Thursday, January 17, 2008

Blaming the Victim

I'm gonna take a step back, a shuffle sideways and then another step forward and bring it all back around. Bear with me.

News media tactics suck. I guess it goes just a bit deeper than that -- prosecutorial tactics suck. And, wait one minute, I think I have it -- the skepticism of our distinctly Western, pragmatic (patently American) way of doing/seeing/interpreting things is what really sucks.

Take news stories. Someone is the victim of a crime or a horrendous accident. It gets reported. There is pity and headshaking, particularly if that person/victim is dead. Sorrow and proclamations of "What a shame" and "How could this have happened?" abound. Then, what follows closely on the heels of the tragedy? The inevitable propensity to blame the victim. Oh, they were drunk; they were buying drugs; they were cheating on their spouse; they were hungover on a Sunday morning. Because, you know what? We are all part of a culture full of people who can't handle death and the fact that weird, freaky shit just happens sometimes. So we gotta pick and pry and rip away scabs until we can trace "the cause," find "the answer." Well, you know what else? Sometimes there just aren't clearcut answers and people (like many journalists, police investigators, and shallowly unsympathetic bystanders) would do well not to venture down certain paths lined with defamation and pain.

Some time ago (Sept '07) I blogged about the brutal murder of Mark Loesch -- a family man (with four kids) who went out for a 10pm bike ride, got beaten to death with a baseball bat and never came home. He died a protracted death on a stranger's lawn a couple miles from our house. The news stories followed the path of tragedy, lack of answers, the perpetuation of senseless violence. There were memorial walks and vigils.

Once a suspect was arrested, the "enlightened and honorable" Mpls Police Lt Amelia Huffman, head of homicide, stated that the suspect had reported Loesch was attempting to buy drugs -- pot, at that. Here's a family man, successful freelance consultant who is entering middle age, and you wanna go implying he's riding around southeast Mpls trying to score weed? And get this -- the suspect said Loesch had $40 in his pocket. No wallet or anything else. Has the police department checked the price of marijuana lately?! $40 ain't gonna get you much and you're damn sure not going to enjoy whatever it gets you a whole hell of a lot. When this follow-up came out in print, I was pissed. So was the family, you might guess. I thought it was the most ridiculous thing I'd ever read. The paper took it further -- apparently Loesch had been to rehab many years prior and they painted it to be a relapse.

A RELAPSE??? On pot???? Jesus F-ckin' Tap Dancing Christ on a Pogo Stick! Can you get any more conservative than that?! I'd think we had a RELAPSE of the Reagan-Era "War on Drugs" on our hands. It was senseless reporting that rivaled the senseless violence committed against Mark Loesch. But, it allowed casual paper readers to sign off in their minds: "Oh well, that freak riding his bike at night deserved to die since he was trying to buy DRUGS from that street thug/gang-banger."


Well, a cop cried "bullshit," too. And he is no longer working in the homicide unit. Sgt Charlie Adams went to the Loesch family and apologized for the statements made by his police department against their lost loved one's character. He was demoted. My hat is off to two people tonight -- Sgt Adams and Nick Coleman, the columnist for the Mpls Star Tribune who wrote this follow-up. I am pasting it in its entirety below because you can't access links after 30 days without signing your personal information away to the Star Trib. I want everyone to know and I don't care for you to give your demo info to the Mpls paper.

If you take the time to read the article you'll also note that our illustrious "pro-cycling" mayor (whom I voted against last election, for his own shallowness) has a very telling comment: "You don't have to worry about crime unless you are involved in 'high-risk lifestyles'." Well, Rybak, you just labelled cycling a "high-risk lifestyle." Loesch wasn't out to buy drugs, he was just enjoying the sheer thrill of a bike ride, something many of us relish after dark in our fair city when car traffic has ebbed and idiots are often deposited away in bars or at home.

Cycling is too often regarded as risky and marginalized activity by everyone from motorists to legislators to your scared-to-death-almost-dead grandmother. Again, I cry "bullshit." Cycling for transportation is one of the sanest things any one of us can do. Our current war, which has driven our country into an unprecendented deficit, is about control of oil. Patriotism be damned. If you're hiding behind that tattered flag, your cellulite will soon show through. The fact that politicians (like the aforementioned Mayor Rybak) will not acknowledge the effectiveness of alternative forms of transportation is egregious. The fact that they will not begin taking steps of their own accord to assert the rights of cyclists to shared right-of-way on streets and roadways is equally damning. The victory belongs to those of us not burning fossil fuels. And it will be won.

I have to go ... gonna write a letter to Sgt Adams and send an email to Nick Coleman.

Nick Coleman's article (from Dec 2, 2007 Star Tribune):

The decision by Minneapolis police Lt. Amelia Huffman to remove Sgt. Charlie Adams from the homicide unit had nothing to do with his ability to solve murders, at which he has proved unusually good.

No, he was punished for deviating from the official spin in a brutal murder and letting decency come before bureaucracy.

You can't allow decency to ruin a police department.

Adams got into trouble by reaching out to the family of a murder victim who was smeared by police superiors.

Mark Loesch, a 40-year-old father of four, went for a bicycle ride the night of Sept. 12 and died the next day after being found, badly beaten, on Elliot Avenue S.

His murder was the kind that makes city officials nervous: a random killing that might make the city look like a place you can get killed taking your bike for a spin.

I hate to break it to you, but Minneapolis is a place where you can get murdered while out for a ride. Or walking home wearing a cool basketball jersey. Or on the town with your family or your fiancée. Or doing your homework at the dining room table when a bullet comes through the window.

Do random murders happen? Yes. Not as often as in a lot of other big cities maybe, but one is all it takes to wreck your family.

Over the past few years, as street killings were rising, the city and police have tried hard to get ahead of the curve. And it seems to be working: Crime, including murder, has throttled back. This is good.
Not so good is that the city -- going back to Mayor R.T. Rybak's 2005 claim that you don't have to worry about crime unless you are involved in "high-risk lifestyles" -- has gotten into the habit of blaming victims to minimize fears. The drill is: First you get murdered, then you get besmirched.
That's what happened to Mark Loesch.

After Adams helped arrest a suspect in Loesch's murder, higher police officials kicked dirt on his name.
Lt. Huffman, the new head of homicide, called a news conference and said the suspect had said Loesch was trying to buy drugs when he was killed.

Loesch had no drugs in his system and no wallet, and there was no proof of this claim. But if a suspect said so, it must be true. Right, Lieutenant?

The slur against Loesch had all the importance of the suspect saying he was thinking of getting a Big Mac or the Vikings need a stronger arm at quarterback. It meant nothing.

But it inflicted great pain on Loesch's family, and allowed city officials to breathe a sigh of relief: A father of four had not been killed "at random." He had been clubbed to death by a guy who was unhappy with some unknown aspect of some alleged and unprovable transaction. Feel better now?

It's common for a victim to have his character attacked in a courtroom, when a defendant tries to pin the blame on the demised. But in a court, there is a judge to decide what is admissible, lawyers to cross-examine and a jury to give proper weight to the claims. At the news conference, there was only a suspect's "word" for it.

The suspect was a member of a gang, but the city didn't reveal that. It can be disconcerting to know that gang members are on the street, with bats and guns. That's not good spin.

Mark Loesch was beaten badly again, this time by the city. His family was outraged.

Sgt. Adams and his partner, Sgt. Richard Zimmerman, had made the arrest in Loesch's killing. After Huffman's news conference, they went to Loesch's family and apologized for the words of their superiors. For that act of "insubordination" -- and of basic decency -- Adams was transferred out of homicide.

Another loss to the city.

Adams and Zimmerman were "incredibly professional and honorable in their dealings with us," says David Barnes, father of Loesch's widow. "They were everything you'd expect a great public servant to be. If it hadn't been for them, the Police Department would look like ..."

Yes, it would.

A man is murdered, allegedly by a gang member who just got out of prison. But don't worry about a system that put him back on the street. And don't think too hard about a city that tries to keep the calm by blaming the victims.

The real culprit here has been caught and punished:
He was the cop who solved the murder and then behaved decently to the bereaved.

Nick Coleman


rigtenzin said...

I've been following this story also. Here's the latest related development:

Patch O'Houli said...

Thanks for the update. This is good news indeed.