The Media and Criminal Justice

For over a year now I have watched as the media has regularly criticized law enforcement officers, inaccurately portraying officers as “racist”, “overzealous”, and “poorly trained”, just to name a few. On the national level, we saw the media, without knowing all of the facts, persecute Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. Fortunately, the entire truth was revealed and Officer Wilson was ruled to have acted within the law. 

But has anyone stopped to ask: where would we be today if Officer Wilson had been portrayed as a hero from the beginning? 

Ever since the Ferguson incident, we have seen at least seven officers murdered simply because they were officers. Sure, Officer Wilson was portrayed much more favorably after all of the facts were revealed. But by that point, the damage was done -- not only to Officer Wilson, but to all of law enforcement.   

On a smaller level, I recently watched the media completely distort realitywhile covering a deadly prison riot in Tecumseh, Nebraska that left two inmates dead. After the riot, I jokingly commented that the media would blame the riot on corrections officials. And then it happened… the Omaha World Herald published this article which implied that if only the inmates had more opportunities for job training, then the riot never would have happened. 

My joke quickly turned to anger as I thought of the inmates who were killed, as well as the corrections officers who risked their lives while the prison was taken over by inmates. In the course of the riot, inmates “set small fires, tore down walls, broke windows, and ripped out surveillance cameras, causing damaged estimated at $350,000 to $500,000”. Does anyone honestly think that lack of job training programs can be to blame for this kind of behavior? If inmates cannot follow the simple order of “disperse” without assaulting others, what makes us think they are capable of being productive employees?

What caused the Tecumseh prison riot? It’s simple: “A corrections officer approached a group of 40 inmates that had formed in front of one of the housing units. After telling the inmates to disperse, he was assaulted. When a caseworker came to his assistance, he was assaulted as well.” End of story. There is no underlying ‘root cause’ or justification.

Why is it so hard for the media to accurately report on crime? The answer may possibly be found in the source of the media’s information, which often includes policy analysts and criminal justice professors, who break everything down into statistics but fail to account for real-world dynamics? Let’s look at another criminal justice topic for comparison.

In recent years, numerous state legislatures around the nation have engaged in ‘prison reform’ discussions. Countless numbers of so-called experts have testified about reforms that allegedly reduce prison overcrowding, while simultaneously reducing crime. There is constant discussion about shorter prison sentences and ‘community supervision’ such as drug treatment, mental illness treatment, and probation. 

We seem to forget that these ‘community supervision’ programs could apply to the very same inmates that started the Tecumseh riot. We seem to forget that every prison inmate is incarcerated because a judge reviewed the facts and circumstances for that particular inmate and decided prison was the best option.

We listen to criminal justice professors (most of whom have never arrested anyone, conducted an investigation, or worked within a correctional facility) provide “statistics” which reveals that drug court is the best option for drug offenders. 

But let us be reminded of what one judge recently stated when he sent a meth cook to prison: “This may be one of these cases that the statistics would show that the courts are sending someone to prison for a drug offense that is a nonviolent offense. I wish somehow these statistics that we see would take into account when drug court has been tried, probation has been tried, and other alternatives have been tried, it just gets to a point, regrettably, that we run out of alternatives.”

We listen to policy analysts tell us that drugs are a ‘victimless crime’. However, what does the policy analyst say when an 8-year-old boy comes to school hallucinating on meth? Or when two children have to be placed in state custody after the parents were found unresponsive due to their K2 use?  Or when two youngsters were awakened at night as a result of their mother being assaulted, as the man (who was previously on probation) was high on meth? Indeed, there are victims of drug use.

Legislators have convinced us that a drug addict, whose brain chemistry has been drastically changed due to years of illegal drug use, can go to a treatment program, and in 45 days undo the years of damage that has been done. What is forgotten is that the addict often goes home to a family of other addicts, with the same history of drug use and criminal thinking. Also forgotten is that a judge ordering an addict to treatment, does not make the addict committed to changing. The policy analyst also forgets that people often ‘successfully’ complete treatment, only to quickly go back to using drugs. As one addict stated: “You can get through a lot of programs just by faking it.”

Policy analysts remind us that it is much cheaper to send an addict to treatment, as opposed to prison, but then fail to calculate that many addicts will have to complete treatment several times before overcoming their addiction, if they overcome it at all. 

And decriminalizing drug use will not lead to less crime either. In fact, as California is learning, it will lead to more crime. Ever since California passed Proposition 47, which downgraded many drug crimes to misdemeanors, property crime has increased. Narcotics arrests have decreased 30%-48%, while at the same time, thefts increased 7%-20%. Why? Because drug users are also thieves and the more drug users are not in jail, the more they are free to commit other crimes. And this doesn’t even account for the other crimes that people commit while they are high on drugs.

When discussing criminal justice issues, the media often distorts reality. Is it due to a blatant attempt to protect criminal violators, or a misunderstanding of reality? Is the media misinformed by so-called experts?

The role of the media within our society is to inform the public. I assert that if the media wants to more accurately inform the public on criminal justice issues, they should start with the officers who confront these issues every day -- and not by listening to the very criminals being arrested, or to those who study these topics from behind a desk or inside a book.  

Matt Ernst is a career law enforcement officer who is a defensive tactics instructor, and also has specialized training in drug and terrorism interdiction, conducting drug investigations, and recognizing drug-impaired drivers.  He can be reached at

If you experience technical problems, please write to