WaPo blogger notes ‘grammar of police shootings’

A police involved shooting in Gaffney, South Carolina in January when a man had barricaded himself inside his camper and fired at officers before several returned fire and killed him.

A police-involved shooting in Gaffney, South Carolina in January when a man had barricaded himself inside his camper and fired at officers before several returned fire and killed him.

I stumbled on this blog entry through a tweet from AMU/APU criminal justice professor Mark Bond. The title reads, “The curious grammar of police shootings.”

I come to find out the post goes into detail about one of the all-too-common sightings I encounter as a cops reporter, a beat that thrives on rummaging through police reports.

In short, Washington Post opinion blogger Radley Balko points out that in most police agencies, the reports that are centered on officer-involved shootings have very different language than the typical “suspect shoots victim” scenario.

I can attest to that. Having covered a multitude of police agencies in my short four or so years of professional journalism, it’s clear that most agencies choose their words very carefully as an effort to not assign blame in police-involved shootings. A report might say something along the lines of: “as the suspect continued advancing forward, jeopardizing the safety of officers and others, a police-involved shooting occurred.” You’ll almost never see: “Sgt. John Smith shot and killed robber Joe Blow when he refused to surrender.”

I’ve even found myself trapped in the language debacle during interviews with police officials. I remember an officer-involved shooting in early-March when a Campobello, S.C. woman got behind the wheel of a police cruiser and a Duncan Police Department officer shot and killed her. I made a slip up when I referred to the woman as the “victim.” Not a second went by before the official corrected me to make sure I knew that the woman (now dead) was the suspect in this case.

From The Washington Post blog:

Communications officers at policy agencies are deft at contorting the English language to minimize culpability of an officer or of the agency. So instead of  …

. . . Mayberry Dep. Barney Fife shot and killed a burglary suspect last night . . .

You’ll see . . .

 . . . last night, a burglary suspect was shot and killed in an officer-involved shooting.

It’s a way of describing a shooting without assigning responsibility.

The deck (see Wikipedia//News Style) to this blog entry says it all: “Cops don’t shoot people but their guns do.”

It’s not a matter of assigning blame or arguing whether one police-involved shooting was justified while another one wasn’t, but it is an interesting observation to see the clear difference in the language used in such reports.

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