It was, all things considered, just about a perfect night. While the United States continued immolating itself with a vice-presidential debate that provided no further clarity in a barroom-brawl election, Tuesday night also saw the Toronto Blue Jays taking a winner-take-all wild-card game in extra innings. That had never happened in these dramatic terms before—with an Edwin Encarnacion bomb of a home run. It was, if you were a Blue Jays fan—or even just a baseball fan who didn’t cheer for the Orioles—incredible.
Well, it was almost perfect. Denting the night: One can of Bud Lite beer, slung close to Baltimore Orioles left-fielder Hyun-Soo Kim, as he was making a catch in the outfield.
Let me start by saying that throwing this can was unquestionably, unconditionally, absolutely stupid. Society operates on rules so blindingly obvious that they don’t even need to be stated. People don’t drive past highway medians into oncoming traffic. We don’t go around knocking things out of people’s hands. Fans don’t throw things onto a pro sports field. Society works because of our implicit trust that people won’t do these things because we are people. We are not animals.
So it’s not totally surprising that Canadians (and beyond) became amateur CSI investigators, sleuthing for clues in the tape like it was the Zapruder film. And however much the Jays stirred national unity with their elation, the real unity has come from this heady hunt for someone who dared embarrass an entire fan base and country in front of the world. (Canadians cannot abide looking bad to the U.S.)
So when there had been no movement on identifying the person by the next day, that didn’t stop people across Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit from pronouncing that they had found the perp. This manhunt isn’t ideal—online shaming can absolutely ruin lives—but this is, frustratingly, human nature in 2016.
Time for the professionals in the police department to step in, right? Well, nearly 24 hours after the suds were spilled, they did…with a tweet offering the masses a picture of who they think is social media’s enemy. “Pls RT,” they begged.
No matter what this man may or may not have done, this is unacceptable.
Police must be held to a higher standard than to grant the already slavering social mob a target as a way to find information. If anything, this is the message that movements like Black Lives Matter have been urging for many hard years now: we ask a lot of police because they have an outsize role in our society. It’s why they get to carry guns. And if we are to respect them as our protectors, then we must have faith that they will protect us.
In this, Toronto Police Services failed in their mission by releasing the photo of the suspect on social media. Doing so was the equivalent of throwing Kobe beef into a pen of starving lions. And while yes, police departments regularly release photos of suspects in minor crimes, they are rarely already being sought by national, international and social media as public enemy number one—and if they are, it’s for terror, or murder, or a truly villainous crime. Here, TPS did not protect a man suspected of a dumb can-throwing so much as they stoked a raging fire with his grainy effigy.
It is important to say, too, that suspects are just that: suspects. Even if the police find this man, we do not yet know with 100 per cent certainty that he threw the beer. Suspects are not criminals; they are innocent, after all, until proven guilty. They remain deserving of our police’s protection. But because of social media, fuelled by a trusted institution like the police, his life will be in tatters anyway. (So too, likely, are the reputations of the other men and women whose crimes were to sit near the perpetrator that night.) (Update: The Toronto Sun has identified the man police are searching for. It’s unclear whether he threw the can.)
Remember: Newspapers have been wrong before—see the Boston Marathon bombing, where outlets ran with names and images of people whose sin that day was to flee a bomb. Police have been wrong before—see the arrest of Mark Hughes, the armed man who had nothing to do with the shootings in Dallas but who, with anxiety at a peak, was announced by Dallas’s police department as the main suspect. Social media has been wrong before. I don’t need to give an example for this one.
The police aren’t even the only institution to let us down Wednesday evening. The Toronto Sun offered $1,000 to anyone who could provide information leading to the suspect—a depressing low moment for journalism, offering money for a source on a relatively small-potatoes crime, and then offering the shade of its own credibility to the amateur vigilantes on YouTube and social media. Leave aside that this is a journalism outlet offering to pay for information—how can we now take seriously the gravity of any crime coverage that doesn’t meet their $1,000 barometer? What will we think of murders or rapes or assaults that don’t meet this apparent bar of worthiness?
One aside: It’s telling that it’s the beer can that has infuriated Canadians, when it’s also been alleged that fans hurled racial slurs at Kim and centre-fielder Adam Jones. Can we offer a little outrage there? No: We have assigned our priorities. A social-media manhunt for the man who did an unquestionably stupid thing. Also, if you can gin it up, perhaps spare some disdain for the racists.
When the fog of war lifts from this whole incident, and the investigation reaches its end, there is the hope that we will consider the wrongs have happened here. That was the case when officials and social media got it desperately, horribly wrong after the Boston Marathon bombing and the Dallas shooting—two incidents with far, far higher-stakes concerns. But it’s unclear we will. It is the tragicomic flipside of closely scrutinizing the police: the suspect pictured isn’t a person of colour or a woman, for whom we rightly question the cop tactics on, in the aftermath. But this is a police overstep, pure and simple. This is an ignorance of the mission of police: to protect and serve. And that affects us all.