In the summer of 1972, the Independent Press-Telegram published a long profile of eight homicide detectives in the Long Beach Police Department. In it, a reporter asks the detectives if they have any function beyond investigating murder. “A few,” one replies. “Such as cases involving attempted murder, officer-involved shootings, mayhem, assault with a deadly weapon, kidnapping, illegal abortion, wife beating, child beating, battery on police officers, common assaults, firing into an inhabited dwelling, and drawing and exhibiting a firearm in a rude and threatening manner.” It’s quite the quote, not least for this: it contains what is likely the first use of the phrase “officer-involved shooting” in a US newspaper.
The reporter might be excused for letting such an ambiguous phrase sneak into newspaper copy for the first time. By 1974, according to a Los Angeles Times story, the Los Angeles Police Department had apparently institutionalized the phrase, with a Lt. Bob Helder holding the title of “supervisor of the Officer-Involved-Shootings Section”—described as the “most sensitive, difficult job on the force.” A story the next year in the Times begins with the lede, “an unidentified man was shot to death by police.” That information was attributed to “a police spokesman [who] would confirm only that a ‘police-involved shooting’ had occurred.”
FROM THE ARCHIVES: ‘Officials say…’
“We can’t know for sure when it was first used, but it probably spread from the LAPD to other police departments around the country,” says Ben Zimmer, a lexicographer and chair of the New Words Committee at the American Dialect Society, which often uses large databases of digitized newspapers to track new words and phrases, and helped me track down the examples above. The phrase, which was largely absent from the lexicon until 1971, rises dramatically in use thereafter, according to Google n-grams. (The n-grams database draws on books, not newspaper archives, but provides supporting evidence of the phrase’s recent ascent.)
Over the next half century, versions of the phrase “officer-involved shooting” spread rapidly. Journalists stopped putting it in quotes. There’s no shortage of examples; see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. And those are from just the past few weeks.
Recently, in a widely read New York Times column, Wesley Lowery singled out the phrase as a “clunky euphemism” used to sustain journalism’s persistent objectivity myth. “Moral clarity, and a faithful adherence to grammar and syntax, would demand we use words that most precisely mean the thing we’re trying to communicate: ‘the police shot someone.’ ” And yet, in March, the Times published this lede: “An armed man who entered a Southern California church in between Masses died on Sunday after an officer-involved shooting, the authorities said.”
Months into this profound reckoning, news outlets still reflexively use ‘officer-involved shooting.’
WE ARE AN INDUSTRY OF STYLEBOOKS and conventions. We engage in fierce debates about the Oxford comma and the use of “over” instead of “more than,” and even visibly flinch at “impact” used as a verb. As an industry, we are now capitalizing the B in Black, ending mug shot galleries, and reckoning with the consequences of a lack of diversity on coverage of racism and police violence. These are hopeful—and overdue—signs of progress.
Yet months into this profound reckoning, news outlets still reflexively use “officer-involved shooting.” In the 2015 essay “An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar,” published in McSweeney’s, Vijith Assar described the phrase as the “ultimate in passive voice,” an example of the past exonerative tense—so named, Assar writes, “because culpability is impossible when actions no longer exist.” In 2015, Craig Martin, a professor of law at Washburn University, argued it is time to kill the term. In 2018, Adam Johnson, writing for fair about “copspeak,” decried “the linguistic gymnastics needed to report on police violence without calling up images of police violence.”
In September 2016, during #APStyleChat on Twitter, someone asked: “Speaking of police jargon, does AP offer guidance on ‘officer-involved shooting’?” The AP Stylebook account replied: “We don’t have a style rule on officer-involved shooting yet but we are discussing it.”
— APStylebook (@APStylebook) September 13, 2016
In 2018, I asked the AP about how those discussions ended, and was referred to the AP Stylebook, where “officer-involved shooting” was added in 2017 as a reference in the “Clichés, jargon” section, within the category “POLICE AND COURTS,” and only as an example of what not to do: “Police say an intoxicated person of interest suffered self-inflicted gunshot to his left foot in an officer-involved shooting after being pulled over…” The stylebook didn’t—and still doesn’t—include an outright stricture against the phrase, which the AP has recently used in headlines.
Asked to clarify whether the 2017 addition represented a style-rule change, Lauren Easton, the AP’s global director of media relations and corporate communications, wrote in an email to CJR: “While formal entries have more prominence and often more detail than examples included in the jargon and cliches entry, the intent is the same: Avoid the term. We make many updates throughout the year every year and it’s to be expected that some updates aren’t as widely known or remembered. AP may consider a separate entry on the term ‘officer-involved.’ ”
THE ANATOMY OF THE PHRASE is worth exploring. “Officer-involved shooting” is a noun phrase. In more technical terms, it is a “deverbal” noun—a noun or phrase derived from a verb, which is where the problem arises: if you don’t have a verb, no one is doing anything, so it’s impossible to assign agency. A noun phrase strips the subject and object of agency.
“In the case of the verb ‘shoot,’ the way we tell who is doing the shooting and who is getting shot is by knowing which person is the subject and which is the object,” explains Claire Moore-Cantwell, assistant professor of linguistics at UCLA. “We don’t have a smooth way to take both the subject and object and put them in a noun phrase. There’s no way to say, ‘John police shooting.’ Any way we do it, you can’t tell who is the subject. You still don’t know who is doing the shooting.”
The most obvious alternative—“police shooting”—doesn’t fix the problem. It’s still ambiguity all around: Is the shooting by a police officer, or was it a police officer shot? A passive sentence makes the agent less prominent, Curt Anderson, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto Scarborough, writes in an email. “I think this is where the sense that the passive ‘exonerates’ someone might come from, at least in some cases; by rephrasing an active sentence like ‘a cop shot and killed a boy’ as a passive sentence like ‘a boy was shot and killed,’ the speaker can de-emphasize the contribution the agent, the cop, had in the shooting.”
There are more precise phrases. The Washington Post maintains the “Fatal Force” database, which logs “every fatal shooting by an on-duty police officer in the United States.” A recent AP story, published July 2, avoids the passive voice and decisively links subject with verb: “A Wisconsin police officer shot and killed a Black man on Thursday.” The headline is also unambiguous: “Wisconsin officer shoots Black man brandishing knives.” Such examples are a reminder that as journalists, we serve readers best when we tell stories straight, at the sentence level.
RECENTLY: Taking shots in Portland
This story has been updated to clarify the publication date of Assar’s column.
TOP IMAGE: Adobe Stock