Since 2015, Secure 1776 founder Thomas Lemmer has encouraged others in the public safety profession to ask themselves a core question. “Which is more important, perception or reality?” Determining the answer requires critical thinking. That truth alone points the way toward the answer, as critical thinking is an increasingly discouraged activity. Why? Because when we think critically, we are less vulnerable to nonsense and deliberate propaganda. Providing some context to the core question may help identify the answer. So, in the perception versus reality dynamic, which has more impact on public safety? Perception or reality? We ask you to think critically about this issue a moment or two.
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
So Why the Focus on Perceptions Since 2015?
As everyone in law enforcement knows, in August 2014 an officer-involved shooting in Ferguson, Missouri became a highly-controversial national focal point. In the minutes following a robbery in a town of 21,000 residents, Police Officer Darren Wilson approached Michael Brown, which resulted in Brown’s death, an officer widely-accused of murder, the entire law enforcement profession vilified, weakened police-community relations across the nation, and rising violence, particularly in the nation’s urban areas. It is a case where the dynamics involving perception and reality continue to have far-ranging, real-life consequences.
In the weeks and months following the officer-involved incident in Ferguson, it became clear that the media-supported narrative did not match the facts. The narrative held that a white police officer gunned down a black teen who was surrendering with his “hands up.” In his article “It’s High Noon for American Policing,” Lemmer makes clear how public perceptions relative to policing are greatly influenced by media coverage. This reality is particularly true relative to the use of force by the police. Negative news is particularly incendiary. The media helped to drive a false narrative of the Ferguson encounter. By 2015, it was clear that the perceptions being advanced of an “epidemic of police violence” were severely damaging police-community relations across America.
Reality and the Official Investigations
Such was the case, even though both the state prosecutor, and then the U.S. Department of Justice under the Obama Administration, found the officer’s actions were lawful.
Oh, and that the physical evidence of the case conclusively determined that Brown was neither surrendering nor had his hands up. Brown had in fact physically attacked and attempted to disarm the officer, and he was charging again at the officer when he was fatally shot. Despite this reality, the damage caused by the false perceptions advanced following that single incident have remained. They have continued to influence the reality of public safety in America. In fact, these false perceptions greatly amplified the negative impact following the tragic events in Minneapolis in May 2020.
A Perception Versus Reality Exercise
What actually happened? What was seen and heard? Such are fundamental questions in science, journalism, and policing. Such are also questions that impact political discussions and large political movements. Bill Whittle is a political commentator, and he recently released a video entitled “The Perception Battlefield.” His full video concerns the perception battle going on to convince Americans that China is on the rise and is now unbeatable. The perception seeks to advance a new globalism with a world-dominating China as the future reality. It is worth watching the full video — but, for this post we ask you first to just watch the provided clip as part of our public safety discussion.
In this exercise you are asked to (1) listen to a group of people chanting. Then you are asked to (2) listen to the same chant, while you read the changing lines of text. The objective is to determine what words are being chanted. The exercise will task your auditory and sight senses.
For most participants, at least for some of the lines, their perceptions of the words being chanted in reality were impacted by the changing text. The exercise should provide a warning not to simply take what you are told “is reality” at face value. Particularly on important matters, like constitutional policing, public safety, as well as pandemic restrictions and mandates, there is a need for critical thinking.
When Statements are Exactly the Same, What Do Cops Know?
When the media overall, or a media corporation with many outlets, pushes a single message, it can greatly impact public perceptions of reality. If the message being pushed is fact-based, the impact on perceptions is at least consistent with the facts. The echo chamber of an amplified message may sound like this video compilation critical of the Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s news network. The intended message from Sinclair Broadcasting is about the dangers of “fake news.” That danger is real, as we know that perceptions and reality are intertwined. Sergeant Joe Friday might ask: “So, why not just release one video to be played by all Sinclair stations?” Why the effort to create the perception that each local station was independently taking a stand?
How Does this Connect to Public Safety?
Secure 1776 agrees. “This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.” In the above video, Sinclair Broadcasting directed each of its local news programs, on its 185 stations, to repeat a “local version” of the corporation’s editorial message. But, what if the media narrative is less about any set of facts, and it is more about advancing a political agenda. The drumbeat of a coordinated message can sound like “hard news,” as opposed to political commentary. Additionally, the coordination of messages can span across media corporations. Here Amazon gets highly-positive “news coverage.” All of it exactly on message.
Of course, each of these 11 local newsrooms independently came to the same positive interpretation of Amazon’s cashing in on the pandemic. Right? Rrriiiggghhhttt. Such message coordination and agenda-driving is not limited to providing cover for a single corporate behemoth. Nor is it limited to television news. The social media giants and political activists also attempt to impact public perceptions.
The Need for Critical Thinking
In June 2021, Lemmer released a defining article entitled, “Tragedy-Free Policing or Else: The Need for Critical Thinking.”
What is “tragedy-free policing? Identified by Lemmer, “tragedy-free policing” is a dangerous worldview that holds the police should never take any actions that could cause harm, their actions should never use any force, and the police must act without ever making a mistake. Such a worldview is unrealistic. In reality, the police are regularly thrust into circumstances that are already tragic or a risk of quickly turning tragic. Preventing and responding to unfolding tragedy is at the very core of the public safety mission.
Anti-police activists have coupled an “or else” to the “tragedy-free policing” worldview, and in so doing they created a deliberately unattainable policing standard. With this “standard” unwittingly accepted by many, and advanced in the media, whenever the police are involved in an incident that has a tragic outcome, then rage, violent protests, and looting are falsely “justified.” Dismantling the entire system of constitutional law is justified. At the core of this strategy is the creation of a new reality through the manipulation of public perceptions. Acceptance of this “tragedy-free-policing-or-else” standard causes severe damage to the police-community relationship that is essential for public safety. In weakening the level of public safety, lawlessness follows. Lawless cities are violent places. Here again is a key “Cops Ask Questions” question. “Who benefits from lawlessness?”
A Second Lesson in Perception Versus Reality
In his training sessions on the current crisis in public safety, Lemmer instructs that perception and reality are not only at work in policing in general, they are at the root of the current national debate about policing. This has been increasingly evident since Ferguson.
Police officers have often encountered two witnesses to the same incident giving differing accounts. Sometimes, the difference is simply explained by the vantage point from which each witness viewed the incident. Such honest disputes based upon a vantage point, can be resolved with careful analysis.
However, what if the variations are not an “honest” mistake or disparities caused by a poor vantage point? What if some decide to deliberately make false claims and downright lie? Here the officer-involved incident in Ferguson provides a stark lesson. Larry Elder and PragerU provided the below summary video of the evidence. As you review this video, consider the impact on public safety caused by the false narrative that was aggressively advanced. Consider as well how activists using the “Tragedy-Free Policing, or Else” standard have continued their efforts to weaken the police-community relationship since the tragic May 2020 incident in Minneapolis.
Pulling it All Together, Perception and Reality
In considering the importance of perception and reality there are two equal truths. First, reality forms perception. Second, perception forms reality. Both of these two statements are true. As such, both are equally important. These two truths take on critical importance for the law enforcement profession as it struggles to meet its public safety mission. The profession should take both encouragement and warning from these two statements.
Why encouragement? Well, when we actually dig down, do the hard work, it is possible to both factually achieve something – and – convince others of that reality.
We should take warning because, (1) perceptions left unrebutted or inadequately rebutted become reality, and (2) some people deliberately make use of this truth to propagate untruths, knowing they are untruths, with the intent of getting others to blindly accept them. When this is the case, there is always an ulterior motive involved.
A Reminder on the Challenge
As noted on this site’s main page: “Without question, America is in the midst of a public safety crisis. The way forward must be a proactive one. In this effort, it is essential for us not to be deceived by those who are seeking perpetual division for their own ideological and political purposes. When the police are one with the community, the community is safer, freer, more stable, and better positioned to help foster the improved health and well-being of all the community’s members,“ Thomas Lemmer.
There is a multifaceted struggle facing America. Within our nation the attempts to divide the police from the larger community are far more dangerous than they appear. Exploiting tragic incidents involving the police are a key fissure utilized by the anti-police movement. Exploiting the fears over the pandemic are another. Of course cops ask questions. Asking questions is essential to finding the truth. As the nation confronts the struggles it currently faces, asking questions is also essential to safeguarding both individual liberty and public safety.
If the forces of division and demonization are successful in taking false perceptions and turning them into a widely-accepted new reality, the damage to the nation and our way of life will be catastrophic. Now is a time for critical thinking. “We the people,” have a nation to save. Ask questions. Think critically. Demand constitutional governance.
Our “Cops Ask Questions” Series
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