Skip to content

SEPTA rape case is latest in a U.S. pandemic of police lying. There must be consequences. | Will Bunch

The police disinformation about passengers watching the SEPTA rape is just one of a series of cop lies rocking the U.S. political debate. Enough is enough!

SEPTA Transit Police Chief Thomas Nestel III and SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards are seen through the window of a trains as they hold a news conference on an El platform at the 69th Street Transportation Center on Oct. 18, following a brutal rape on a subway train.. ... Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
by Will Bunch | Columnist
Published 
Oct. 24, 2021

You know the old adage that a lie travels halfway around the world before the truth gets a chance to put its pants on. In the aftermath of a shocking rape aboard a SEPTA El train as it rolled into 69th Street Station in Upper Darby last week, the pants of truth were apparently out at the dry cleaners for a few days.

The alarming first draft of the story about that SEPTA subway car that came from the lips of police officers such as Upper Darby Superintendent Timothy Bernhardt — that during a brutal sexual assault of a passenger that lasted about six minutes, a carload of passengers watched and even filmed videos but did nothing to stop the attack — fit the broader post-pandemic “law and order” narrative of an amoral modern world gone mad.

“I’m appalled by those who did nothing to help this woman,” Bernhardt said a couple of days after the rape arrest of a 35-year-old man. “Anybody that was on that train has to look in the mirror and ask why they didn’t intervene or why they didn’t do something.” Fueled by the internet and the hothouse environment of right-wing talk radio, the SEPTA rape saga didn’t just travel halfway around the world but made multiple orbits.

“The criminals have taken over the city, Dom,” said Dan Borowski, producer on WPHT’s Dom Giordano Show, where the episode sparked days of conversation — as he blamed Democratic officials like District Attorney Larry Krasner and Mayor Jim Kenney. The Philadelphia Citizen, often obsessed with the decline of our civic life, published two separate stories, including one headlined Spinning Toward Gomorrah and one by its editor Larry Platt that invoked the legendary 1964 New York City killing of Kitty Genovese, calling the episode “a metaphor for how we’ve chosen to be bystanders in our own democracy.”

Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer speaks Thursday about the rape that occurred on a SEPTA El train at 69th Street Station in Upper Darby. With him are (at left) Upper Darby Police Superintendent Timothy Bernhardt and Assistant District Attorney Chris Boggs.. ... Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

To some observers, though, the Kitty Genovese invocations — the famous New York Times story that 38 people watched her killing and did nothing has been thoroughly debunked — was a reminder of how the first draft of history is so often wrong. Thus, it was hardly a surprise when Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer came out a few days later and — having reviewed security camera footage from the car — said the version of the story that had been circulating for days “is simply not true — it did not happen.” Of possibly two passengers who filmed the assault, one tipped SEPTA police and was filming to provide evidence that could help convict the accused rapist in court.

In this case, my strong sense is that Bernhardt and SEPTA officials who spun the original version were not deliberately lying but instead far too eager to tie this horrific crime to the wider narrative that police leaders, cop unions and their “Blue Lives Matter” allies have been so desperate to promulgate after the 2020 police murder of George Floyd cast a harsh light on America’s warped ways of law enforcement. Police, the story goes, are not the problem but rather the thin blue line stopping cities from descending into anarchy. The problem is how often police are willing to spread disinformation, even blatantly lie in some cases, to make you believe it.

ADVERTISEMENT

In New York City, for example, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea — on a nearly two-year crusade to claim, despite a complete lack of supporting evidence, that long-overdue state bail reforms are causing a spike in crime — held a news conference to claim that a man with 11 open criminal cases had been released on bail and then brutally assaulted a woman. The problem is that the man fingered by Shea was still behind bars when the crime occurred. When New York lawmakers pressed Shea on this and other falsehoods, the top lawman in America’s largest city seemed to suddenly develop amnesia, insisting “I do not know the case you’re referring to.”

You know how Alaska natives have 50 different words for snow? In the present crisis, we probably need at least a dozen or more words for the various police fogs of disinformation and out-and-out lying, since it seems to be taking multiple forms:

Lying to cover up police brutality and misconduct. Remember the now infamous initial May 2020 news release from the Minneapolis Police Department about Floyd’s death — Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction — in which the central fact that Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes was omitted? This is the most famous of many such cases in which police, with their ability to get their narrative implanted in the news media, created a false story of brutal encounter — a brand of dishonesty that’s only finally been undercut, by the advent of smartphone video.

» READ MORE: When media rely on what police say, they miss key truths about crime, black communities | Will Bunch

ADVERTISEMENT

Lying about the underlying causes of crime. This has become critical in the 17 months since Floyd’s murder caused literally millions of Americans to march in protest, as storytelling becomes a critical way for Big Law Enforcement to stave off calls to dramatically shrink budgets and put more taxpayer dollars into the kind of public services that could reduce both crime and violent encounters with police. This actually traces back to 2015, when then-FBI Director James Comey claimed crime was rising because of a “Ferguson effect” that blamed Black Lives Matter protests — an effect that criminologists have largely debunked.

Lying, even, about COVID-19 vaccine mandates. It is the latest fad in police-fed disinformation, with the cantankerous head of the Chicago cop union, John Catanzara, comparing the once noncontroversial idea that requiring vaccines is a good way to protect the health of both officers and the public they serve to “Nazi (bleeping) Germany.” Although the vaccine controversy may appear to be outside of the ongoing debates about crime and punishment, in another sense it’s all of one piece. America’s cops — not all of them, but too many of them — feel they are waging a culture war against the changes that threaten their power. And as in any war, the truth is often the first casualty.

» READ MORE: To infect and serve: The cop vaccine crisis | Will Bunch Newsletter

The problem is that keeping citizens honestly informed, and preventing the widespread flow of disinformation, ought to be a critical element of keeping the public safe — the exact opposite of the present policing climate. In the SEPTA rape case, for example, the false narrative that any bystanders faced potential criminal liability only discourages citizens from coming forward in such cases, making it harder to prosecute the actual wrongdoers. Lying by law enforcement is a serious crime against a civil society. There should be harsh consequences.

ADVERTISEMENT

And yet there rarely are consequences. We are currently seeing a dramatic example as former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who just this month seemingly lied about the reasons for, and his role in, a coverup of the 2015 police murder of a teenager named Laquan McDonald, is nonetheless cruising toward his confirmation as President Joe Biden’s U.S. ambassador to Japan.

In this April 2019 photo, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel waves as he arrives at a news conference outside of the south air traffic control tower at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. The fatal police shooting of a Black teen in Chicago seven years ago is looming large over the city’s now former mayor as he looks to win confirmation as President Joe Biden’s ambassador to Japan.. ... Read moreKiichiro Sato / AP

There needs to be a lot more accountability from the news media, which — in its eagerness to fill up a news hole or a 30-minute broadcast — far too readily accepts police news releases as undisputed fact, despite law enforcement’s dismal track record on truthfulness. Police handouts should be treated not as gospel but with extreme skepticism, and the media fact-checking enterprise which targets lying politicians ought to be redirected to look more closely at the statements of law enforcement as it enters Donald Trumpian territory.

There needs to be a lot more accountability from mayors and the other public officials who are supposed to exert civilian control over these departments, lest we become a police state. When a police leader publicly lies — as NYC’s Shea did recently — they should be reprimanded or, in the most extreme cases, disciplined or even fired.

There needs to be a lot more accountability from district attorneys who too often uphold the regime of disinformation rather than serve as a civic watchdog. The term “testilying” gained common currency decades ago, yet law officers are rarely charged with perjury for these serious offenses. Indeed, it was a breath of fresh air when Philadelphia’s Krasner did file perjury charges recently against three city homicide detectives accused of lying on the stand in a failed, and disgraceful, effort to uphold the wrongful murder conviction of a man named Anthony Wright.

The lack of consequences for police lying is why — at a moment when the very legitimacy of our law-enforcement regime is being questioned (and deservedly so) — the fog of disinformation keeps getting thicker. When top cops go before the cameras and spread blatant falsehoods, they are not fighting crime. Arguably, they are committing it.

» READ MORE: SIGN UP: The Will Bunch Newsletter

You‘ve reached your free article limit for this month.
To continue reading, subscribe now for unlimited digital access to our app and inquirer.com.
Already a subscriber? Log in
Published 
Oct. 24, 2021
I'm the national columnist — with some strong opinions about what's happening in America around social injustice, income inequality and the government.
ADVERTISEMENT
Always asking on behalf of the people. Always Local. Always Philly.