It’s a lesson worth remembering, for those who report the news and those who read it. When dealing with police stories, you never take the initial word of the folks in blue as gospel. Treating their reports as ironclad truth is too often the default position of the media. Then, especially in these Twitter-addicted times, it takes merely a moment for their truth to travel the world. At that point, the cement has set and the damage has been done.
Case in point: the “confrontation” between Toronto Raptors team President Masai Ujiri and an Alameda County police officer following the Raptors’ NBA championship clinching victory over the Golden State Warriors in Oakland. Like almost everyone who was there, Ujiri rushed the court after the game. Before the champagne had even been uncorked, there were reports from police sources that Ujiri had hit an officer “with two fists” after approaching the court without proper credentials. NBC Bay Area social-media editor Kristofer Noceda tweeted that night: “#BREAKING: Sheriff’s deputy reportedly pushed and struck in the face by a man believed to be a Toronto Raptors executive after Game 6 of the #NBAFinals at Oracle Arena.”
The initial story was that Ujiri tried to come onto the court without “proper credentials.” Twitter sleuths quickly pointed out that this version of events was suspect, since the video and photographs we did have clearly showed Ujiri with his credentials in hand. The video of the scene that was available online also did not show any kind of two-fisted violence.
Still, after the Raptors left California to return home for their victory parades, talk emerged of a warrant being put out for Ujiri’s arrest on charges of assaulting a police officer. Now that several weeks have passed, that story has changed dramatically. This week the headline is, “Oakland police now confirm an officer pushed Masai Ujuri [sic].”
The officer who first said he was struck by “two fists,” is now claiming a concussion and is said to be considering a lawsuit against Ujiri and the Raptors. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office now says that it is pursuing a criminal misdemeanor-battery charge, not exactly what they would pursue if Ujiri had indeed concussed a cop.
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office has also said it has photos of Ujiri assaulting the officer and gave them to the Toronto Globe and Mail, saying, “[We wanted] to show that a crime did occur when people are saying that…there was no strike to the face, when in fact there was.” Yet witnesses have said that they did not see a crime occur and there is no video—despite the presence of hundreds of cameras—that has emerged to corroborate the police claims.
At this point, the most the police are saying is that Ujiri “presented his credentials in a ‘very threatening way’”.
This all has the stench of racism, as pointed out by Warriors star Steph Curry. He said, “If he didn’t do anything wrong, obviously, you’d hope that it was handled in a better fashion. Especially for a guy that was going out and trying to celebrate with his team that had done something historical. So I don’t know if that was a white G.M. or whatever, if that’s handled differently. You can always play the what-if game.”
As for Ujiri, he just broke his silence on the matter this week, saying, “I am confident about who I am as a person, my character and as a human being. I honestly am going to leave all my comments until the whole investigation is done. I think that’s the fair way and the right way to operate when things like this do happen. I respect authority and I’ll wait until that happens.”
At this point, the heavy lift begins: the work of looking beyond the police version of events, which traveled around the world in a second, and finding the truth.
This story has echoes of another incident involving NFL player Michael Bennett. The NFL activist and athlete, who has been outspoken about police violence, ran onto the field after the 2017 Super Bowl in Houston. Months later, police charged him with pushing an elderly, paraplegic security guard. These charges coincided with Bennett’s raising the ire of the Fraternal Order of Police after he accused cops in Las Vegas of unlawful detention. The subsequent press conferences featuring Houston police chief Arthur Acevedo were loud and self-righteous. The chief called Bennett “morally corrupt” and “morally bankrupt.” The headlines blared. Then months later, the charges were quietly dropped. All the people who called for Michael Bennett to face prison time and societal exclusion didn’t exactly come forward to apologize.
Those attacking Ujiri likely won’t say much of anything now that this case is wheezing to a halt either. The lesson needs to be that if “reportedly” means “the word from police sources,” then it should be seen for what it is: biased, unreliable and in need of independent corroboration The fight for truth in the face of police version of events is painstaking work. It’s also an absolute necessity.