The Washington Post

The curious grammar of police shootings

You’re probably familiar with the weaselly way politicians tend to apologize when they’ve been caught red-handed. The most famous example is the use of the line, mistakes were made. Use of the passive voice in an admission of wrongdoing has become so common that the political consultant William Schneider suggested a few years ago that it be referred to as the “past exonerative” tense.

You’ll often see a similar grammatical device when a police officer shoots someone. Communications officers at policy agenies 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. Most police departments do this. But we can take a few recent examples from the Los Angeles Police Department. Here, for example, is how the LAPD describes a typical shooting that does not involve a police officer:

On February 10, 2014, around 6:10 p.m., the victim was in the parking lot in the 13640 block of Burbank Boulevard, to the rear, when he was confronted by the suspect. The suspect produced a semi-automatic handgun and fired numerous times striking the victim in the torso.

Note the active voice. We have a clear subject, verb, and direct object. Contrast that with how the LAPD has described a few recent shootings by LAPD officers:

When the officers arrived they were confronted by a Hispanic male armed with a sword. The officers attempted to take the suspect into custody by using a taser but it was ineffective. The suspect then ran towards the officers still armed with the sword and an officer-involved-shooting occurred.

May 2, 2014

The officer exited his police vehicle and began to give commands to the suspect at which time he observed Gomez was armed with a box cutter.  Gomez refused to comply with the officers’ commands and began to approach him, still armed with the box cutter.  The officer deployed his OC spray which did not appear to affect Gomez.  When the suspect continued to advance on the officer while refusing to comply with his repeated commands, an officer-involved shooting (OIS) occurred.  

April 28, 2014

While still in a position of cover, the officers encountered a male suspect who was armed with a weapon at which time an officer involved shooting occurred.

May 12, 2014

I’m not questioning whether any of these shootings were justified. I’m just drawing your attention to the language.

There was a particularly egregious example of this with the L.A. Sheriff’s Department last April. While responding to reports of a stabbing, LASD deputies shot and killed 30-year-old John Winkler. In an initial press release, the department said Winkler “aggressed the deputies and a deputy-involved shooting occurred.” Note that Winkler’s actions were put in the active voice, while the officers’ actions were put in the passive.

As it turns out, Winkler was innocent. He hadn’t “aggressed” the officers at all. Rather, he and another victim, both of whom had been stabbed, were running toward the police to escape their assailant. (The deputies shot the other victim, too.) The press release incorrectly assigned criminal culpability to an innocent stabbing victim, but carefully avoided prematurely assigning responsibility to the deputies who shot him.

One of my favorite examples came in 2011, after the DEA and local police burst into the home of an innocent family during a botched raid. During the raid, a 13-year-old girl was pulled from her bed at gunpoint. She vomited, had an asthma attack, and passed out. The family told a local newspaper that the agents then threatened to kill their dogs unless they stopped them from barking. The DEA later put out a press release apology with this quote from John P. Gilbride, the special agent in charge :

“We sincerely regret that while attempting to execute an arrest warrant for a member of this drug trafficking organization, the innocent McKay family was inadvertently affected by this enforcement operation.”

Inadvertently affected!

And while who was attempting to execute a warrant? The offending parties aren’t even mentioned. In fact, Gilbride so butchers the English language here, he nearly suggests that the McKay family conducted the raid themselves.

I bring all of this up because of a more recent example from southern Georgia. Last week, a deputy in Coffee County shot a 10-year-old boy in the leg. The deputy was participating in a manhunt for a robbery suspect who had earlier shot a police officer. Here’s how a report from Albany, Georgia TV station WALB described the incident:

The situation of how the child was shot remains unclear. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation in Eastman was called to investigate the shooting. Sheriff Wooten said a deputy, who was not named, was approaching the property when a dog ran up to him. The deputy’s gun fired one shot, missing the dog and hitting the child. It was not clear if the gun was accidentally fired by the deputy.

If a kid hadn’t been shot in the leg, this would be downright comical. No reasonable person would believe this deputy intentionally sought out and shot a 10-year-old. The most plausible scenario is that the deputy tried to shoot the dog, and mistakenly shot the kid instead. (It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a cop has mistakenly shot a citizen, his partner, or himself, while trying to kill a dog.) Perhaps he even mistook the kid for the suspect, or was startled by the kid. It’s less plausible, but still possible, that the deputy didn’t intend to fire his gun at all, in which case he’s still negligent for handling his gun in a way that caused him to accidentally fire it.

What isn’t remotely plausible is that the deputy’s gun jumped out of its holster, walked up to the kid, and shot the kid in the leg. Physics tells us that the gun could not have fired without some sort of intermediary action on the part of the deputy. Yet the sheriff’s explanation, at least the way the WALB reporter relays it, leaves open just that possibility.

All of this wouldn’t be much more troubling than your typical grammatical ass-covering by other public officials if it weren’t for the fact that (a) we’re talking about people getting shot and killed, and (b) in most cases, the same police agencies engaging in linguistic gymnastics to publicly deflect responsibility for police shootings will inevitably be in charge of investigating the same officers for the same shootings.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."



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Radley Balko · July 14, 2014