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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Local View: Use direct language when police shoot someone

By Rheta Rubenstein
Published: June 22, 2024, 6:01am

In the last two weeks, Vancouver has experienced two “officer involved shootings.” What does this mean?

I recall when I first heard the phrase “officer involved shooting.” It was likely late March of 2019. There had been three killings by Vancouver police officers in under three weeks.

I had moved to Washington from Michigan in 2016 and I still felt like a “newbie.” I wondered . . . what is going on?

I attended an NAACP meeting near the end of March 2019 where James McElvain, then Vancouver police chief, was present. After the meeting he explained that these events were called “officer involved shootings.” I thought then, “What an odd phrase.” I have learned since that the phrase was first used in the 1970s by a California officer, but it has become standard nationally. Indeed, the abbreviation, OIS, masks responsibility even further.

“Officer involved shooting” undermines the public’s understanding of what exactly happened. Shooting someone dead is more than being “involved.” Journalist William Lowry has said, “Moral clarity, and a faithful adherence to grammar and syntax, would demand we use words that most precisely mean the thing we’re trying to communicate: ‘the police shot someone.’ ”

The phrase “officer involved shooting” mimics the passive voice which is a notorious stratagem for hiding an actor of bad results. It undermines the community from getting the accountability, transparency, responsibility, and honesty it deserves. Scholars have labeled this usage as “the exonerative tense,” because it exonerates officers. Journalists have argued about whether the journalistic objectivity which the phrase purportedly creates is ever possible.

Civilian misdeeds are not referred to as a “bystander involved incident.” Recently, in the June 8 case of Vancouver police killing of Vadim Sashchenko the phrase “officer involved shooting” is used but not “dog involved biting.” The OIS phrase is nebulous, gives cover, and can be interpreted as cowardly. In research comparing how people evaluate culpability when the phrase OIS is used or not, researchers found people more often feel that events described with OIS are justifiable.

I have learned many things since being spurred by those initial three killings. One is the concept of de-escalation. Minimally, in a crisis situation, officers must control themselves, take time, assess a situation, use distance, and take cover. Officers rarely do this.

Annalesa Thomas, a mother whose son was killed by police, has said repeatedly to legislators and others that police need more practice de-escalating than aiming a firearm. Data need to be collected at every OIS about the timing of the shooting in relation to the officer’s arrival.

Indeed, in 2018 the citizens of Washington voted strongly to pass Initiative 940. Since then, 15 people in Clark County have been killed by Vancouver police officers or Clark County deputies: Clayton Joseph, Michael Pierce, Carlos Hunter, William Abbe, Andrew Williams, Kevin Peterson Jr., Jenoah Donald, Kfin Karou, Luis Ku Huitzel, Donald Sahota, Joshua James Wilson, Jonathan Gale, Benjamin Steven Woods, Vadim Sashchenko and Jonathan West Nelson.

As I now realize, I-940 was just the first step of many we need to truly implement de-escalation and stop killings by police in our streets. As Carlos Hunter’s sister Nickeia Hunter has asked, “Why can’t a person be arrested? Why must they be killed?”

One part of the solution includes law enforcement, journalists, and all of us using more direct language to explain who did what when an officer of the law ends another person’s life.

Rheta Rubenstein is a retired professor of mathematics from the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She resides in Ridgefield and is a member of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability.