The Fake Fight, the Injured Officer, and the Forgotten Fable

In the wake of a high-profile case in which a black teen was apparently beaten by an arresting police officer, an Indianapolis African-American minister decided that a simulation of an arrest situation might be revealing. James Harrington, a pastor at Mt. Vernon Missionary Baptist Church, asked Police Sgt. Matthew Grimes to speak at an anti-violence symposium, but he had a surprise for the officer. Harrington had arranged for actors to stage a fight in the crowd—a test, Harrington said later, of Grimes’ response to a fight between two black men. Grimes attempted to break up the faux fight, and seriously injured his back.

Social scientists stage false situations to acquire information on human reactions to certain situations, but they do this under strict ethical regulations, ensuring that the mental, physical and emotional health of the subjects are never in peril. Even then, such simulated situations are risky, and may cross ethical lines. What Harrington did, however, is indefensible by any standard. Simulated violence is very close to real violence, and the two can become indistinguishable at any time. Inviting a police officer to over-react to an altercation is dangerous to the fake fight participants, unfair to the police officer, but most of all, dangerous to those who may need assistance for real. Police have many factors to worry about when responding to a problem, and “Is this real or a simulation?” is an added issue neither they nor society needs.

The city’s Police Chief, Paul Ciesielski, has said that charges may be warranted against the actors, the pastor, and maybe his church, though it has disavowed the pastor’s conduct, which was not discussed with the church officials. Police are angry that one of their ranks was hurt responding to a lie. Rev. Harrington, as one might expect from the kind of person so disrespectful of police that he would do something like this, is unrepentant.

So many of our basic ethical principles are embodied in fables, fairy tales, parables and myths, yet increasingly schools and parents ignore them. The Indianapolis incident shows why these stories are still relevant and useful. Either Harrington never read the applicable classic tale, has forgotten it, or willfully ignored it. The fable, one of Aesop’s best. is about how the essential bonds of mutual trust in a community can be destroyed by selfishness, disrespect, and dishonesty.

It is called “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

5 thoughts on “The Fake Fight, the Injured Officer, and the Forgotten Fable

  1. Rev. Harrington crossed the line, for sure.

    As a point of clarification, there is little trust between the Black community and the police. The selfishness, disrespect and dishonesty you speak of are on both sides of the equation. And, to be honest, were it not for video cameras the police would deny, deny, deny every occurrence they are responsible for.

    • Agreed. I don’t know how you feel, but it sure seems to me that the tensions in this area (police relations with the African-American community) are the worst they have been for decades. Add an increased tendency to defy police authority (the beating incident in Indy began when a brother got involved with his younger brother’s arrest), and I see the potential for urban violence. The pastor’s stunt is indeed a symptom of something much deeper, on both sides, and toxic distrust.

  2. Jack, I agree with your take on this, though an additional point occurs to me. What does the reverend’s so-called test prove? If Officer Harrington did not use the same level of force as the officers involved in the case in the news, that could be cited as evidence that those officers had in fact used excessive force. If, on the other hand, Harrington had used the same (or greater) level of force, then that could be cited as evidence that the police are obviously out of control.
    The “test” should have been a no-go on pragmatic grounds as well as ethical ones, because it didn’t really prove anything, nor could it have. All the reverend did was to muddy the waters of an already divisive more than they already are.

  3. Video is a great tool for getting to the truth, but it is not perfect. Images of an incomplete event or taken out of context can lead to faulty conclusions. That said, more often than not, they lead to truth. My experience has been video exhonerates more police officers than it condemns.

    As for Harrington and the faux-fighters, they should be criminally charged for the false report and civilly liable for the officer’s injuries.

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