That the state of policing in the US is appalling is pretty much a given. Their propensity to use excessive, even lethal, force in situations that do not demand it, especially when they are dealing with poor people or people of color, has been well documented. They then close ranks, aided by prosecutors, to prevent any justice being meted out to the offending officers so that it is big news when a police officer is even fired or indicted, let alone convicted of a crime.
The Los Angeles Police Department used to have the reputation of being one of the most racist and corrupt police departments in the nation. I don’t know whether they are still that bad after the spotlight was turned on them a couple of decades ago but the Baltimore police seem to be making a challenge for that dubious title.
In April 2016, a 13-year-old boy was shot by officers of the Baltimore Police Department. The boy ran when faced with the police, so they gave chase. During the chase, the police spotted the boy holding a gun, and when he turned, they shot the teenager. The youngster wasn’t critically injured, and it seemed like an open-and-shut case of a justifiable use of force.
Now people are wondering.
The Baltimore Police Department is currently in court over one of the biggest scandals in the history of American law enforcement. The corruption case is replete with intrigue as police reveal secrets that sound like something out of an urban-fiction novel or a lost season of The Wire. It has revealed how one of America’s largest cities just happened to be filled with crooked cops, but no one seems to be talking about it outside of Baltimore.
And then there’s the revelation that the supervisor of the unit instructed officers to carry a toy gun just in case they found themselves “in a jam” and needed to plant one. When one of the officers, Marcus Tayor, was arrested, officials couldn’t figure out why he had a toy gun in his glove compartment.
Got that? The police supervisor advised them to carry a toy gun to get themselves out of a ‘jam’. What kind of jam might a toy gun be useful for? It is not hard to guess. When officers are challenged as to why they used lethal force on someone, they often defend themselves by saying that the victim either had a gun or was reaching for one. So how can they be blamed for mistaking a toy for a real gun?
Adam Johnson writes that the police are also adept at spinning the media using carefully chosen language to hide the atrocities and to absolve themselves of any responsibility by shifting the focus to some vague passive other.
The linguistic gymnastics needed to report on police violence without calling up images of police violence is a thing of semantic wonder. Officers don’t shoot, they are merely “involved” in shootings; victims are not victims, but “suspects” “fleeing”; human beings become premortem cadavers as bullets “enter the torso” rather than the chest of a person; guns and bullets act on their own as they “discharge” or “enter the right femur,” rather than being fired by autonomous individuals with agency and purpose. Headlines become 14-word, jargon-heavy tangles where a simple five-word description would suffice.
Johnson lists the following linguistic techniques used by the police, which he calls ‘copspeak’, and describes each one
- The Classic ‘Officer-Involved Shooting’
- Smearing the Victim
- A Vague ‘Altercation’
- Obscuring—or Omitting—Who Killed Whom
- Rogue Weapons
He also says that in the immediate aftermath of a shooting, the media use police statements as their main or only source of information. Since first reports are the ones that dominate and seal perceptions of what happens in the public consciousness, the police achieve their goal of getting favorable coverage even if later reports show that the ‘facts’ they presented were false and the reality was contrary to their initial claims. Governments use the same technique whenever they are faced with an embarrassing revelation, as I have discussed numerous times in the past.
Johnsons shows how all these linguistic techniques were used in the recent killing of 16-year old Joseph Haynes inside an Ohio courthouse. It is a chilling example of copspeak in action.
So next time you read of a police shooting, keep these things in mind before accepting the initial police and media versions of what happened.