“Officer-involved shooting” – what does it mean when people try to mislead you?

Headlines beginning with “officer shoots _________” attract unwanted attention. Passive, beige language encourages us to move on because there’s nothing to see here.

Something happened last night. Any idea what it was?

Officer involved shooting euphemism

Hmmm. Okay. There was apparently a shooting.And an officer was “involved.” What does that mean? Did the officer do the shooting? Was the officer shot? Was the officer recording it with an iPhone? Was the officer shouting instructions to the shooter?

And who’s dead?


Let’s try another source.

Officer involved shooting euphemism

Ohhh. Why didn’t the first story just say so?

euphemasia – noun: the act of putting the truth out of its misery by cynically substituting an inoffensive expression for one that is considered offensive or damaging to the personal, political or economic interests of the party using the term. Also, the inverse, cynically substituting an offensive term for a benign one in order to achieve personal, political or economic ends.

In this case, the interests are those of law enforcement. The police have grown increasingly sensitive in recent years as the number of questionable shootings (and let’s include outright homicide in this) has skyrocketed. Many of these shootings have involved trigger-happy white officers and minority victims, and most all have resulted in unwanted media coverage and outraged public scrutiny.

In this environment, headlines beginning with “officer shoots _________” attract immediate attention and, in light of what we know about past shootings, a strong initial suspicion that the officer was in the wrong.

Cynical vocabulary engineers understand that if you can take something bad (specifically, bad for you or those paying you) and change the terminology describing it, it lessens the negativity with which said bad thing is viewed.

“Passed” sounds nicer than “died.” “Ethnic cleansing” doesn’t sound great, but post-Hitler it’s better than “genocide.” Getting “laid off” isn’t nearly as damaging financially as “getting fired.” “Negative outcome” sounds better in a project review than “failure.” “Collateral damage” is a tad less bloody than “we bombed a nursery.” “Friendly fire” is less suspicious than “shot in back by own troops.” And so on.

So to be clear, “officer-involved shooting” means “a cop shot someone.” The latter sounds very bad, while the former is so denotatively beige you might slip past the story entirely if you aren’t careful.

Which is good for the PD. And maybe bad for you, because it’s always good to perk up and pay attention when people in high places are using words designed to make you look away.

What’s less clear is why the “press” plays along. They have no particular vested interest in making the police look good, and in our current social context they actually have a motive to stoke controversy. “Police shoot four year-old in back!!” just about guarantees clicks, doesn’t it?

Media outlets have a lot fewer resources than they once did, of course, so time-strapped reporters content producers probably just run with the official statement more than is strictly healthy.

In any case, an officer was involved in a shooting close to my house last night. I may investigate the story further if there aren’t any spicy Karsadhian/Tristan/Jordyn stories to distract me…

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