KANSAS CITY, Mo. – After a woman fleeing arrest was shot by Kansas City police for allegedly pointing a loaded gun at officers, an online frenzy peddling false narratives reminiscent of Ferguson began whipping up national outrage.
Unconfirmed rumors and outright falsehoods that the woman was unarmed and cooperative were instantly amplified by hasty, ill-informed news and social media – much to the dubious credit of an eyewitness who made false accusations about what the woman did.
The witness claimed the woman had her hands up – which was untrue, similar to the lie that gave birth to the Ferguson riots of 2014 after the police shooting of Michael Brown. Brown was later proved to be the aggressor.
The eyewitness to the May 27 shooting of 26-year-old Leonna Hale, a convicted felon, also told The Kansas City Star that Hale “did not pull out a weapon” on police, even though that statement has been refuted by every other account of the incident – including a screenshot image from a police body cam showing the woman toting a gun.
That evidence wasn’t enough to quell the hysteria: Anti-police zealots, aided by unskeptical journalists, still claimed that police faked the image. They noted that the picture was grainy, though that’s the case with the vast majority of still-frame photos taken from body cam footage.
Yet even liberal officials such as Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker – both of whom have done battle with the KCPD – moved to tamp down the unsupported claims.
“There were a lot of things being said almost immediately after this shooting, many of which were inaccurate,” Lucas told KMBC-TV. “Regardless of what rumors have been spread, the truth is she had a gun. The truth is, she did not listen to the [police officers’] commands. And the truth is that now she’s been charged.”
“From the beginning on this story, I think the highway patrol was at least suggesting, if not saying, ‘We have information that shows this,’” Lucas also said on KCMO Talk Radio. “Then later, it was ‘We have video of this.’ And there are folks that are still saying – folks with big platforms – that are still saying, ‘Well, can they ever really be believed?’”
Apparently not. After having joined with police advocates to cheer on KCPD’s addition of body cams the past few years, anti-police activists now say they don’t believe their own eyes.
“#LeonnaHale’s photo is altered,” one commenter, speaking for others, wrote on Twitter. “It is photoshopped. Wow. The government sanctioned thugs and killers will do anything to cover up their genocide of Black American men, women and children.”
“When the anti-cop activists get their teeth into a story like this, they’re not going to let it go because a lot of people will believe that the photo was photoshopped,” National Police Association spokesperson Sgt. Betsy Smith told The Heartlander. “You’ve got to stoke this hatred and distrust of law enforcement if you’re going to continue with the ‘defund the police, don’t trust police, police are bad’ narrative.”
Making the story even more sumptuous for the blame-the-police crowd was the allegation, soon proved untrue, that Hale was pregnant. The Rev. Timothy Hayes, a local faith leader who said he is working with Hale’s family, confirmed to the Kansas City Star that Hale was not pregnant at the time of the incident.
Thesource.com nonetheless promoted both untruths – that Hale was unarmed and pregnant – in the headline and lead sentence of its story covering the incident. The outlet has yet to issue a correction. “Kansas City police under investigation for shooting unarmed pregnant black woman,” the headline still reads.
After its initial incendiary article describing an unarmed pregnant woman with her hands in the air being shot “repeatedly” by police, Mother Jones published an “update.” It explained, among other things, that “body camera footage appears to show that Leonna Hale was armed,” and that Hale is now charged with unlawful firearm possession, exhibiting a firearm and resisting arrest. The “update” quotes prosecutor Baker as saying Hale “continually displayed a weapon during her encounter with police officers.”
The magazine’s “update,” which is in large measure a full rebuttal to its own, still online, article, appears below a standing advertisement that reads, “Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter.”
Toriano Porter, a columnist and member of the Kansas City Star’s Editorial Board, furthered the false narratives with a column in the city’s most-read news outlet. “Did Kansas City police shoot a pregnant woman? We need some substance, not cop speak,” the headline reads.
“If the woman was pregnant, tell us,” Porter wrote in the piece. “If so, what’s the condition of the woman’s unborn child? Did she have a weapon? Were body-worn cameras activated? Did dashboard camera footage capture portions of the encounter?”
All of the questions stemming from the eyewitness’ incorrect account have been addressed by authorities. Hale did have a weapon, was not pregnant and was not cooperative, body cam footage reportedly shows.
The Rev. Timothy Hayes, a local faith leader who said he is working with Hale’s family, confirmed to the Kansas City Star that Hale was not pregnant at the time of the incident.
But the kindling of false stories have already spread their smoke.
The left-wing site Democracynow.org piled on, publishing an article June 1 headlined, “Missouri investigates Kansas City Police Shooting of Pregnant Black Woman Leonna Hale.” That outlet also has yet to issue a correction.
When a large local news outlet such as The Star pushes unsubstantiated and inflammatory rumors in the aftermath of such a volatile situation, it only makes a combustible situation more explosive, says Brad Lemon, president of KC’s Fraternal Order of Police. It also makes police officers’ jobs more difficult and dangerous.
“I think one article in the Kansas City Star by Toriano Porter fed a narrative that went national in just hours,” Lemon told KCMO Talk Radio. “So I think it’s time for us to not only correct it, but to call out the people who are doing such a bad job in Kansas City of telling stories.”
When KCMO-radio host Pete Mundo asked Lemon if lawsuits are being considered in response to the false narratives repeated breathlessly by the media, Lemon said he’s leaving the door wide open.
“I think at this point everything is on the table,” Lemon said. “We will have to sit down with our lawyers. It’s clear all journalistic ethics were thrown out the window during this conversation.”
The Missouri State Highway Patrol is investigating the incident, as is protocol for officer-involved shootings. The full probable cause statement for Hale can be viewed here.
Police responded to reports of an armed carjacking May 27 around 8 p.m. Officers soon spotted a vehicle matching the license plate and description in the parking lot of a Family Dollar near 6th and Prospect with two people inside the car.
As officers approached the vehicle, the male driver got out and fled on foot before being caught later by officers. The other person in the vehicle, Hale, allegedly exited the car with a loaded gun and pointed it at officers while attempting to flee.
Officers responded by shooting Hale, a convicted felon barred from having weapons. Hale then tossed the handgun, which had “one live .22-caliber round in the chamber as well as two live .25-caliber rounds in the magazine,” the New York Post reported. Also reportedly found in the stolen vehicle was a Glock handgun and 23 rounds of ammunition.
Hale was taken to the hospital to treat her injuries before being booked into the Jackson County Jail.