Milwaukee and the Power of Rumor
The recent police shooting in Milwaukee provides a glimpse into the challenge facing those trying to bridge the gap between the police and the black community. The aftermath of the shooting shows the power of rumor, now multiplied by social media.
Milwaukee police, at 3:30 in the morning, attempted a traffic stop. Two men bailed from the car and fled on foot. As officers caught up with Mr. Sylville Smith, he turned to them, gun in hand, and was shot. Per news reports, the shooting surged through social media as a white police officer shooting an unarmed black man. In fact, the officer involved in the shooting was African-American and Smith was armed with a semi-auto carrying a 23 round magazine. Five hundred additional rounds were found in the car.
The social media version of the event out-stripped the city’s attempts to provide factual information. Crowds gathered, fires were set, officers assaulted and businesses burned long before the facts of the situation could even be ascertained.
Rumors have always been a factor in rioting. In the Watts riot of 1965, police made an arrest of woman wearing a smock. The rumor flew through the community that the police had beat a pregnant woman and the story provided an impetus for the rioting that followed. The continuing lesson is that if jumping to conclusions were an Olympic event, Americans would surely win gold.
What is the answer? Some have suggested trying to control social media, an effort that would face significant legal hurdles and likely be futile. The long-term answer is a police engagement effort that creates a relationship where people do not assume the worst of the police but withhold judgement until the facts are in. The new relationship will not happened without significant effort by both police and community leaders. Working toward such a relationship has to be the primary goal of America’s police leaders.