About an hour after shots rang out near the end of a protest over police brutality in Dallas, the beginning of a mass shooting that left five police officers dead and nine people injured, the Dallas Police Department tweeted a photo of "one of our suspects," a black man in a camouflage T-shirt carrying an assault rifle.
His image was retweeted thousands of times and broadcast on live national television within moments.
But the police got it wrong. Almost immediately, several videos showed that the man, Mark Hughes, the brother of one of the protest’s organizers, was walking peacefully with a crowd when the shooting began. He turned in his gun to law enforcement officers shortly afterward.
Although Hughes turned himself in and was released later Thursday night, he said police never apologized. And even after another suspect was killed after a standoff with police, the police department so far hasn’t made clear on Twitter that Hughes was wrongly accused.
"I can’t believe it," Hughes said in an interview with Dallas’s KTVT:
"We received a phone call that my face was on there as a suspect, and immediately I flagged down a police officer," Hughes said. In an interrogation room, he said, police lied to him, telling him they had a video of him shooting and witnesses saying he shot a gun.
Hughes was released, but the department hasn’t publicly apologized. The tweet is still online, with more than 38,000 retweets:
This is one of our suspects. Please help us find him! pic.twitter.com/Na5T8ZxSz6— Dallas Police Depart (@DallasPD) July 8, 2016
There was ample evidence that Hughes wasn’t the person police were looking for. Minutes after the tweet was posted, Twitter users pointed out that footage from the Dallas Morning News showed Hughes wandering through a crowd in the video, gun at his side, as the shooting began — so there was no way he could have fired the shots. (You can see him below at the 0:19-minute mark.)
Another video, originally posted on Facebook, showed Hughes turning over the rifle to a police officer, looking at a piece of paper with a photo, and saying, "That’s me":
Video originally shared on Facebook shows man identified as a suspect by police surrendering his gun https://t.co/XTS3ExEq9u— Brandon Wall (@Walldo) July 8, 2016
Wrongly identifying a suspect in the wake of a chaotic, tragic event isn’t unusual. The most famous example was after the 1996 bombings at the Atlanta Olympics, when security guard Richard Jewell was identified in the media as a suspect after previously being hailed as a hero. It took months to clear Jewell’s name. Afterward, Jewell sued major media outlets, and the story has become a cautionary tale about the perils of wrongful accusations.
Hughes’s case moved much faster: He was identified and cleared within hours of the shooting. But the fact that video from a news outlet made people doubt his identification within minutes suggests that the Dallas police publicly identified him as a suspect — while press releases called him a "person of interest," a less loaded term, the official Twitter account went further — despite evidence to the contrary. By the time his name was cleared, Hughes’s face had been plastered across Twitter and television networks.
"At the end of the day ... it was persecution on me," Hughes said. "And I feel they need to do something about it."