Bonnie Sweeten, Ashley Todd, Jennifer Wilbanks, Susan Smith, and Charles Stuart are a few of the more well-known names in a long history of "racial hoaxes," in which a white person hurts themselves or someone else (usually a family member) and blames an imaginary person of color (most frequently a black man) for their crime, hoping that institutional racism, its narratives and stereotypes, their own privilege, and the prejudices of other whites will allow them to successfully deflect suspicion onto a nonspecific person of color. In the worst-case scenarios, real people matching conjured police sketches are detained—and innocent people have been punished because of these elaborate, racist lies.
It's bad enough when it's just some random asshole pulling this shit. It's even worse when it's a cop.
Thank Maude he was stupid enough to get caught. I hope the department will immediately launch a comprehensive review of his cases—complainants should be contacted to see if they were helped as they should have been; suspects should be interviewed to see if they were mistreated; especially black complainants and suspects—because any white cop who's fucked up enough to shoot himself and blame it on a black man should strongly be suspected of having scapegoated or in other ways inappropriately targeted and/or unfairly treated people of color on the job.
Randi Kaye, CNN Correspondent (in voiceover): It was 4 in the morning when Philadelphia when the radio call came in: cop shot. A white police sergeant said he'd been shot by a black man. Officers responded in force—an all-out search of the African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia's 19th Precinct, where Sergeant Robert Ralston said it all went down.
Kaye (on camera): The sergeant told the story this way: He'd come across two black men along the railroad tracks on the morning of April 5. One ran away, he said; the other pointed a silver revolver at his head. He knocked it away, he said, but it fired anyway, and the bullet grazed his left shoulder. He also said he fired one shot, but wasn't sure if he'd struck the suspect.
Kaye (in voiceover): Police gave thanks their man had survived. Tragedy averted, they said. The white cop described the shooter this way: Dark skin, braided hair, and a tattoo next to his eye. But police never found the black shooter or anyone matching that description. And now, more than a month later, we know why. The real story? The two black men the cop said he encountered never existed. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey says Sergeant Ralston made the whole thing up.
Charles Ramsey, Philadelphia Police Commissioner: It was clear to us soon after it took place that this simply was just not true. Just the evidence just didn't support the story he was giving.
Kaye (in voiceover): But wait: what about the sergeant's shoulder wound? The commissioner says Sergeant Ralston actually shot himself, which may be why, he said, he got off one shot at the suspect—an explanation as to why his gun had been fired.
Ramsey: A test was run on his shirt. The powder on the shirt matched the same kind of ammunition we use in the department.
Kaye (in voiceover): That's right—the gunpowder on the sergeant's shirt was the same kind his own weapon used. And there's more. The angle at which the bullet struck him didn't square with his story either, says the commissioner. We tried to ask Sergeant Ralston to explain, but, outside his home, he dodged our cameras and ducked inside.
Unidentified male (offscreen, as Ralston walks by into his house): Can you tell us why you did that, sir?
Kaye (in voiceover): Neighbors called the sergeant's actions a sad statement.
Brawly Joseph, neighbor: I can't believe he would really do something like that. That's really uncalled for. He—ever since I've been living here, he's really been, like, antisocial around this area.
Kaye (on camera): What's still unclear is why Sergeant Ralston, a 21-year veteran of the force, would make up such a wild tale. Only after hours of interrogation, police said, did he finally admit he shot himself on purpose. The police commissioner says he may have done it for a job transfer or maybe for attention, but that the sergeant didn't give a reason.
Kaye (in voiceover) The police commissioner calls this a, quote, "terrible and embarrassing chapter in the department's history."
Ramsey: The fact that he stated that two African-Americans were involved in this, again, just, I think, inflames tensions in our community—something that we certainly do not need.
Kaye (in voiceover): Sergeant Ralston has been suspended with pay. The commissioner says he will be fired. He was given immunity in exchange for his confession, so he doesn't face criminal charges. But he'll have to pay for the massive manhunt to find his phantom suspects. Cops are still adding up the cost. The days of calling Sergeant Robert Ralston a hero and crediting his quick actions for saving his own life, long gone. Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.