Scott D. Pierce: Local news must stop using the term ‘officer-involved’

It obscures the fact that an officer has shot someone.

On Sept. 21, KUTV-Channel 2 began a report with this sentence: “So far this year, Salt Lake County has seen 14 officer-involved shootings.” Which meant — what? Did officers shoot 14 people, or were 14 officers shot?

The report went on to make it clear that officers did the shooting, but why use the vague term at all? Why begin, as KSL-Channel 5 did on Jan. 8, with an even more vague statement about a “major police presence, swarming the area of an officer-involved critical incident”?

That doesn’t even indicate there was a shooting, let alone that an officer pulled a trigger.

“Officer-involved” has become a standard term used by both law enforcement and, often, the television stations, newspapers, websites and radio stations that cover them.

But it’s one that news consumers should wary of — and journalists should stop using. Intentional or not, it soft-pedals the fact that police shot someone.

And that is “dangerously misleading,” as Craig Martin, a law professor at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, wrote in 2015 in HuffPost, because it “serves to utterly obscure the role of the police officer ... and indeed who is doing the shooting at all.”

Martin effectively pointed out just how ludicrous the term is: “If a dog bites a child, we would not describe the incident as a ‘dog-involved biting.’”

According to research by the Columbia Journalism Review, the phrase likely was first used in media coverage in 1972 in Long Beach, Calif. A police detective was quoted in the Independent Press-Telegram saying that investigating “officer-involved shootings” was one of his duties

The Los Angeles Police Department had “apparently institutionalized” the phrase just two years later, CJR found, citing coverage in the Los Angeles Times. But according to the Police Data Initiative, “no national or standard definition exists” — different departments use it differently.

It’s “cop talk,” said Sgt. Spencer Cannon of the Utah County Sheriff’s Office. “I don’t know that we have a definition of it. … I think when you say ‘officer-involved shooting,’ an image automatically pops into people’s minds. And that image probably is not the same for every person.”

Sgt. Melody Gray of the Unified Police Department said it’s an internal term — used because it “triggers other protocols” within the department — that’s been picked up by the media. “It’s been around for as long as I’ve been a cop,” she said. “I don’t know what the original reasoning for it was, but that seems to make most sense to me.”

More recently, “officer-involved critical incident” has become more standard because, Gray said, because it encompasses “anytime an officer is involved in any incident where it results in a death or serious injury.”

But that, too, is a term without a standard definition that can mask use of deadly force by police.

On Dec. 18, FOX 13 reported, “A man was transported to the hospital after shots were fired in an officer-involved critical incident Thursday afternoon in Salt Lake City.” All four local TV stations used the phrase “officer-involved” in reporting that shooting — and if the police can’t define the term, how can news consumers?

Julie Moos, executive director of the National Press Club Journalism Institute, wrote that the term “adopts law enforcement language and masks important details, including: Who shot whom?”

Some reporters may not be aware that they’ve fallen into a trap. They’re human, and they pick up the description because that’s the way officers and department spokespeople talk.

And police don’t see it as an attempt at obfuscation. “Are we doing it to try to minimize the severity of the actions taken by a deputy? I don’t think so,” Cannon said. “We’re not going to use language because it makes one of our people look like they didn’t do anything wrong when they did.”

Gray added: “The reality is that the officer is still being investigated for homicide, regardless of what we call it.”

But it’s not just harmless jargon. The danger — the point that viewers, listeners and readers need to keep in mind — is that the use of “officer-involved shooting” and “officer-involved critical incident” can not only downplay individual uses of deadly force by police, it can normalize it. It may make the fact that almost 1,000 Americans have been shot and killed by police in the past year, according to The Washington Post, seem somehow more palatable.

This is particularly important to members of the Black and Hispanic communities, who are killed at rates much higher than white Americans. In recent months, journalists have been working to correct inequities in coverage, and banning the use of “officer-involved” is one step in the right direction.

While The Salt Lake Tribune used the term more routinely in the past, while it still may slip through at times, more recently we’ve tried to avoid it — except in direct quotes and in the names of police teams assigned to investigate after an officer shoots someone.

But I believe there should be no mistake about it: When journalists use “officer-involved” in their own descriptions, they are doing public relations work for the police.

This is not difficult. Instead of reporting, as KTVX-Channel 4 did on Sept. 17, that “one man is in the hospital after an officer-involved shooting,” try this — “One man is in the hospital after he was shot by a police officer.”

That’s not making any sort of judgment about whether the shooting was justified. It’s not injecting politics or ethics. It’s a statement of fact.

So the solution is simple. TV news reporters and anchors should state the truth, with no spin from police departments.

That’s what news consumers should expect.