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Two white cops posing with rifles as they stand over a black man lying on his belly with deer antlers on his head. For years, the image was kept under wraps. The Chicago PD said they wanted to protect the man who wasn’t the cop in the picture! — yeah, the one lying on the floor subjected to humiliation. But it is secret no more.

The Chicago Sun-Times writes, “A Cook County judge has refused to keep secret the shocking image of former Officers Timothy McDermott and Jerome Finnigan kneeling with what the police department says is an unidentified African-American drug suspect.”

“Believed to have been taken in a West Side police station between 1999 and 2003, the Polaroid photo was given to the city by the feds in 2013 and resulted in McDermott, a clout-heavy cop, being fired last year by the police board in a 5-to-4 vote,” the Sun-Times continues.

Finnigan is now serving a 3-and-a-half years in prison for leading a robbery ring and McDermott is currently fighting his dismissal. In McDermott’s case, he should walk away quietly and accept he got off lightly, but clearly he’s not the brightest or most modest of individuals.

You can and should read the full story about how this potent image was the loci of a multi-year backroom political tug of war. The Chicago Sun-Times’ decision to publish it was not taken lightly. In an excellent and long statement made by Jim Kirk, publisher and editor in chief of the Chicago Sun-Times, the knowns and unknowns are laid out so there can be no misunderstanding. Kirk warns against presuming to know everything from this single image. He writes:

Photographs can do a number of things. They can help frame a news story or put it into better context. They can convey details and nuances of a story that might otherwise be lost.

But if we don’t know all the facts surrounding a photograph, some things are left open to interpretation. It is why news organizations are careful in considering the images they run and try as hard as possible to detail what is being displayed.

[…]

It’s an offensive image, so much so that this newspaper had to think long and hard before publishing it today. When two Chicago Police officers pose like hunters with rifles over a black man with deer antlers on his head, a responsible newspaper cannot withhold the image from its readers, especially when you consider that one of the officers, Timothy McDermott, was fired because of the image and is fighting to get his job back.

[…]

There is a lot we don’t know, including most importantly, the name of the suspect. We also don’t know exactly when the Polaroid photo was taken, though it is believed that the image was snapped at a West Side police station sometime between 1999 and 2003. Was the man forced to pose? Was he coerced into wearing those mocking dear antlers? Was he the involuntary victim of a sick joke or, in his own mind, in on the joke? We exhausted all avenues before printing the story. We don’t know and the police say they don’t know either.

This photograph will offend people, as it offends us. We also know it can be a tool to raise the level of constructive discourse to make our city better.

It’s the type of caveat and engagement with an image I’d like to see next to every news photograph, but we know no writer, editor or human has the time for to add that deep contextual treatment to all visual news content.

Fascinating image, unfolding story and analysis from within the industry. A potential case-study for journalism students, I’d suggest.

Today, March 11th 2009, marks the twentieth anniversary of the first COPS episode. Producer, John Langley, and his cohorts celebrated the when the first show of the twentieth season aired at the back end of last year. Allow me to reflect also.

At overcrowded jails, like this one in Marion County, IN, inmates must sleep in portable containers. Credit: Inside America, Jail

At overcrowded jails, like this one in Marion County, IN, inmates must sleep in portable containers. Credit: Inside American Jail

This is not really a day of celebration. Personally, I loathe the show. It is lazy, cheap and exploitative. In that regard, it paved the way for all the reality TV on the box today. Off my soap box.

It is worth noting that the 1988 television writers strike gave rise to COPS airing on screens. A desperate Fox Channel signed up after Langley had tried and failed pedaling the format for over six years. Lucky for him. But he was no slouch and worked the opportunity when it arose. Langley struggled early in his career. My guess is his PhD in Aesthetics took his thinking outside of the rote and predictable circles of Hollywoodthink. But TVland came round eventually and Langley has since distinguished himself as a true pioneer of America’s most-loved lowbrow art form.

Inmates in this Utah jail aren't digging an escape tunnel. They're learning to garden. Credit: Inside America, Jail

Inmates in this Utah jail aren't digging an escape tunnel. They're learning to garden. Credit: Inside American Jail

Three years ago, Langley Productions introduced a spin off show that went off the streets and into the jails. Inside American Jail has ventured into sites of incarceration across the nation including the circus-like Maricopa County Tent City. The show won high ratings when the Las Vegas County Sheriff detained O.J.Simpson.

A sign at a Maricopa County jail reads "Vacancy." The rates are good but the atmosphere is lacking. Credit: Inside America, Jail

A sign at a Maricopa County jail reads "Vacancy." The rates are good but the atmosphere is lacking. Credit: Inside American Jail

In many cases the TV cameras show the true harsh realities of institution after institution with stretched resources warehousing troubled folk with few opportunities for rehabilitation. This doesn’t stop them from hamming up the quirks of jail time as evidenced by the promotional images and campy captions (shown within this article) drawn from the show’s website.

Mmm-mmm-good. An Iowa State Penitentiary inmate shows us what lunch in jail looks like. Credit: Inside America, Jail

Mmm-mmm-good. An Iowa State Penitentiary inmate shows us what lunch in jail looks like. Credit: Inside American Jail

With most debates, nothing is cut and dried and an insightful article in the New York Times shows a vaguely compassionate point of view from Langley – who, let’s be honest has made his fortune of the back of America’s criminal justice exploits.

Having seen America’s prison population soar to more than 2.2 million, and with widespread prison overcrowding in California, Mr. Langley says he now believes the nation should be reconsidering which crimes should be punishable by imprisonment. “A lot of our attention is dedicated to arresting people who have drug problems,” he said, “when the real solution may be to rehabilitate them.”

And for your viewing pleasure here’s the ridiculous promo for Inside American Jail

This interview allows Langley to describe where Inside American Jail fits into the larger television ecosystem.

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