“Officer-Involved Shooting” And Other Self-Serving Police Double-Speak

Image via newyork.cbslocal.com

Image via newyork.cbslocal.com

The killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, and the various incidents that have come to light since, have brought to the national attention an ugly side of our American policing community. However, there is a more insidious trend hiding behind the militarization of police forces and casual violation and dismissal of the rights of the citizenry, creeping in the shadows behind the flash and shock.

Let’s talk about “officer-involved shootings.” That is the formal term, used by virtually all American local news broadcasts, for when a cop shoots someone. It is pure pro-cop spin. Instead of saying “‘Cops’ crew member killed by police officer,” the headline is, “‘Cops’ crew-member killed after officer-involved shooting.” (It just sort of happened, spontaneously, after that shooting.) To a reporter or any other rational being, “officer-involved shooting” (and its less popular brother, “police involved shooting”) should sound as natural to the ear as “bear-involved large mammal attack.”

The two terms, now ubiquitous, appear to be very successful modern coinages. Neither phrase seems to have been in usage at all before the 1970s. Usage of “officer involved shooting” soared during the 1980s and 1990s, with “police involved shooting” not catching on until the 2000s. These terms are terrible, and nobody, especially not journalists, should use them. They are cop-speak. News reporters love nothing more than adopting cop-speak, because much of the news is built on manufacturing fear of crime and veneration of police officers, but both of these terms fail the crucial test of actually being clear explanations of what happened. Of course police would invent a euphemism for when they shoot people; they would be fools not to try to come up with a nice way of saying “we killed someone”! However, the press’ job is supposed to be to translate those euphemisms into plain English, to clear away any obfuscating double-talk and lay bare what happened minus any slant or modification.

“Officer-involved shooting” absolves the person who actually pulled the trigger of responsibility, turning the shooting into an apparently inevitable act. The officer was just involved! As Natasha Lennard at Vice News puts it, “The phrase ‘police-involved shooting’ is a careful construction, which, like the criminal justice system more broadly, tends to point blame away from cops. It is code for ‘the cops shot someone.'”

Where did the term come from? The LAPD has, for years, produced an annual “Officer Involved Shooting” report and has had an “officer involved shooting unit” since 1987 or earlier. I would not be surprised if the phrase made its way into the press’ lexicon via former LAPD chief (and racist paramilitary policing pioneer) Daryl Gates, a man who rarely shied from television cameras.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police, by the way, publishes “Officer-Involved Shooting guidelines”. The guidelines are not about how to avoid shooting someone, but more about what to do once you have shot someone. The entire document is sort of incredible in its careful consideration of the emotional and mental state of the officer, and its complete silence on the status of the person the officer actually shot. For example:

Following a shooting incident, officers often feel vulnerable if unarmed. If an officer’s firearm has been taken as evidence or simply pursuant to departmental policy, a replacement weapon should be immediately provided as a sign of support, confidence, and trust unless there is an articulable basis for deviating from this procedure. Officers should be kept informed of when their weapon is likely to be returned. Care should be taken to process and collect evidence from the officer as soon as practicable to provide an opportunity to change into civilian clothing.

So, according to this, it is vital that you give the officer his gun back as soon as possible, or else he might feel bad about shooting someone. It seems the writer of this document can’t imagine the idea that ending someone’s life is more traumatic than losing access to the means of that ending.

I can’t say this definitively, because, as we’ve learned this month, there is no national database of police shootings, but American cops seem to shoot other people far more often than people shoot cops. The number of police killed by firearms peaked in the early 1970s, and has steadily declined since. It hasn’t cracked 100 officers in any year over the last decade. Meanwhile, around 400 people a year are killed in “justifiable police homicides,” according to the only official numbers available for police homicides. (And that report doesn’t even pretend to be a complete account of everyone killed by police officers.)

“Police involved shooting” may not be quite as neutralizing a phrase as it was designed to be, simply because the majority of American shootings “involving” cops seem to be shootings by cops. What the data really seems to say is that the people who should be worried about violent events involving the police are not the ones with badges.


Jason Francis

Jason Francis is a red-state liberal, residing in the heart of Dixie where he gets to watch the train wreck of conservative politics up close and personal on a regular basis. He's lived in affluence and poverty, in both urban and rural settings, attended both public and private schools, and has visited most of the US at one point or another.

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