Stop Saying “Officer-Involved Shootings”

by Alex Pareene

SLUG: ME-Ammo DATE: August 23, 2007 CREDIT: James M. Threshe

Let’s talk about “officer-involved shootings.” That is the formal term, used by seemingly all American local news broadcasts, for when a cop shoots someone. 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, after that shooting.) There is also “police involved shooting,” a term I first noticed being used by the local New York evening news team last May.

These terms are terrible and journalists should not use them. They are cop-speak. Local news reporters love nothing more than adopting cop-speak, because local news is built on manufacturing fear of crime and venerating of police officers, but both of these terms fail the crucial test of actually being coherent explanations of what happened. Of course police would invent an obfuscatory 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” – but the press’ job is supposed to be to translate those euphemisms into plain English.

“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.”

To a reporter, “officer-involved shooting” should sound as grating 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.

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Where did the term come from? The LAPD has, for years, produced an annual “Officer Involved Shooting” report (NYT) and has had an “officer involved shooting unit” since 1987 or earlier. I wouldn’t 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. (If anyone knows the actual origin of the phrase, please let us know:

The International Association of Chiefs of Police, by the way, publishes “Officer-Involved Shooting guidelines” (pdf). The guidelines aren’t about how not to shoot 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.

It is vital that you give the officer his gun back as soon as possible, or else he might feel bad, about shooting someone.

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 obfuscatory a phrase as it was designed to be, simply because the majority of American shootings “involving” cops seem to be shootings by cops.

(Photo: Montgomery County police officers qualifying at their indoor shooting range in Rockville, Maryland on August 23, 2007. For story on ammunition rationing due to the war in Iraq. By James M. Thresher/The Washington Post/Getty Images.)