The sad story of a woman who died in custody spotlights just how damaging irresponsible conjecture and the scramble for television ratings on the news can be.
The case I'm referring to concerns a New York City woman, Carol Anne Gotbaum, 45, who died in police custody. Here's what press accounts have to say about the incident:
Gotbaum was on her way to a treatment facility in Tucson, Arizona, when she was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge and prevented from catching a connecting flight. Surveillance videos revealed the woman running through the airport, resisting arrest and screaming obscenities. Once cuffed, Gotbaum locked her legs and refused to walk through the terminal, forcing officers to drag her.
She was apparently taken to a police holding room at the airport — Sky Harbor International in Phoenix, Arizona — where she was shackled to a bench. When officers next checked on the woman, she was found with the handcuffs reversed. Instead of being behind her body, they were around her neck. Attempts to revive Gotbaum were unsuccessful.
Immediately, national news programs such as MSNBC and FOX jumped on the story. That's absolutely fine. They are there to cover the news and this story was news. News media scrutiny is important to maintain a sense of transparency in law enforcement, as well as provide a sounding board for bettering police practices. Scrutiny begets change.
On today's 24/7 news stations it is common practice to grab a couple of "experts" and get their take on events. That's fine. News channels seem to be strapped for real news much of time and often turn to using talking heads for filler. These experts, some of whom are former law enforcement officers or executives, can serve an excellent purpose in that often they explain to the public the realities of police work versus the romanticized, television-based fictional version that makes officers groan out loud when they see it. But sometimes, in their zeal to fill newscasts, TV producers go a little too far. The coverage in the Gotbaum case is a good example of what I mean.
One of the news channels featured a medical examiner early in the story's coverage. The man had good credentials, but also seemed to possess one heck of a grudge against law enforcement. He insisted during more than one interview that the woman had been put into a deadly choke hold and that's what an autopsy would show killed her.
He was wrong.
At autopsy, Gotbaum was found to have accidentally suffocated herself. The woman, whom the family acknowledged had substance abuse issues, was high on a mixture of alcohol and prescription drugs when she tussled with police. Once handcuffed to the bench, she somehow managed to pull the cuffs around to the front, over her neck. It was a sad, sad story, and heartbreaking for the woman's family. She was a mother and I can imagine the anguish her loved ones are suffering.
However, that does not excuse the behavior the press and the "expert" exhibited. So intent on focusing blame and manufacturing hypotheses, the TV news anchors and their guests speculated on this woman's death like they were predicting a Kentucky Derby winner. Speculation belongs in sports. It belongs in politics. But I don't think it's proper to speculate about cause of death in such a terrible situation because, not only does the family deserve its privacy, but the officers involved do not deserve to be the focus of half-baked, made-for-TV expert theories.
The news media have a right — even a mandate — to report the news, but TV news should be more responsible in choosing its commentators. Unnecessary and unfounded remarks like these make a terrible situation all that much worse.
A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.