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Community Perspective

The troopers, the press and the rhetoric of absolution

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You may have noticed that our police forces don’t shoot people any more. In fact, they don’t shoot at all. And they don’t have guns.

It used to be they shot people, back when they had guns. Later, they “discharged” their guns. But that was before the guns became “service weapons,” and they “discharged their service weapons.” Nowadays service weapons are “utilized.”

A recent dispatch from the state troopers says “five law enforcement officers utilized their service weapons.” It also reports a deceased man at the scene. We are left to deduce that the first event caused the second, because the troopers would rather not say they shot someone.

The News-Miner could help us wade through the euphemisms. It could just tell us straight. The headline could read: “Police shoot, kill armed man.” Six straightforward syllables. Instead we see: “North Pole man dead after altercation with police, troopers on Dale Road.”

For all we know from the headline, the “altercation” could have been an argument and the cause of death a heart attack.

But notice the syntax. There’s no actor. No verb. No one shot anyone. There was an altercation, and a man is dead, but just as with the troopers’ formulation, the causal action is tiptoed past.

Police departments coined another equivocal term, now ubiquitous: “officer-involved shooting.” Newspapers readily adopted it. It too communicates less, on purpose. The officer “involved” could be the victim in the shooting.

It is a rhetoric of absolution. The Columbia Journalism Review explains in an article titled “Stop using ‘officer-involved shooting.’’’ “If you don’t have a verb, no one is doing anything, so it’s impossible to assign agency.” A media analyst quoted said it’s “the linguistic gymnastics needed to report on police violence without calling up images of police violence.”

The AP style guide — the journalists’ bible — advises against this sanitization.

Back to Dale Road. For all we know, the officers behaved exactly correctly. But it’s hard to know because of how the information is being manipulated.

“Five law enforcement officers utilized their service weapons.” Does that mean all five fired their guns, or did some just draw them? We don’t know because of the troopers’ deliberately opaque language, and the newspaper’s one-source reporting. In the paper’s coverage, you get the troopers’ version, but you don’t hear from the man’s family or friends. You don’t hear from those who monitor racial profiling or police shootings.

Between the troopers and the paper, you don’t hear that the man killed was an Alaska Native, mentally unwell, and had three small children. You don’t hear how many officers fired their guns; how many rounds were fired (five? 50?); whether there are any recordings; when those recordings will be available; whether any of the officers have shot at people before, or been the subject of excessive-force complaints.

This information shouldn’t be suppressed, especially as we engaged a serious national conversation about police violence directed toward Black and brown people. Seeking this information doesn’t presume police impropriety. But when officers shot Jesse Peter on Dale Road, he was the third young Native man to die by police gunfire in Fairbanks in three years.

On Christmas Eve three years ago, police shot a suicidal Cody Eyre 23 times. Cody’s mother had asked the troopers for help. He was 20.

Kevin McEnulty, also intoxicated and distraught, goaded the police to kill him. Troopers shot him 13 times after he stopped pointing the gun at his own head and fired into the air. He too was a father.

It is proper for us to ask if these deaths were necessary.

Troopers delay releasing the names of the officers for three days. They pass the matter to the Alaska Bureau of Investigation and then decline to comment on an “active investigation.” This can take a long time.

In essence, the troopers get their version of events out to the public via a news release reissued by unquestioning reporters, and then set up an information embargo. For example, the troopers won’t say how many bullets were fired at Jesse Peter, whether there are recordings, whether the officers had killed before, etc.

According to research by the Anchorage Daily News, in the last five years at least 30% of the 43 people killed by Alaska’s police were Alaska Natives. Yet Alaska Natives make up only 15% of our population. That’s a problem. No statewide agency keeps track of this data. That’s a problem. The police agencies themselves investigated those 43 deaths. That’s a problem. Higher-up reviews relied on those conclusions, and no charges resulted. All this needs reform.

Dan O’Neill is the author of “The Firecracker Boys,” which deals in part with the political history of Alaska’s Indigenous people. He has previously written on police reform in these pages.

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