Copspeak: Seven Ways Journalists Use Police Jargon to Obscure the Truth

(Screenshot: KHOU11)

Copspeak: Seven Ways Journalists Use Police Jargon to Obscure the Truth

The close relationship between reporters and police is often marked by diffusion of language from the police PR team to the front page. In the wake of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, here are some examples of how "copspeak" -- or jargon used by police departments -- is internalized by journalists covering police violence, and how it affects the public's perception of crime and police brutality.

1. "Officer-involved shooting"

Probably the most popular and most frequently criticized example of copspeak, "officer-involved shooting" is a textbook example of what Robert Jay Lifton called a "thought-terminating cliche." It describes an act of violence without assigning blame and is almost never used for when a police officer is the victim, only when the police have shot someone -- justified or not.

By describing an event alongside the person who did it without connecting the two, "officer-involved shooting" vaguely alludes to what happened without the emotional response this would normally evoke. "Such phraseology," Orwell wrote in "Politics and the English Language," "is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them."

On Sunday, Houston CBS affiliate KHOU (7/10/16) framed a police shooting:

Man Killed After Officer-Involved Shooting in SE Houston

Beyond the term "officer-involved shooting," this headline is still opaque to the point of inaccuracy. The man in question wasn't killed after an "officer-involved shooting" he was killed in an officer-involved shooting. The causal relationship between the two isn't made clear at all, nor is the responsibility for the death clearly ascribed to the officer. We routinely see this rhetorical pretzel employed to obscure killings by police.

After police are shot, a headline like "Police Officer Killed After Civilian-Involved Shooting" would seem risible. In such cases, journalists generally describe what happened in straightforward terms, as with NBC News (5/25/15):

A New Orleans housing authority police officer was shot and killed while sitting in a marked patrol car Sunday morning, according to police.

"Shot and killed" has far more clarity than "civilian-involved shooting": One says who did the killing, the other obscures who exactly did what to whom.

2. Passive and segmented language

Media also obscure responsibility in police shootings through the use of passive language. A continuation of "officer-involved shooting," passive language takes a simple act (someone shooting a person) and turns it into a convoluted muddle.

Take the initial reporting of the Mike Brown killing. The headline of this report from Fox's St. Louis affiliate (KTVI, 8/9/14) didn't even bother to mention who did the actual killing:

Teenager Shot, Killed in Ferguson Apartment Complex

Was it by a friend? A gang member? Did a gun go off on accident? The headline gives no clue. The first paragraph was even more tortured:

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.

Even in the opening paragraph, there's no indication of who shot whom. There could have been a shootout involving a police officer and someone else, with this third party accidently killing Brown. It's entirely unclear--by design.

3. "Suspect/subject"

Those who've been arrested, shot or had any interaction with the police are routinely referred to as "suspects" or "subjects"--terms that prejudice the reader by conveying a sense of criminality before the details of the case are known. Baltimore police detained Freddie Gray for a relatively trivial charge of possessing a knife -- an arrest prosecutors later deemed "illegal" -- but he was repeatedly referred to as a "suspect" after it was revealed he sustained fatal injuries in police custody.

  • "Police say the video doesn't show officers using excessive force, but they do suspect the suspect was brought to Maryland Shock Trauma with injuries." --CBS Baltimore (4/13/15)
  • "The suspect ran, and police caught him, he said." -- Baltimore Sun (4/14/15)

Here a man is arrested on a petty and illegal charge, shoved into a police van and brutally injured, and he's referred to as the "suspect." Note that the police officers -- who would eventually be indicted after Gray died from his injuries -- are not referred to as "suspects," despite that fact that someone was killed in their custody. "Suspect" is a subjective description of prejudice, told entirely from the police department's perspective.

4. "Officials/sources say..."

Frequently, journalists will present leaks obviously from the police as some type of neutral analysis by attributing them to "officials" or "sources." One of the sloppier versions of this device was from the New York CBS affiliate last year (WCBS, 4/14/15) after supposed violence from Black Lives Matter protestors:

Source: 2 NYPD Officers Assaulted During Protest Over Police Violence

Sources said two officers were injured Tuesday night, as police clashed with demonstrators on the streets of Brooklyn in a protest against police-related deaths and violent incidents throughout the country....

Sources toldCBS2 one off-duty sergeant was assaulted on the Brooklyn Bridge....

Sources said when his vehicle was blocked by protesters, he got out and a verbal argument ensued with several demonstrators. Then, someone punched him in the face, sources said....

Sources said police late Tuesday were still searching for those who attacked the officers...

Who are these "sources"? The NYPD or its police union, obviously. But if the story had been entirely sourced to the NYPD, it would have read like a press release. It's fair enough to let the NYPD's public relations team give its version of events, but it should be clearly labeled as such instead of presented as a Deep Throat-like insider revealing troubling information.

5. "Juvenile"

The term "juvenile" is used almost exclusively in the context of youth crime, giving police and uncritical media an opportunity to criminalize children or teenagers. This piece from the Washington Post (9/25/15), for example:

Two Juveniles Are Accused of Setting an Oxon Hill Playground on Fire

Two juveniles are accused of setting an Oxon Hill playground ablaze in a fire that produced columns of black smoke that could be seen for miles Thursday afternoon....

Why not use the value-neutral "children" or "teenagers"? How is one supposed to tell the difference between a nine-year-old and a 17-year-old? Everyday language meant to delineate different ages is blurred into the catch-all "juvenile."

This technique was infamously used by the Baltimore Police Department during the April 2015 protests following the death of Freddie Gray, when the department tweeted, "There is a group of juveniles in the area of Mondawmin Mall"--a declaration retweeted and referenced uncritically by several media outlets:

What they failed to mention at the time, as did most media, was that the "juveniles" in question were students who go through Mondawmin Mall every day--it's the main bus hub for thousands of students. By using the term "juveniles," the Baltimore police and those who recited their tweet as neutral information turned an everyday occurrence in West Baltimore into a menacing activity in urgent need of martial crackdown.

6. "Discharged weapon"

"Discharged weapon" is another pseudo-official way of passively saying a police officer shot at someone. The recent killing of Alva Braziel in Houston provided a recent example, when Reuters (7/10/16) reported:

Police discharged their weapons and Braziel, who did not fire any shots, died at the scene.

Did this "discharge" lead to the death? That connection is deliberately unclear: The way the incident was reported, an unspecified number of police officers "discharged their weapons" and afterwards Braziel happened to die at the scene.

7. "Altercation"

Like "clashes," "altercation" is a popular catch-all to describe any violent exchange between police and civilians. The term has long been criticized, being noted ten years ago as a best-avoided piece of "copspeak" by Doug Fisher, a former AP news editor and journalism professor at University of South Carolina:

Altercation: Press for specifics. Was it a fight? An argument? A shoving match? A shouting match?

One of the starkest examples of this euphemism's use came from the shooting of Walter Scott by a South Carolina police officer in 2015, as FAIR reported at the time (4/7/15). Before a video surfaced showing Scott being gunned down in the back as he ran away from Officer Michael Slager, local media were describing the killing as having taken place as a result of an "altercation" -- a term that implies parity of violence (WCSC, 4/4/15):

Police say an altercation then began between Slager and Scott, resulting in a fight for the officer's taser.

The local ABC affiliate (WCIV, 4/4/15) would drop the "police say" sourcing altogether and simply state the "physical altercation" as fact:

A man involved in a traffic stop that turned into a physical altercation with a North Charleston police officer died Saturday after being shot by the officer.

But the subsequent video showed no such "altercation"; rather, a police officer was seen gunning down an unarmed man in the back in a scene the Charleston chief of police later said "sickened" him. Using the vague phrase "altercation," local reporters perpetuate the misleading idea of a struggle between two evenly matched parties.

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