In stories of police killings, the police should first of all be the subject of scrutiny. Instead, more often than not, they serve as sole sources and often virtual co-reporters.
ADAM JOHNSON FAIR January 30, 2018
The linguistic gymnastics needed to report on police violence without calling up images of police violence is a thing of semantic wonder. Officers don’t shoot, they are merely “involved” in shootings; victims are not victims, but “suspects” “fleeing”; human beings become premortem cadavers as bullets “enter the torso” rather than the chest of a person; guns and bullets act on their own as they “discharge” or “enter the right femur,” rather than being fired by autonomous individuals with agency and purpose. Headlines become 14-word, jargon-heavy tangles where a simple five-word description would suffice.
Last week, the case of Ohio Deputy Richard Scarborough shooting and killing 16-year-old Joseph Haynes inside a courthouse checked off nearly all the pro-police propaganda tropes:
1. The Classic ‘Officer-Involved Shooting’
The most overused of copspeak cliches, “officer-involved shooting”—or in this case, “deputy-involved”–appeared in headlines reporting Haynes’ killing:
“Teen Defendant Dead After Deputy-Involved Shooting Inside Franklin County Courtroom” (WBNS-10TV, 1/17/18)
“Mother of Teen Shot and Killed During Deputy-Involved Shooting Demanding Answers” (ABC6, 1/18/18)
The addition of “involved” to these headlines adds nothing, obscures much and takes longer to read. The first ought to say, “Deputy Shoots Teen to Death in Franklin County Courtroom” (9 vs. 11 words); the second could have been written, “Mother of Teen Shot, Killed by Deputy Demanding Answers” (9 vs. 12 words). These headlines would be more efficient with the added bonus of explaining what actually occurred.
The purpose of saying “officer-involved”—as others have noted before—is to obscure responsibility. A bizarre construction, it does not appear in other contexts. (Can one imagine the headline, “Man Dead After Gang Member–Involved Shooting”?) It’s a thought-terminating cliche, a ready-made assemblage of words that does the thinking for the reader in service of a political end—in this case, protecting the police from bad PR.
2. Smearing the Victim
The 16-year-old Haynes was referred to as a “defendant” (the complete summation of his position in life), and his juvenile record was mysteriously leaked to the press in a matter of hours after his death. Here, a local news station, 10TV, spends 30 seconds of a two-minute broadcast rattling off the victim’s priors, despite their having zero to do with what occurred in the courtroom that day:
As FAIR has noted before (3/4/15, 3/22/17), any dirt on victims of police violence seems to be made readily available to the media (most often by the organization responsible for their death, the police), while, as in this case, the identity of the officer “involved” is initially kept private—an arrangement that protects state institutions while pathologizes their victims as malevolents who had it coming. (Only the tail end of coverage later revealed Scarborough’s name, at which point he was praised for his “good work record”—AP, 1/23/18.)
3. A Vague ‘Altercation’
Frequently when a police officer shoots and kills someone, a department spokesperson claims there was an “altercation” that preceded the killing. “Altercation” is a term broad enough to span two parties yelling at each other to deadly combat, which is exactly the point. In this case, the police claimed Haynes’ killing followed an “altercation” of unspecified severity and symmetry:
“The victim’s hearing on a menacing with a gun charge was just wrapping up when family members and a deputy got into an altercation, [Chief Deputy Rick] Minerd said.” (CNN, 1/17/18)
“A 16-year-old boy was fatally shot by a deputy in an Ohio courtroom after an altercation involving the victim’s family, according to authorities.” (New York Post, 1/17/18)