In the world of police officers and the instructors who train them, guns are not guns; instead, they are “systems” or “platforms.”
Likewise, weapons that fire 50,000 volts of electricity or high-velocity beanbag ammunition at people are “tools” that officers “utilize.”
And what does an officer see through two rifle scopes when he has focused them on someone, pulled the trigger and successfully hit his target?
“They’ll fire until that problem disappears from the sight picture,” says Ronald McCarthy, the 78-year-old police practices expert who was once a member of America’s first SWAT team in Los Angeles, formed in response to Civil Rights-era protests in the 1960s.
McCarthy’s comment, like those of several other officers, supervisors and instructors, came during testimony in the recently concluded murder trial for former Albuquerque police officers Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez in the 2014 shooting of homeless camper James Boyd.
The stilted, mechanical language is typical of jargon used by police officers across the country in reports and testimony. But when used to describe a police officer’s decision to use deadly force, it can also have the added result, intentional or not, of transforming a chaotic, emotionally charged scene into an abstract, formulaic equation.
Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina Law School who studies police shooting cases across the nation, said officers want to appear professional in describing shootings. That desire often leads to a rote recitation of procedure designed to simplify a fatal encounter down to muscle memory from officers’ training.
“Some of the language in use-of-force situations seems to neutralize the weight of using force,” Stoughton said. “For example, ‘I deployed a weapon.’ That’s a little neater and cleaner than, ‘I then shot two barbs into his back and then shocked him with electricity.”
Two weeks of testimony brought into public view the idiosyncratic vocabulary instilled in police across the nation through training material that describes officers’ experience in confrontations as “The Fog of War,” according to one of McCarthy’s training slides shown to jurors.
“Only those that have put their life on the line get to second-guess the soldiers on the field,” reads McCarthy’s training material.
A former police officer, Stoughton in 2015 published a Harvard Law Review article, “Law Enforcement’s Warrior Problem,” which specifically calls out New Mexico police training as contributing to a “warrior mindset” because it instructs recruits that citizens they interact with “will be mentally prepared to act violently.”
“Under this warrior worldview, officers are locked in intermittent and unpredictable combat with unknown but highly lethal enemies,” the article says. “As a result, officers learn to be afraid. That isn’t the word used in law enforcement circles, of course. Vigilant, attentive, cautious, alert, or observant are the terms that appear most often in police publications. But make no mistake, officers don’t learn to be vigilant, attentive, cautious, alert, and observant just because it’s fun. They do so because they are afraid.”
The flash-bang grenade Sandy tossed at Boyd to set off the chain of events that led to the shooting?
That was a “noise-flash diversionary device,” according to the testimony of one officer, who even used the passive voice to take the tossing out of Sandy’s hand, saying the weapon “was thrown in (Boyd’s) direction.”
But at the trial for Sandy and Perez, the shift from guns to platforms and from Tasers to systems did not apply to the two small pocketknives Boyd pulled out several times during his standoff with officers.
In the parlance of officers and their instructors, the knives were not knives; they were “edged weapons.”
Former Albuquerque Police Sgt. David Hubbard told jurors that he showed cadets in New Mexico a training video about surviving attacks by “edged weapons” because they’re not aware of the dangers a knife can pose. Special Prosecutor Randi McGinn, however, compared the video to a “slasher film” and said its depictions of violent encounters between police and citizens went too far.
Stoughton said that “language and presentation matters” in how people interpret information. Whether police vocabulary sways jurors’ decisions to convict or acquit officers, he said, is an open question.
“I think a jury is far more likely to believe an officer acted reasonably if an officer says, ‘I acted in the way that I did do to terminate an imminent threat to myself and other officers,’ than if the officer were to say, ‘That dude was coming at me — I had to shoot him in the face,’” Stoughton said.
Jurors deadlocked on whether Sandy and Perez murdered Boyd — nine said they didn’t, and three said they did.