Reporter's notebook

Can you spot the similarities in these news items?

WDRB: “LMPD: Suspect dead in officer-involved shooting near Lassiter Middle School”
WLKY: “Coroner: Victim in officer-involved shooting died from self-inflicted wound
WHAS: “LMPD ID 2 officers involved in shooting at Gene Snyder, Brownsboro Rd”
WAVE: “Death of man in officer-involved shooting ruled a suicide
Courier-Journal: “Authorities are investigating a domestic dispute that led to an officer-involved shooting around 8 p.m. Sunday in Elizabethtown.

Reporters’ use of the phrase “officer-involved shooting” isn’t exclusive to Louisville. Considering the frequency with which local and national reporters use the phrase, you would think it’s in the Associated Press Stylebook (it’s not).

We were curious about the origin of the phrase, so we searched for it in the Lexis-Nexis news database. Its first use by journalists that we could find was in a 1980 Associated Press story, “Four Injured in Bizarre Shooting Incident,” that refers to the Officer Involved Shooting Unit run by Lieutenant Charles Higbie. According to author Joe Domanick, former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti described Higbie as withholding “information for hours, days, or weeks” and “impeding [our] investigations.” Garcetti and former judge James Albracht also told journalist Roger M. Grace that Higbie regularly interfered with the district attorney’s investigations of police shootings. It’s clear that the purpose of Higbie’s team was to obscure, not clarify, the truth about police shootings, which is why his team had such a doubleplusgood name.

Police shootings — particularly of unarmed black people — are in the news frequently around the country, so it’s no surprise that searches for the phrases “officer involved shooting” or “police involved shooting” bring up almost 400,000 total results on Google News. A particularly egregious example comes from KTVI in St. Louis, reporting on Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson last year:

A shooting in Ferguson has tensions riding high between residents and police. Saturday afternoon, a police involved shooting occurred at the Canfield Green apartment complex in the 2900 block of Canfield. A teenager was shot and killed. An officer from the Ferguson Police Department was involved in the shooting.

We aren’t the first to notice the media’s uncritical use of this peculiar phrase. In July 2014, the Washington Post’s Radley Balko observed that “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.”

Alex Pareene, currently of Gawker and formerly of Salon and The Dish, addressed this in September 2014:

(“Officer-involved shooting” and “police involved shooting” 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.

The examples given at the beginning of this article could have been easily rewritten to avoid this “obfuscatory euphemism.” For example, the WHAS headline could have been “LMPD IDs officer who shot man at Gene Snyder, Brownsboro Rd.” The C-J’s opening sentence could have been “Authorities are investigating a domestic dispute that ended with an Elizabethtown police officer shooting a suspect twice.”

We asked the reporters who wrote the stories linked at the start of this column to explain why they chose to use “officer-involved shooting” in their work. The ones who got back to us simply referred us to higher-ups; of those, only The Courier-Journal’s executive editor, Neil Budde, and WLKY’s news director, Andrea Stahlman, provided us with comment.

Budde told us in an email that the phrase is not part of the C-J’s style guide.

“I’d agree that ‘officer-involved shooting’ feels like cop-speak to me,” Budde wrote. “Better to spell it out clearly.”

Stahlman said she wants her reporters to actually describe what happened instead of using the phrase “officer-involved shooting.”

“Say ‘officer shot suspect during a pursuit,’” Stahlman suggested as alternatives to the phrase. “Or ‘a suspect shot an officer.’”

Along with “mistakes were made,” “collateral damage,” “enhanced coercive interrogation techniques,” and other responsibility-dodging euphemisms, “officer-involved shooting” ought to be shunned by journalists. In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell warned us about the “sheer cloudy vagueness,” which powerful people must necessarily use in their language to defend the indefensible. Perhaps politicians and their lackeys can justify using that type of specialized jargon, but there is no justification for journalists faithfully parroting it.