In the last 48 hours, a video has circulated that seems to show a New Rochelle Police Officer drawing his firearm and using profanity to order a group of teenagers to halt a snowball fight.

The video has gone viral, prompting inquiries from just about every New York media outlet and, more importantly, generating real concern and anger among many residents.  It’s easy to understand why; if a Police Officer really did draw a gun on teens horsing around in the snow, it would be a true outrage.

But that’s not what happened.  The video completely lacks context, and this is a case in which context changes everything.  Here’s the real story:

On Friday afternoon, the PD received a 911 call describing a group of teenagers walking through the area, one of whom was reportedly pulling out a gun from his waistband.  Two officers responded to the call and, finding a group that matched the description, approached on foot.  As they neared, the suspect reached for his waist, prompting the officers to draw their weapons.  Then the suspect ran.  One officer pursued (the suspect got away in the chase, and his whereabouts are still under investigation,) while the other officer stayed on the scene and ordered the remainder of the group on the ground, then patted them down.  It is that last bit that is captured on video.  All members of the group were released shortly thereafter.

What looks at first like a dramatic example of Police overreach turns out instead to be a reasonable response to a fast-moving, unpredictable, and potentially very dangerous situation.

The entire incident is still being reviewed closely by the PD, and I would rarely offer a comment of this kind about any specific law enforcement action, but I think the widespread attention that this video has received – and the mistaken impression it has created – warrants this post.  There’s a saying that a lie travels halfway around the world before the truth gets its running shoes on.  In the age of the Internet, even that is an understatement.

There are a couple of lessons here.

First, all of us need to be better about waiting for facts before rushing to judgment.  Pictures tell a good story, it’s just not always the whole story, and sometimes what happens outside the frame is just as important as what happens inside.  So while it’s okay to be upset about a video like this one — I was upset when I first saw it — the right response is to ask serious questions, not jump to conclusions.

Second, the degree to which the video struck a nerve illustrates the persistent and difficult issues of trust that still exist between the Police and portions of many communities.  I think both the NRPD and local leaders here should be proud of addressing this challenge more effectively in New Rochelle than in most places, but it’s a mission that requires ongoing commitment and, when appropriate, openness to constructive criticism and change.

As I’ve written before, bias sweeps broadly across our society, but is not necessarily present in every specific event or encounter.  Automatically denying the existence of bias anywhere is wrong and dangerous.  Automatically assuming the existence of bias everywhere is equally wrong and dangerous.  We’ve got to find a middle way of open eyes, open ears, and open minds.

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