The Redding Police have killed again: this time at 3 a.m. during a traffic stop in downtown Redding earlier this week. What do we know? Few details have thus far been released, so we mostly just know that the police have killed someone.
That’s right. Killed. Definition: “to cause the death of a living thing.”
If my saying “the police have killed again” angers you, it’s maybe because you’ve swallowed whole the double-speak of law enforcement. Exhibit A: the press release on the shooting. which is a study in the usual law enforcement euphemisms.
It was titled: “Officer Involved Shooting”.
But please note that the officer was not merely “involved” in the shooting. He or she shot someone.
Keep in mind that if the officer had been the one who was shot, the title would not be “officer involved shooting”, despite the officer’s involvement. Instead, it would scream, “Suspect Kills Officer”; far more direct and to the point. Fewer euphemisms would be needed in that case as the intent would be to place blame clearly on the suspect. Not so with this press release, which is designed to shift our bias toward the police rather than against them before we even know what happened.
The RPD press release continues:
“Circumstances led to one officer discharging his firearm, striking the suspect.”
This very much reminds me of my big brother’s response when asked by our parents, “Did you hit your sister with the baseball bat?!”
Big brother: “I didn’t hit her! The bat did!” Had he been older and more sophisticated he could have said, “Circumstances led the bat to hit her!”
The bat hit her?!
“One officer discharged his firearm, striking the suspect”?!
Wouldn’t it be easier to say, “An officer shot and killed the suspect?”
And why is the person shot by the officer a “suspect”, rather than simply a “man”?
Why, to help legitimize his death, of course. He is suspected of what we don’t yet know, only that it was something that led to a traffic stop. It could have been speeding, a tail light out, a tree freshener hanging from the windshield, or something much worse.
The question is, was the cause of the stop , or the events that followed that stop, something that warranted a death sentence; a death sentence carried out without judge or jury, as every fatal police shooting is?
It is actually valuable to us that we don’t yet know the details surrounding the shooting. This allows us to focus on the language of the press release in a way that details will later muddle. After all , if we find out this was a “really bad guy” we won’t care as much if the police had legal reason to shoot him. If we find out he ran, or reached for his waist, or failed to follow orders, we will rationalize their actions quickly, partly because we have been primed to do so by their words, and by precedent.
But right now, before the whole story comes out, pay attention. Contrast the police’s words with my words. Really listen for intent. Watch how language shifts your mindset.
In an “officer involved shooting”, “one officer discharged his firearm, striking the suspect.” (RPD)
The police shot and killed a man while making a traffic stop. (me)
I want you to pick up on the nouns and verbs used, the passive and active forms of address, the ways in which language has been utilized to protect the powerful, crafted to distance the police from both the seriousness of, and the responsibility for, their actions.
And I want you to care. Because these words matter. The way the powerful speak does matter. And the police are powerful, so very much more powerful than most of us realize.