The first wave of press about Malcolm Johnson’s March 25 murder at the hands of KCPD didn’t carry far beyond the city. Led by police department lies emphasizing Johnson’s purportedly threatening presence and guilt, the killing elicited little protest.
Local news initially reported that Johnson instigated a shootout between himself and KCPD. Early in June, local pastors released video footage of police with guns drawn entering a gas station convenience store to aggressively confront Johnson.
Another video filmed by two convenience store employees shows several cops restraining Johnson in a way that would have made it physically impossible for him to fight back. One cop draws her weapon, accidentally shoots another cop in the leg, and then fires several shots into Johnson’s back. As the situation escalates, the employees filming can be heard remarking upon Johnson’s innocence. After the shooting, a cop is seen yelling at employees for a rag. There is no rush to check whether Johnson is still alive or call for an ambulance.
Police have killed roughly 250 other Americans over the three months that have passed since Johnson’s death. Over the course of writing this article, police have shot at least two more people in the metro.
In Kansas City, which is unique in having a state-controlled police department (overseen by governor-appointed board members), the Missouri Highway Patrol conducts investigations of police shootings. With the false shootout narrative already established, Sgt. Andy Bell of the MHP issued a statement the night of the shooting attesting that “a fight, a struggle ensued” and that Johnson drew a handgun and shot one of the other cops in the leg before the injured cop returned fire.
reporting on the murders of George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Eric Garner, Rayshard Brooks, and hundreds if not thousands of others prominently features this phrase, something that both trivializes and emphasizes the inevitability of the death. “A struggle ensued” suggests death is the natural conclusion of struggle and removes the agency and power police have in conflicts with civilians. The videos of Malcolm Johnson’s death reveal not only the lies of the purported struggle, but the fact that at least eight people saw this public execution and the falsified police account was still the one circulated.
It is easy to see how police are the dominant authority in these murders. Another news story, released by KSHB Kansas City two days after Malcolm Johnson’s murder, works to legitimate the narrative by exclusively using police and FBI perspectives. In the story, Public Information Officer Sgt. Jacob Becchina says, “We train tirelessly from day one to give officers every tool both physically, mentally and tactically to work through those situations so that they have the best chance to make the best decisions that they can,” suggesting again that this outcome was the best possible and truly could not have gone any other way.
The article also quotes a retired FBI agent and former cop, completely uninvolved in the case, who adds legitimacy through admitted ignorance: “Unless there are circumstances that we don’t know about, I think this will be found to be a justifiable use of force.” The article follows this with information about Johnson’s backstory that does not pertain to the actual incident in the convenience store.
Becchina is one of KCPD’s three Public Information Officers, a euphemism for marketing and PR cops who push information out to journalists and are functionally in-house propaganda machines. PIOs write press releases and often, as the primary spokespeople for all incidents, prevent the media from talking to the cops involved. In a 2016 study conducted by the Society of Professional Journalists, 196 survey respondents at a variety of news outlets shared that over half of them regularly experienced PIOs blocking their interview attempts with police.
A third of these respondents said that it was the department’s policy to prohibit interviews with anyone other than the PIO, Chief, or other executive cops. Every reporter I asked about PIOs had a similar story of being blocked from access to crucial information. “The police would rarely speak to me; I had to go through the city manager and rely on insufficient press releases,” a reporter for a small city’s only newspaper told me. Others spoke of problems with purposeful misinformation or information withholding, discrimination based on news outlet, and exhausting runarounds.
As paid members of the police force who report directly to the Chief, Public Information Officers create the narratives that most breaking news stories reproduce. In a vlog called “What I’ve Learned Being a Public Information Police Officer” (posted 11/23/19), a YouTuber called officer401 talks about the process of getting information to the public:
“Something major happens…you go back to your office, you type up this long press release, and you send it out to the public and all the news agencies. Within minutes you have reporters from all over the country calling you. I’ve had people from the New York Times call me, I’ve had people from People Magazine call me. And they all want further information about your story….there’s something strangely satisfying that when you put out that press release, hours later you’re watching the news and every station that’s talking about your story is literally reading your press release word for word.”
Because reports are sealed due to “pending investigations,” crime scenes are closed, and involved cops are not available for comment or questions, the rapidfire media cycle forces reporters to rely on PIO press releases for all initial reporting. Having a dedicated PR staff means police committing these acts of violence have someone at the ready to handle any incidents with necessary time, energy, and media connections, something completely foreign to the average person, not to mention someone who has been incapacitated or killed by police.
A lack of transparency and public understanding makes it so that the average person knows nothing of the way PIOs impact news stories. Further adding to the confusion, television reporters often head to the scene of the crime to do their reporting, which–again–is frequently taken verbatim from the PIO’s press release. Visually, the presence of a reporter at the scene suggests they have a kind of eyewitness authority–that they themselves have gathered information from the crime scene, possibly talking to cops and witnesses. This seeming objectivity gives the police narrative even more power.
Seeing how public action is so significantly catalyzed in the first hours or days after a police murder, cops having control over the initial wave of media stories means they control community response. This also often prevents the story from traveling to national networks. This is how of the thousands of people murdered by police in the past few years, many right here in Kansas City, we have only heard the names of a few.
While a lot of police departments try to emphasize the ways that PIOs work for the community, much of the adoption and expansion of this role is easily traced to basic damage control. In the time since Michael Brown was killed by St. Louis police, a significant number of small town police departments have hired their first PIOs. In a brief history of LAPD’s Media Relations Division on their website, they write:
It continues: “Following a series of negative events involving the Department, which were reported by the media within traditional and accepted journalistic practices, a need was identified that involved providing the media with easy access to accurate information relative to Department activities. This need was acted upon and the eventual creation of the Media Relations Section (MRS) was the result.”
The “negative events” alluded to include things like 1951’s “Bloody Christmas,” an incident in which at least 50 cops severely beat seven people they were detaining without reason. This history goes on to emphasize the importance of fostering “cooperation,” building on the idea that media in using “traditional and accepted journalistic practices” was unable to create the story that the LAPD wanted.
In a post on the website Engaging Local Government Leaders, a platform created for members of local government to share their thoughts on their jobs, one PIO writes, “I consider myself a friend or even contemporary to the media.” Ultimately, PIOs see themselves as an objective news source on par with any reporter, despite the fact that they wear the same uniforms and report back to the same police chiefs who oversee these cops.
At a June 4 memorial for those murdered by KCPD, several families spoke about the emotional exhaustion of balancing grieving with combating cops’ false narratives. They have been forced to launch their own media campaigns, restoring humanity to their lost loved ones. Many have questions that will never be truthfully answered.
Cameron Lamb’s family has been working tirelessly to attain justice for his murder, recently filing a $10 million lawsuit against KCPD. The family’s presence and loss has been felt at actions across the city since his death in 2019. At the memorial, Lamb’s older sister spoke at length about his kindness and generosity:
The police waited for several hours before informing Lamb’s family about the murder, in spite of driving past their home several times that day. “I think it’s sad that they can do something then put out a narrative about somebody to make it their fault,” Lamb’s sister said.
Another of Lamb’s sisters shared his talents as a mechanic, dreams of owning his own car shop, and how much he loved his friends and family. She continued, “As long as these officers are able to kill, create their own narrative, and they don’t get held accountable for their actions, it’s going to keep happening.” She emphasized that he never would have done anything to jeopardize his relationship with his kids.
James McNeal Jr.’s mother shared his story. “James was a very friendly person,” she said, “He was one who would not start trouble. He was a very nice person.” She added that the police said his murder was justified, as they always do.
Travis Griffin’s uncle shared that he was a good kid and the one small mistake he made–running from police–was what ended his life. Witnesses on the scene all said he did not pose a threat.
Ryan Stokes’s mother Nayrene recounted a narrative familiar to many of the other families present:
Donnie Sanders’s oldest sister noted the similarities between these stories, too: “They said he had a gun but no weapon was found. He had a cellphone that was in his pocket. I’m sure all our stories pretty much sound familiar, which they do because they want us to think that everybody was bad when that’s not the case.” Sanders’s younger sister Rashanda pointed out the inconsistencies in the police story about how Sanders was shot–how police made a U-Turn to go after Sanders and shot him in the back as he ran away in spite of claiming he was the aggressor.
Rashanda brought the story back to Malcolm Johnson: “When the officers went into that gas station…they already knew exactly what they were going to do because they had their guns in hand.” With all of these stories, we hold great clarity about why “a struggle ensued.”
These narratives share so many similarities–both here in KC and nationwide–because they are all being manufactured by the same PR departments, PIOs taught by the same training agencies and stories crafted under the influence of the same handful of “legible” narratives about police killings that circulate in national media.
They self-perpetuate and justify the actions of police across the country, falsehoods made real in their omnipresence. Alleged guns never retrieved on the scene, aggressors shot in the back, young Black men who were “up to no good” with plenty of witnesses who attest to the opposite. It would be foolish to expect creativity from an agency that exists to brutalize and punish Black people in a way that does not stray from its roots in slave patrols.
Reading about Malcolm Johnson’s murder, I was led to several articles in the Kansas City Star–some of which cite the initial false account of events from the Missouri Highway Patrol–and I am reminded of their December 2020 grand gesture of apology for past racism in the paper.
Coming off half a year of protests and an increase in coverage on the Black Lives Matter and Black-led police abolition movements in Kansas City, Star President and Editor Mike Fannin wrote that reporters reading through archives of the paper “were frequently sickened by what they found — decades of coverage that depicted Black Kansas Citians as criminals living in a crime-laden world.” In a supplemental article on the same topic, Eric Adler writes:
Considering the continued reliance the paper and most news outlets have on police-authored statements, it’s hard to say that much has changed. These one-sided narratives hold an incalculable effect on people across this city, re-traumatizing victims and forcing families and friends to launch their own investigations and media campaigns. News outlets that prioritize the narratives of police departments until public interest forces them to pursue different lines of inquiry are complicit in police violence–they normalize death and shelter murderers.
Speaking with Khadijah Hardaway, a representative for Malcolm Johnson’s family and organizer with Justice for Wyandotte, the power Johnson’s story holds was made very clear:
Hardaway emphasized the importance of remembering Malcolm Johnson’s love and care as a father, for the sake of his daughter’s memory of him. What might initial reporting on Johnson’s death have done if the public was told that he was a loving father? If it had recognized his human realities instead of working so hard to create a portrait of someone who deserved death.
“For Black people, we don’t have a platform,” Hardaway said, “we are left out of these narratives.” The necessity for media to make space for victims of police brutality, especially Black people and other marginalized groups who have been so violently silenced in mainstream reporting, is crucial not only for grieving families but for people across the metro who could be the next targeted by police.
Nothing about police brutality is new, it is only documentation and public awareness that is changing. Media outlets need to divest from police departments and begin critiquing their narratives as they would any other source, especially one that has such a well documented history of falsifying evidence and spreading misinformation. As these lies unravel, the truth about Malcolm Johnson, Cameron Lamb, James McNeal Jr., Travis Griffin, Ryan Stokes, and Donnie Sanders needs to be front page news.
This is racist, state-sanctioned violence smoothed over and covered-up again and again by police departments across this country and reporters and news outlets who don’t expose it for what it is are part of its continuation.
Those wanting to support Malcolm Johnson’s family in seeking justice for his murder can find more information on Justice for Wyandotte’s Facebook page. Protesters continue to meet outside KCPD headquarters every Friday night to demand justice for those murdered by police.