that perp walks may not be doing TV reporters any favors either. Its formulaic nature just makes them look like like preening idiots; the point isn't so much to get answers, but to have reporters looking all aggressive by asking questions. Intentionally or not, Rash pointed up the pretense for what most viewers already know it to be.

And in this case, the price was higher than just a reporter being the butt of a joke. During the perp walk, Rash's alleged accomplice, Larry Brown, actually spat at a KDKA cameraman -- a gesture which may result in further charges. 

Was that a despicable, vulgar gesture that deserves our contempt? Absolutely. And did both TV stations broadcast footage of a trained professional being spat at? You bet they did.

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