Arresting Tales

Why we shoot people in the back

The phrase "shot in the back" is highly charged, and usually connotes cheating or murderous intent.  The truth is, there are plenty of ways that a police officer can be perfectly justified in shooting a suspect in the back.  I mention this because of the recent shooting of Rakeem Nance.  In Nance's case, he was shot by an officer from behind, as he pointed a gun at another officer who was in front of him.

Dr. Bill Lewinski of the Force Science Research Center conducted a number of studies on different aspects of the use of force by police and armed suspects. In one study he showed multiple ways in which an armed suspect could be shot in the back by police:

"Why Is The Suspect Shot In The Back?"

Check it out.  Even better, if you've got a few minutes, check out these video demonstrations of suspect motions during armed encounters.  Maybe in a future post I'll talk about how something called "The Hollywood Factor" distorts how most civilians (and even many cops) view the use of force by police officers.  I've talked before about how an officer makes the decision to use force. While I get frustrated with  what I consider to be inaccurate or irresponsible coverage of police force incidents, I am also frustrated by my profession's apparent lack of success in explaining why and how we do what we do.
 
Sometimes I'll see a story that illustrates why many of us feel like "the media" has an anti-police bias.  Like this article about 16 year old Rakeem Nance.  Shortly after fleeing the scene of a home invasion, Nance was shot and killed after pointing a handgun at pursuing cops.  The article is composed of 11 short paragraphs. 8 of those paragraphs quote police sources and pretty much give the police account.  2  paragraphs identify the last school Nance attended, and where he was pronounced dead.

Here's the part I have a beef with.  It's the second paragraph (emphasis mine):

A Chicago police officer shot and killed a 16-year-old boy in the Lawndale neighborhood Thursday night after a the teen aimed a gun at officers, according to police.
 

But an autopsy Friday revealed the teen, Rakeem Nance, suffered a gunshot wound to the back and his death was ruled a homicide, the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office said.

What's wrong?  The way this is written, using "but" and "revealed", implies that the Medical Examiner's findings contradict the CPD account of the killing.  "And his death was ruled a homicide", presumably because the police shot this kid in the back, also makes it sound like the officers involved did something wrong or unlawful.  I don't think the average reader understands that the word "homicide" just means a person was killed by another person--it has nothing to do with the lawfulness of the killing.  Because of television and movies, most people use the terms "homicide" and "murder" interchangeably.  In other words, every justified police shooting that kills a criminal is a "homicide".

So, a casual reader who glances at this article might get this impression:

Chicago cops shot and killed a 16 year old boy.  The cops say the boy pointed a gun at them, but the autopsy revealed that those gun-happy cops shot that poor boy in the back.

Am I being touchy?

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5 Comments

dash said:

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No, you are not being touchy at all. I am amazed at how easy it is to misread media stories. I am always surprised, on the rare occasion that I actually know something about on the inside about what I am reading, that usually a word or emphasis is totally wrong. Is it bias, innocent ignorance on behalf of the reporter, or just the nature of things? I dunno. Probably a combination, but mostly just bad and lazy reporting. People take shortcuts and the writer in this case took the shortcut of not listening to police spokespeople. We all have a lens through which we view the world and we have to look hard to see around it sometimes.

I have a bias in support of our police, but I never understood the true def'n of homicide until you pointed that out. I think I would have been misled by this article.

Skylers Dad said:

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The thing is, it is so easy NOT to get shot by the Police if you follow just a couple of basic rules:

1. Don't break the law
2. Shut up and do what they say

Am I missing anything?

Edgar Garcia said:

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It just goes to show how easy it is for media outlets to massage/manipulate people's opinions through the "careful" use of wording.

Or... inadvertently.

Kathleen said:

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Wow, not at all touchy. That's exactly how I would've read that article. And shame on me, I'm a writer. I know exactly how manipulative we can be.

Thanks for the insight.

Grant Miller, Esq. said:

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As a former cops reporter, I see what you're saying.

The "but" is the most damning. Dropping it would have cut down on words - a reporter's golden rule - and implied nothing. Easy enough.

I understand your concern over the word "revealed." There are better words the reporter could have used. "Revealed" - like "admitted" - automatically acknowledges guilt or some conspiracy. Perhaps a better word would have been "showed." This is boring semantics, I know, but I've gotten into arguments with editors before over these types of things. I like to think I would have written it differently, but who knows.

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