Cop-speak copy­cats

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE -

ack in my days as a news­pa­per ed­i­tor, one of the on­go­ing bat­tles was keep­ing re­porters from adopt­ing the jar­gon used by the peo­ple they were cov­er­ing.

In other words, jour­nal­ists should write for the reader, not the peo­ple they are writ­ing about.

We are los­ing the fight in the me­dia, es­pe­cially with those talk­ing heads on TV who love to turn news into “break­ing news.” Our craft is slowly be­ing hi­jacked by lazy crafts­men who re­peat rather than re­word.

For ex­am­ple, take the phrase “ac­tive shooter.” What’s an “in­ac­tive shooter?” Doesn’t “gunman” say it bet­ter?

Lingo such as “ac­tive shooter” is a sta­ple of law en­force­ment that is ea­gerly copied by breath­less on-air types, and has seem­ingly be­come part of our na­tional vo­cab­u­lary.

Cops can com­mu­ni­cate any­way they­wish. But that doesn’t mean re­porters have to use cop-speak.

“Ac­tive shooter” was coined by some bu­reau­crat in the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity. The of­fi­cial def­i­ni­tion, among other things, on the DHS web­site states that “in most cases, shoot­ers use firearms.” Huh?

Sup­pos­edly, that means peo­ple caus­ing havoc with knives or bombs, such as the two ter­ror­ists at the Bos­ton Marathon, can of­fi­cially be “shoot­ers.”

The overuse of the term by re­porters has even al­lowed the cre­ation of a new in­dus­try: A com­pany is Dal­las sells “ac­tive shooter” in­sur­ance, which in­cludes burial ex­penses. The firm’s motto might well be “Keep Your Head Down; We’ve Got You Cov­ered.”

Po­lice spokes­men use all kinds of words and phrases that shouldn’t be rou­tinely re­peated by me­dia types. Among them: • “Male” or “fe­male.” Cops of­ten say they are seek­ing a male or a fe­male. Why not a “man” or “woman?”

• “Male ju­ve­nile” or “fe­male ju­ve­nile.” Ac­tu­ally, “boy” or “girl” uses fewer key strokes and the reader or lis­tener will get the same mes­sage. Save “ju­ve­nile” for when a mi­nor has been ar­rested and charged as such.

• “Party” or “par­ties,” such as in “party of in­ter­est.” A party of in­ter­est should be a so­cial event with chips and dip.

• “Sus­pect,” “al­leged” or “al­legedly.” Th­ese are the most overused and mis­used words in the me­dia. Both print and elec­tronic new­shounds and ed­i­tors are equally guilty. Lawyers love “sus­pect,” but “sus­pects” do not hold up banks or kill peo­ple. Rob­bers and mur­der­ers do that.

If per­pe­tra­tors (now there I go) are ar­rested, only then do they be­come sus­pects in the crime. It is un­likely po­lice really have time to search for uniden­ti­fied sus­pects. They are too busy seek­ing real cul­prits.

• “Po­lice sit­u­a­tion” or “ac­tive sit­u­a­tion.” When the talk­ing heads learn that more than two cops have re­sponded to the same lo­ca­tion at the same time, they echo a po­lice term and call it a “sit­u­a­tion.” Ob­vi­ously they don’t know what is go­ing on so why not say so?

• “Po­lice ac­tiv­ity.” Same as above. Per­haps the “ac­tiv­ity” is the depart­ment’s an­nual pic­nic or Christ­mas party — a real “party,” that is.

• “In­ci­dent.” Even a triple mur­der can be an “in­ci­dent” in cop­s­peak. But that is not in­ci­den­tal.

Next time some­one on TV says “po­lice are look­ing for an al­leged sus­pect,” change chan­nels. And throw an ac­tive party for your adult male and fe­male

friends. Dick Hilker (dhilker529@ is a re­tired Den­ver sub­ur­ban news­pa­per ed­i­tor.

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