The loathsome linguistic wriggle of 'Officer-Involved Shootings'
Police in the United States have fatally shot 455 people so far this year. The phrase they would use is that 455 officer-involved shootings occurred. That term is so ubiquitous that it even has its own acronym: OIS.
It’s vile to reduce the loss of a life to three euphemistic letters. However, it’s not the only strange language in many press releases from US police departments. Certain rhetorical devices are frequently used to deflect attention away from officers who shoot civilians. This language, often parroted in hurriedly-written news reports, aims to influence how we respond to the event.
Three linguistic sleight-of-hands are wheeled out with wearisome predictability. The first is suggesting the victim is to blame:
Choosing words like ‘resulting’ or ‘forcing’ may be subtle, but it minimises the officer’s agency. This phrasing is so prevalent because officers are trained to state that their life, or another’s life, was under threat. It’s their belief in this threat that usually makes their use of deadly force legal.
The second strategy is to avoid explicitly stating that a police officer fired the fatal shot:
‘An armed suspect fled the scene and was confronted by an officer who observed a firearm in his hand. The suspect was shot and transported to The Ohio State University Medical Center in stable condition.’
‘Deputies with the Crisis Negotiation Team along with SWAT Team members responded to the residence. While establishing a perimeter, deputies encountered the armed suspect, who refused to drop the weapon and shots were fired.’
“Shots were fired.” That’s the equivalent of “mistakes were made.” It’s a loathsome linguistic wriggle when used by red-faced politicians and publicists. It’s appalling to use about a death. However, it’s a way of reporting the shooting without assigning any responsibility to officers. In fact, in the second example they’ve almost managed to make it sound as though it was the suspect who fired those shots.
The third technique is to describe the gun as if it acted independently of an officer:
This is a reversal of the guns don’t kill people; people kill people rhetoric. Tragically, accidents do happen. But when police shootings are routinely couched in evasive language, it’s no wonder we balk at the absurdity of the most oblique ‘explanations’. Contorting a sentence structure to such lengths in order to distance individuals from their own actions engenders neither respect nor trust in the reader.
D. Brian Burghart, the founder of Fatal Encounters, a project to record the number of people killed by law enforcement, agrees. “The grammar of officer-involved homicides is Orwellian. It's amazing the gymnastics these cops and media will perform to make the officers passive actors in these dramas.”
One might wonder if awkward or cautious language is unavoidable when recounting such events. It’s clear, however, that police have fewer qualms about allocating blame when a civilian uses a firearm:
The active voice, the combative language, the emphasis on the number of bullets and the details of the resultant wounds are all intended to demonize the perpetrator and humanise the victim. It’s insulting that police statements rarely extend this privilege to their own victims.
Of course, we all do this, to a certain extent. We choose particular words to weave tales from our own subjective point of view. This spin is the raison d'etre of every PR department in every organisation. However, we should be able to trust law enforcement to set a better, fairer example. Thankfully, some institutions do. Philadelphia Police Department in particular uses admirably even-handed language:
Even more unusually, it publishes an index of officer-involved shootings. These measures to accept responsibility and improve transparency are simple yet symbolic. Such forthrightness puts to shame departments like Houston and Arlington that squirrel away police shootings under disingenuous titles like ‘Investigation into Incident’ and ‘Burglary in progress interrupted by patrol officers’.
Reasons for the public to mistrust US law enforcement are already innumerable. The absence of an official nationwide database of deadly force cases. The videos in which officers shoot people who are not a threat. The photos that prove officers lied about the actions of officer-involved shooting victims.
We all know that a bullet doesn’t leap out the barrel of a gun of its own volition. When law enforcement departments tie themselves up in shibari-style grammatical knots to imply that it did, they only undermine their own credibility even further. They are, metaphorically speaking, shooting themselves in the foot. Or, rather, the foot was struck by a bullet discharged from a gun.
About the author
Rhiannon Starr studies History & Philosophy of Art at the University of Kent. She has written for The Guardian and Culture24 and is working on the forthcoming arts magazine The Cusp.
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