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Social Media Reacts to an Especially Egregious Case of Journalistic Copaganda

By Brian Richards | News Stories | February 19, 2024 |

By Brian Richards | News Stories | February 19, 2024 |


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On Wednesday, February 16, in Meigs County, Tennessee, Robert “RJ” Leonard, a deputy with the Meigs County Sheriff’s Office, arrested a woman named Tabitha Smith and placed her in custody upon responding to reports of a disturbance between two people. Shortly after placing her under arrest and securing her in his patrol car, Deputy Leonard began driving Tabitha to the county jail and ended up losing control of his vehicle, which crashed into the Tennessee River and was submerged there for over 15 hours.

From ABC 7 Eyewitness News:

Leonard had responded to a report of a man and woman fighting on a bridge shortly before 10 p.m. local time Wednesday and had taken the woman into custody, according to Johnson. He was driving to the county jail when the sheriff’s office lost communication with him, and he failed to respond to a status check, Johnson said …

… A vehicle was located Thursday morning in the river. It was upside down with the wheels up, filled with mud, and the driver-side window was down, Johnson said. The license plate confirmed it to be Leonard’s patrol car, according to Johnson.

Officials said the landing can be treacherous, especially for those not from the rural area. A woman went into the water at the same location several weeks ago and was rescued and survived, Johnson said.

Multiple agencies will investigate how the vehicle ended up in the water. However, Johnson noted that the deputy, a native of New York, appeared to be texting and radioing while driving in a poorly lit area he was unfamiliar with.

“We’re operating under the theory that it was an accident — he missed his turn, he wasn’t familiar and he was doing other things that may have caused him to go into the water,” Johnson said at the Thursday afternoon press briefing.

When this news story became public and got the attention of people on social media, they soon became angry for many reasons. Tabitha Smith, the woman arrested by Deputy Johnson, was dead, leaving behind her husband and two children. Tabitha Smith was dead because a police officer thought it was a good idea to not only text while driving, but, as it turns out, he texted while driving because he was so eager to brag to his wife about his very first arrest. What especially made people on social media angry were the headlines about this incident, including the original headline for that ABC News report, which lavished all of their attention on the deceased police officer, while completely ignoring the woman in custody who died because of his careless behavior behind the wheel.

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Not surprisingly, the headline was soon edited and changed to this :

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The response from the rest of the Sheriff’s Office wasn’t much better. They spoke more about losing a member of their own family, and sounded more upset and grief-stricken about it than they did about a woman who was now dead and forced to leave her own family behind.

A body believed to be that of the female arrestee has been recovered from the backseat of the vehicle, according to Hamilton County Sheriff Austin Garrett.

“We always hope that it’s a rescue, so we always hold out that hope. But we also have to face the facts that are in front of us,” Garrett said at a press briefing Thursday afternoon. “We won’t lose hope that we could still recover him.”

Leonard joined the force after graduating from the training academy in December, according to Meigs County Sheriff Jackie Melton. He was on the night shift and was doing a “real good job,” Melton said.

Leonard lived in nearby Roane County with his wife and three children, officials said.

“It’s a hard time for us here,” Meigs County Chief Deputy Brian Malone said at the press briefing, choking up. “It’s something that we don’t ever deal with here in Meigs County.”

“Deputy Leonard had only been here for a couple months, but he’d become part of our family,” he said.

From this WVLT-TV report about Tabitha Smith:

“She was a happy person, outgoing, she loved life,” said her friend Sheena Mchome.

Smith, known to friends as “Tabby,” leaves behind a husband and two children at just 35 years old.

“I could not imagine being trapped and knowing my life was going to end,” said Mchome.

Those who knew Smith were shocked to hear the news of her passing, and while they still have questions about her final moments, they’re continuing to mourn the loss of someone they’d known for years.

“She had a heart of gold, and despite any struggles and troubles she had, she was a great person,” said her friend Emilie Neusel.

While her friends understand the tragedy of Deputy Leonard’s passing, they’re hopeful Smith can be remembered for much more than this tragic story.

“I hope they remember her by her name. Tabby Smith. And I hope she’s remembered by more than the girl in the back seat,” said Neusel.

I’m fully aware that news reporting is not an easy job to do, but if news reporters don’t want to be insulted on social media and accused of acting as PR agents on behalf of the police, it would probably help if they’d stop using passive voice to describe police abuse, incompetence, and misconduct in an attempt to make it sound less horrible than it is, and to actually question them more about their abuse, incompetence, and misconduct. Like asking them how they feel about a woman in their custody drowning while handcuffed because one of their deputies thought it was a good idea to send text messages on their phone while driving a Sheriff’s Office vehicle at night and not paying attention to his surroundings while transporting an arrestee to the county jail as he was most likely trained to do.

As if that story wasn’t infuriating enough, here’s another news story about the police going public, and one that expected viewers to find the whole thing charming and delightful. This news story was about the NYPD Dance Team (which I didn’t even know was a thing that existed until today), and how its members are police officers and cadets who bust a move on the dance floor as a way to look after their mental health when they’re not busting smokers or turnstile jumpers in the mean, increasingly gentrified streets of New York City.

From WABC-TV Eyewitness News:

“I’m just answering 911 jobs all day, all day, all day out of roll call until it’s time to go home,” said NYPD Dance Team Vice President Lauren Pagan. “Music is amazing. And when I get to sit here and just listen even if it’s the same song over and over, it’s a nice place to be. Everybody here loves to dance. They love being here.”

Make no mistake. Like police work, this is not all fun and games. It’s a commitment with a rigorous schedule. They practice two to three times a week, for two to three hours, and that’s after coming off a grueling shift patrolling the streets.

“It could be the longest, hardest day at work. I come here, the girls are always smiling and it’s just nice,” Pagan said.

The dance team was formed in 2022.

The NYPD has about four dozen competitive groups, and it’s more than just a football club and a boxing team. There is even a chess club and a knitting group. So why a dance team?

“Why not a dance team? We have a dance team because the mental health kind of takes a toll while doing this job,” NYPD Dance Team President Autumn-Raine Martinez said. “So, we just wanted to have an outlet to allow people to express themselves creatively.”

The dance team performs at police versus firefighters games, galas and even at schools to promote physical and mental health.

“They’re always surprised, like do you get the bad guys?” Martinez said. “It’s so fun. They love to dance. They love learning. And we love teaching it to them. They get so excited whenever we come.”

As a lifelong New Yorker, I’m happy and grateful for the NYPD (and for our local news) to remind us that this is what New York City truly needs. It doesn’t need its public libraries to remain open seven days a week. It doesn’t need citizens who can walk down the street and mind their own business without getting tackled and assaulted by a bunch of poorly-trained racist vigilantes who wrongfully accuse them of being shoplifters. It certainly doesn’t need rape kits to be fully processed and retrieved by the NYPD in order to prevent rapists from being released to commit more sexual assaults. What this city really needs are cops who will take a break from abusing, assaulting, and killing other New Yorkers so they can shake hands with news reporters who love doing inspirational feel-good stories that are anything but, and smile at the cameras before showing how good they are at doing dance moves they’ve learned from watching TikTok. They get to do this with the full support of our starf—-ing dumbass of a mayor who keeps finding new ways to remind us how astoundingly inept he is at doing his job.

These news stories are just one of far too many examples of copaganda, and how insidious and harmful it can be in convincing the public that police officers should always be trusted to tell the truth and do the right thing, even when there is evidence that clearly proves otherwise. It can also be harmful because of how the media in both news and entertainment is often complicit in whitewashing their f—-ery to make them look as heroic and trustworthy as possible. Hence why a lot of people remain convinced that cops in real life are as smart, effective, and determined to do their jobs as the cops on Law & Order: SVU, when the truth about cops in real life is…

Well, see for yourself.