Does a Viral Meme Accurately Describe Police Treatment of White, Black Suspects?

Discrepancies in the way police treat suspects of difference races were the subject of a widely shared meme, in March 2021, after the arrest of Robert Aaron Long.

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Person, Human, Text

Claim

An Occupy Democrats meme, shared widely in March 2021, accurately describes police treatment of various white and Black suspects in high-profile cases.

Rating

What's True

The meme accurately describes the most relevant facts surrounding seven of the nine incidents featured. However...

What's False

The meme's descriptions of two of the nine incidents omit important and relevant facts, namely: that a coroner failed to determined the cause of Elijah McClain's death; that Sandra Bland died of suicide in jail, but not as a direct result of police violence.

Origin

In March 2021, the popular left-leaning Facebook page Occupy Democrats posted a meme that purported to highlight racial discrepancies in police violence in the United States. The meme came after Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old white man, was arrested on suspicion of murder in connection with a March 16 shooting rampage at Atlanta-area spas, which left eight people dead, most of them Asian American women.

The meme contained information about nine incidents, three involving white men who were suspected or convicted of multiple murders but, according to the meme, were “arrested without incident,” and by contrast, six incidents involving Black men and women who had committed no underlying offense, or only a relatively very minor offense, and yet were killed by police officers or died in police custody.

The caption that accompanied the meme was “This is why we kneel” — a reference to long-running protests against police violence and racial injustice that have prevailed in sports and other forums in recent years. The point of the meme was therefore clear: that a racial discrepancy exists between, on the one hand, the manner in which white men suspected of heinous acts of violence are arrested and detained, and on the other, the way in which Black men and women who have committed no offense, or only trivial offenses, are subjected to violence at the hands of police.

Academic research indicates that a discrepancy exists between the rates at which individuals from Black and other ethnic minority communities are subjected to police violence, and the rates at which white individuals are subjected to police violence. However, experts disagree on whether those differences should be attributed solely or primarily to racial bias, or if other factors might play a role. 

The question of whether racial basis played a role in the nine specific incidents cited in the Occupy Democrats meme goes beyond the scope of this fact check. Rather, the following analysis assesses the accuracy of the factual claims made in relation to each of the nine individuals, their treatment by police, and their underlying offenses, if any, and provides any significant relevant details that might be missing from the meme.

On the whole, we found the meme described the incidents in question with a high degree of factual accuracy. In two cases, the meme failed to mention important and relevant facts, namely: that a coroner could not determine the cause of Elijah McClain’s death, and that Sandra Bland died of suicide in jail, but not as a direct result of police violence. Overall, we are issuing a rating of “Mostly True.”

Robert Aaron Long

“Allegedly killed eight people”

It’s TRUE that Long has been arrested in relation to the shooting deaths of eight people at Atlanta-area spas, on March 16, 2021.

“Arrested without incident”

MOSTLY TRUE. In a March 17 news conference, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Captain Jay Baker stated that Long “did not resist” during the arrest itself. However, both the Crisp County Sheriff’s Department and the Georgia State Police have said that Long’s vehicle was stopped using a PIT (precision immobilization technique) maneuver. PIT involves using a police vehicle to carefully push the back of a fleeing vehicle, causing it to spin out of control and come to a stop. It’s not clear whether the use of the PIT maneuver in this case was precautionary, or Long had refused to pull over.

Kyle Rittenhouse

“Allegedly killed 2 people”

It’s TRUE that in August 2020, Rittenhouse was charged with first-degree reckless homicide for allegedly fatally shooting Joseph Rosenbaum, and first-degree intentional homicide for allegedly shooting dead Anthony Huber, during unrest in the city of Kenosha, Wisconsin, after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, on Aug. 23.

Rittenhouse has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him. As of March 22, 2021, his trial had not yet begun. 

“Arrested without incident”

TRUE. In the days after the shootings, controversy surrounded video footage that showed Rittenhouse walking away from the scene and even approaching police vehicles with his hands up, while bystanders shouted, “He just shot them.” Police did not arrest Rittenhouse at that time, and instead went to render aid to the victims.

On Aug. 26, police arrested Rittenhouse in his hometown of Antioch, Illinois. Rittenhouse, accompanied by his mother, turned himself in at Antioch police station hours after the shooting, so it is reasonable to state, as the meme did, that he was “arrested without incident.”

Dylann Roof

“Killed 9 People”

TRUE. In December 2016, a jury in Charleston, South Carolina, convicted Roof of murder and various federal hate crimes, after he shot dead nine people at the historically Black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, on June 17, 2015, when Roof was 21 years old. His crimes were racially motivated, and before the shooting, he wrote a white supremacist manifesto. In January 2017, Roof was sentenced to death in the federal trial. In a state trial, Roof was convicted in April 2017 and sentenced to nine consecutive life sentences. 

“Arrested without incident” 

TRUE. Much has been made of Roof’s treatment by police in the aftermath of the shooting. The widely promulgated claim that police “took him to Burger King” was based on a misunderstanding of the officers’ motivations, and their legal obligations to feed Roof who, according to police, had not eaten in days. Police in Shelby, North Carolina, stopped and arrested Roof on the morning after the shooting. Dashcam video shows that Roof pulled over for police and offered no resistance when being detained, so it’s perfectly reasonable to state, as the meme did, that he was “arrested without incident.”

Breonna Taylor

“Sleeping”/”Dead”

TRUE. Louisville, Kentucky, police fatally shot Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, on March 13, 2020, during a raid on her apartment. Her apartment was targeted for search only because another man, suspected of drug crimes, had been suspected of using the address to receive mail, and had been observed using Taylor’s car in the past. Taylor had therefore committed no underlying criminal offense at the time of her death.

According to Taylor’s family, both she and her boyfriend Kenneth Walker were sleeping when Louisville police executed a “no-knock” warrant shortly after midnight. Walker has also said that the two were watching a movie in bed. Either way, the substantive point of the meme is borne out — Taylor was in bed in her own home, was not committing any criminal offense, and had not committed any criminal offense when police shot her dead.

George Floyd

“May have used a fake $20″/”Dead”

TRUE. Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died shortly after he was arrested and restrained by Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020. Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, including for some minutes after Floyd became unresponsive.

A Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s report later concluded that Floyd’s death was a homicide caused by “Cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.” A private autopsy conducted on behalf of Floyd’s family also concluded that his death was a homicide, but specifically found that it was caused by asphyxiation. 

In March 2021, Minneapolis City Council agreed to pay $27 million to settle a lawsuit by Floyd’s family, over his death, and as of March 22, 2021, jury selection was under way in Chauvin’s trial on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

The initial impetus for Floyd’s arrest and restraint was a 911 call from a nearby convenience store clerk who told police a Black man had paid for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill, so this component of the meme was also accurate. 

Botham Jean

“Home watching TV”/”Dead”

TRUE. Then-Dallas police officer Amber Guyger shot dead Jean, a 26-year-old Black man, as he sat in his own apartment on the night of Sept. 6, 2018. Guyger had claimed she was exhausted and distracted when entering the apartment complex, and had mistakenly gone to the building’s fourth floor, instead of the third, where her own apartment was located directly below Jean’s. Believing him to be an intruder in her apartment, she testified that she ordered him to show her his hands, and when he walked towards her, she shot him dead.

During the trial, however, neighbors testified that they did not hear Guyger issue any verbal commands, and a medical examiner said the trajectory of the bullet that killed Jean indicated he was getting up from a seated position when Guyger shot him. In October 2019, Guyger was convicted of murder and given a 10-year prison sentence. The detail of Jean’s activities at the time of the shooting came from prosecutors at the Dallas County District Attorney’s office, who wrote that he was “sitting on his couch watching television and eating a bowl of ice cream” when Guyger entered his home.

Elijah McClain

“Wearing a ski mask”/”Dead”

MIXTURE. Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man, died on Aug. 30, 2019, after being taken off life support. He had fallen into a coma after going into cardiac arrest six days earlier, when police in Aurora, Colorado, restrained him during a stop, applied a controversial type of choke hold called a “carotid restraint,” and a medic injected him with a sedative. 

Police approached McClain as he walked on the street in Aurora, on the night of Aug. 24. They were responding to a 911 call from a member of the public who said McClain was wearing a full-face ski mask, waving his arms, and “acting sketchy.” While it’s not clear exactly what actions McClain took that caused the 911 caller to believe he was “acting sketchy,” the Occupy Democrats meme was not quite accurate in suggesting that it was merely McClain’s wearing a ski mask that led to his encounter with police.

The meme also failed to mention that McClain persistently, and at times vigorously, resisted efforts by police to stop and restrain him. That fact does not necessarily justify their rationale for stopping and restraining him in the first place, and it certainly does not justify his tragic death, but it is nonetheless a relevant fact that any reasonably complete account should include.

Body-worn camera video and audio footage shows that McClain did not stop walking when an officer approached him and asked him to stop, but McClain later indicated he was listening to music, and so he may not have heard the officer’s instructions. The same officer quickly moved to physically detain and restrain McClain, which McClain resisted, and a struggle ensued involving three officers. At one point, one officer verbally indicated that McClain had attempted to grab another officer’s handgun, but body-worn camera footage neither supports nor disproves that claim.

The officers restrained McClain on the ground for around 15 minutes, during which time he repeatedly shouted, “I can’t breathe,” cried, and vomited. At one point, one of the officers placed McClain in a carotid restraint, a type of chokehold designed to cut off blood supply to the brain in order to temporarily render an individual unconscious. Later, when medics arrived, they injected him with ketamine, a sedative. 

McClain was taken to a local hospital, suffered two separate cardiac arrests, was declared brain dead on Aug. 27, and died on Aug. 30. In his autopsy report, Adams County Coroner’s office pathologist Dr. Stephen Cina suggested several possible explanations for McClain’s cardiac arrests, but ultimately declared the cause of his death undetermined:

…The manner of death may be accident if it was an idiosyncratic drug reaction. It may be natural if the decedent had an undiagnosed mental illness that led to Excited Delirium, if his intense physical exertion combined with a narrow coronary artery led to an arrhythmia, if he had an asthma attack, or if he aspirated vomit while restrained. It may be a homicide if the actions of officers led to his death (e.g. the carotid control hold led to stimulation of the carotid sinus resulting in arrhythmia)… I cannot determine which manner of death is most likely. 

Cina’s reference to “excited delirium” is in itself controversial. Excited delirium is a purported syndrome involving sudden aggression, distress and fast heart rate, typically observed in individuals who are being restrained and/or are suffering the effects of stimulant drugs such as cocaine. It is not recognized by the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, or the World Health Organization, and it is not listed in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). Some observers have argued that law enforcement agencies have abused the purported existence of excited delirium to justify excessive or inappropriate use of force and restraint. 

An independent review, commissioned by Aurora City Council and published in February 2021, concluded that the evidence available to officers did not amount to a “reasonable suspicion” that McClain had committed, or was about to commit, any criminal act, and that they therefore should not have stopped him in the first place. However, because the findings of the autopsy did not definitively determine that the actions taken by Aurora police officers caused his death, we should be careful about categorizing McClain’s tragic and senseless death along with other much more clear-cut incidents of fatal police violence.

Sandra Bland

“Traffic violation”/”Dead”

MIXTURE. On July 10, 2015, Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia pulled over Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old Black woman, for the relatively minor alleged offense of changing lanes without signaling. Dashcam video footage shows that Encinia asked Bland, who was sitting in her own car, to put out her cigarette. When she refused, Encinia ordered her to exit the vehicle, and the situation quickly escalated, with Encinia pointing a taser at Bland. 

Further footage shows that Bland indicated to officers that their attempts to restrain and arrest her were causing her pain, and verbal indications from the officers suggest that Bland was resisting those efforts at restraint. (Much of the episode involving Bland’s restraint and arrest was not visible from the police dashcam). 

Bland was subsequently brought to the Waller county jail on a charge of assaulting a police officer. She was unable to arrange for her bail to be paid, so she remained at the jail until for three nights. On the morning of July 13, a guard found her hanging in her cell. The Harris County autopsy report (which might be disturbing to some readers) concluded that she had died by suicide by means of hanging, and officials from the Waller County District Attorney’s office later stipulated that she lacked injuries that would indicate a violent struggle had taken place. 

In several questionnaires at the jail, Bland had given varying answers to questions about past suicide attempts and suicidal ideation. On at least one form, she wrote that she had previously attempted suicide, but she was not placed on suicide watch.

In 2017, the Texas Legislature passed the “Sandra Bland Act,” which implemented several police and correctional reforms, including requiring enhanced police training on mental health, racial profiling, use of force and de-escalation, as well as expanding the availability of mental health care for prisoners who may be experiencing a mental health crisis, or have a history of mental health difficulties. 

Bland’s underlying alleged offense — changing lanes without signaling — was undoubtedly minor, and very rarely leads to an arrest. Encinia rapidly and disproportionately escalated his encounter with Bland and later misrepresented parts of the incident, falsely claiming that he ordered her out of the vehicle in order to safely continue the stop, when in reality he was angered by her refusal to put out her cigarette. As a result, Encinia was charged with perjury, and later fired

The sequence of events leading up to Bland’s arrest and incarceration have understandably caused widespread and lasting outrage. However, her death was officially ruled a suicide, and did not directly result from any act of police violence. By listing Bland’s death among several others that involved fatal police shootings, the Occupy Democrats meme omitted information that was clearly very significant, and could very easily create a substantially mistaken impression about the circumstances of her death. 

Tamir Rice

“Playing with a toy gun”/”Dead”

TRUE. The following summary of events is taken from a November 2020 review published by the U.S. Justice Department. On Nov. 22, 2014, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy, played with a replica pistol, similar in appearance to a Colt .45 pistol, at Cudell Park in Cleveland, Ohio.

Around 3 p.m, a member of the public called 911 to report that a “guy with a pistol” was brandishing it and pointing it at passersby in the vicinity of the park. The 911 caller stipulated that the “guy” in question was “probably a juvenile,” and that the gun was “probably fake.” However, those crucial details were not conveyed to the officers who responded to the call, Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback.

Almost immediately after their patrol car arrived at the scene, Loehmann exited the still-moving vehicle and fired two shots at Rice. Loehmann and Garmback both later reported that Loehmann had given Rice repeated verbal commands to show his hands, and Lohemann reported seeing Rice reach for the gun, prompting his decision to shoot. 

Rice died the next day, and the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s office determined his death was a homicide caused by a gunshot wound to the torso.