2nd Place Scholarship Award
Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
Janosch Delcker is a journalist from Berlin, Germany, covering politics, inequality, and globalization.
Currently, he is an ERP Fellow / M.A. candidate at Columbia Journalism School in their M.A. politics program.
Previously, he worked as a staff reporter for SPIEGEL Online and Deutsche Welle (DW). Publications include SPIEGEL Online, DW, The New York Times, ZDF, Deutschlandradio, rbb Inforadio, Die Tageszeitung (taz), European Voice (The Economist), and Idealist agazine.
In 2014, he released the documentary “The Hidden,” about hidden homelessness in the European Union. His 2010/11 online video series “Urban Observations“ was awarded with the Mulert-Award for Mutual Understanding by the German Fulbright Alumni Association.Janosch holds a B.A. degree in Literature, Music, and Media from Humboldt-University Berlin (2009), and a Master’s Degree from New York University (2011).
He has lived in the United States for several years, one of them as a recipient of the Fulbright scholarship. Also, he is a graduate of the prestigious 18-months broadcast journalism fellowship (“Volontariat“) at Deutsche Welle (2012/13), Germany’s public international broadcaster.
Police brutality has made headlines in the United States and in Germany. After the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, mainstream media has started to pay close attention to the issue of racially motivated policing. It was about time.
Misconduct against the mentally ill, however, remains underreported.
Cases of overwhelmed policemen who shoot people with psychiatric disorders may get reported. Only rarely, however, journalists ask why these incidents happen.
Ten minutes after she walked into a Texas police station to ask for help, 17-year-old Kristen Coignard was dead. Coignard, who suffered from a mental illness and was on a regular medication, had rushed at two officers with a butcher knife. They shot her five times.
This incident from late January, 2015, bears uncanny resemblance to what happened a year and a half earlier, more than 5000 miles away.
In Berlin, on the bright, shiny morning of June 28, 2013, a call went over the police radio: A man sat in a fountain next to the city’s famous TV tower. He was naked, had a knife with him and was bleeding from a wound at his neck.
Minutes later, nine police officers surrounded the fountain. One of them stepped into the knee-deep water, weapon brandished, and tried to talk to the disturbed man. Suddenly, the man got up, and walked towards the cop.
“Knife down,” the police officer yelled, “knife down.” Then he immediately shot him into the chest. The man, later identified as Markus F., died on the scene. He had suffered from schizophrenia. Before the police arrived, he had told a bystander he was the Messiah.
In both cases, a mentally ill person was shot to death because an overwhelmed police officer was unable to cope with the situation. In both cases, the media reacted similarly.
First, breaking news outlets and wire services ran the story. Simultaneously, videos of the incidents (surveillance footage in the case of Kristiana Coignard, a cell phone video in the case of Manuel F.) went viral on YouTube. Then, traditional media picked up the story; after a few months, magazines ran longer reports, trying to explain what’s behind the incidents.
Around four months after Manuel F.’s death, German weekly ZEIT, for instance, published an investigation into the case. Similarly, American People magazine ran a story about Kristiana Cougniard a month after she was killed.
Both reports focused on the mental illness history of the victim. This is an important aspect, but it only tells half of the story.
None of them asked why the police officers decided to fire the deadly shots; why the police officers felt they did the right thing when they pulled the trigger.
Police officers can’t just shoot a person. Political theory tells us that the police have the right to use violence only if it is legitimate. To understand police brutality means understanding, why police officers consider violence legitimate in a particular situation.
This is the crucial question, and the majority of news outlets fail to ask it. There seems to be simple reason: Newsrooms are not willing to invest the necessary time and resources.
Looking into a victim’s past is a fairly easy job for a reporter, and people love to read those stories. They are the low-hanging fruit. However, investigating why a police officer, who had been trained in what’s known as “Crisis Intervention,” decides to shoot a person who is apparently not responsible for his or her actions is more difficult.
In both the United States and in Germany, there exists the unwritten rule of a “blue wall of silence.” Many police officers do not report on a colleague’s misconduct, and they certainly do not like to talk to reporters.
This should be no obstacle – investigative journalists are faced with walls every day, and it’s part of their job to break through them. But it takes time. It means building up bonds of trust; going for lunch and drinks with police officers; becoming a part of their world, and understanding their world and mindset. When it comes to misconduct against the mentally ill, there has apparently been no outlet that was willing to assign a reporter to that beat.
Newsrooms have begun to devote large resources on investigating racially motivated police brutality. This was long overdue. Now it’s time to invest similar resources into investigating police brutality against people with psychiatric disorders.
Police misconduct is a great threat to democracy, and it’s a multifaceted phenomenon. As journalists, it is our job to pay attention to every aspect of it.