Daily 49er

Police press releases tacitly push a distorted narrative

Police press releases are chock-full of implicit rhetoric.

Kevin Flores, Diversions Editor

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A firearm, a baton, a taser, and… semantics?

That’s right.

Although there’s no holster for it on a standard issue police duty belt, language is just as potent as any weapon police have. And the press release is the Glock 22 of police rhetoric, if you will.

To wit, let’s take a closer look at the press release that was disseminated by the Long Beach Police Department after officer Matthew Hernandez shot and killed unarmed student Feras Morad on May 27.

Whether or not the officer was justified in using lethal force in this situation rests on numerous yet-to-be-answered questions.

However, the subtle syntactic cues and word choices found in the press release seem to suggest a definitive narrative.

Words associated with the “suspect” in the press release include: intoxicated, violent, erratically, irrationally and threat.

Even though the press release concedes that only a preliminary investigation has been conducted, in the mind of the reader, Morad is the clear aggressor; the good guy, bad guy trope has been successfully set-up.

As the night’s events are described, sentences pertaining to the actions of the officer are all in active voice, “The officer observed a group… the officer told him he was there to help… the officer utilized verbal commands…”

But when it comes time to describe the shooting, the press release reads, “At that time, an officer involved shooting occurred.”

Poof. The agent of action has completely disappeared as a result of grammatical wizardry.

Public relations people at police departments don’t write this way by accident.

Political consultant William Schneider coined the term “past exonerative” tense to refer to this type of evasive wordsmithing.

In an article in The Washington Post, Radley Balko explains why this type of language is so insidious.

“The same police agencies engaging in linguistic gymnastics to publicly deflect responsibility for police shootings will inevitably be in charge of investigating the same officers for the same shootings.”

While the motivation for police departments to deploy this type of tactical language is clear, it’s especially shameful when the language is picked up by journalists, making police press releases the fulcrum of their stories.

One egregious example of this was when NBC was caught manipulating a video interview with Bob Garner, who witnessed the shooting of Morad. For the television broadcast, the audio of Garner describing the confrontation between the officer and the student was edited to fit the police narrative of Morad behaving violently.

Although Garner originally reported Morad was shambling toward Hernandez with his hands up, the audio was spliced together in such a way as to make it seem as if Garner simultaneously said Morad was doing so aggressively.

While the facts of what happened on that night are still not fully known, by the police press release being the prevailing narrative, Morad has had the shadow of culpability cast over him.

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