Adam Toledo case proves why media outlets shouldn't uncritically amplify initial police statements on police violence

Police statements on killing of Adam Toledo were contradicted by later release of video

Body camera footage of the March 29 police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo appears to undermine the Chicago Police Department’s initial description of what happened. Yet early reporting on the shooting by national and local outlets continued the media trend of uncritically echoing the police version of events, despite repeated evidence that the police have lied or misled the public about police violence in the past. 

In the video, released April 15, it’s clear that Toledo was not holding a gun and had his hands up when he was shot by officers; Toledo appears to have been holding an object that police say was a gun, tossing it aside before putting his hands up. The video contradicts the police department’s initial claim that an “armed confrontation” had occurred. A city prosecutor also previously argued in court that Toledo “had a gun in his right hand as he turned toward the officer.” The prosecutor was placed on leave following the release of the video, and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office claimed he “failed to fully present the facts” of what happened.

The media have long relied on police statements as a credible source in the aftermath of police violence. Recent events have shown that this is a problematic tactic worth re-examining in the case of police-enacted violence, as evidence continues to reveal the frequency with which police departments lie or mislead about the facts regarding police brutality. The Chicago Police Department itself has a lengthy history of “unpunished & systematic police lying.”

In addition to using passive language to describe police officers’ actions after violence, national and local media outlets tend to present the news through the lens of the police version in initial reports, which can sanitize the police brutality and ultimately protects officers who have committed violence. In a similar case, early local media coverage of the killing of Breonna Taylor, who was shot by a Louisville police officer in a mistaken no-knock raid in March 2020, branded her a suspect in a narcotics investigation, uncritically accepting the police version of events though it turned out to be untrue.

In Toledo’s case, many outlets uncritically boosted the claim that Toledo was killed in an “armed confrontation” and suggested he was holding a gun when he was shot. Some outlets were more egregious than others in labeling Toledo as armed without noting that the descriptor came from police, while other outlets attributed the “armed confrontation” language to police in headlines but still spread this description without questioning it or noting the department’s history of lying.

National media

An April 2 CNN headline quoted the Chicago Police Department claim that Toledo was killed during an “armed confrontation”: 

CNN headline: "Chicago police shot and killed a 13-year-old boy in what the department says was an 'armed confrontation'"

ABC similarly covered the shooting on April 2:

ABC headline: "Chicago police fatally shoot 13-year-old boy during 'armed confrontation'"

On April 1, USA Today repeated the police version of what happened: 

USA Today headline: "Chicago police officer placed on administrative duty after fatal 'armed confrontation' with 13-year-old boy"

Local media

A Chicago Tribune article published April 1 began by stating that Toledo was “fatally shot by a Chicago police officer early Monday during what police said was an ‘armed confrontation.’”

Screenshot of Chicago Tribune text

Local Chicago outlet Fox 32 referred to Toledo as an “armed person” in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, failing to attribute the “armed” language to the police. The March 29 article — which did not identify Toledo by name — referred to him as armed twice before noting the police source in a third mention.

Police shoot, kill armed person in Little Village; another arrested

The headline of an April 1 Chicago Sun Times article on the community’s demand for the police to release video footage of what happened said Toledo was killed “in what police called an ‘armed confrontation.’”

Chicago Sun Times headline: Mayor, community call for release of video after 13-year-old boy killed by officer in what police called an ‘armed confrontation’

NBC 5, a local Chicago television station, reported on April 2 that according to police, one of the “men” pursued by officers, referring to Toledo, “had a gun and was shot in the chest during an armed confrontation with police.”

Video file