“Officer-Involved” Obfuscation

Police use bloodless language like "officer-involved shooting" to cover up the blood on their own hands.

A group of LAPD officers near the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, in 2010. (Chris Yarzab / Wikimedia Commons)

When Eula Mae Love left the tiny, segregated town of Varnado, Louisiana as a teenager in 1953, she was beating a familiar path west, or so she must have hoped.

She traded a small southern town, seventy miles north of New Orleans, where mules tilled cornfields and a single street divided white from “colored,” for the cars and freeways of the cosmopolitan California metropolis. Love graduated from Compton High School and worked in the factories of Anaheim; she married, raised three daughters, and bought a small house in Watts, Los Angeles.

Back home, in 1965, nightriders murdered Varnado’s first black deputy sheriff — the kind of racist terror that Love and her family had fled. But contrary to the familiar plot, Southern California was no land of milk and honey.

In January 1979, Love was shot dead on her front yard by Edward Hopson (a black patrolman) and Lloyd O’Callahan (his white partner) as they escorted a gas company employee sent to cut off her service. When the eight bullets riddled her body, Love had a $22.09 money order for the gas company in her purse and a kitchen knife in her hand — or so the police claimed.

Initially relegated to a single paragraph in the Los Angeles Times’ Southland crime section, news of Love’s death soon spread, eventually growing into a cause célèbre in a city whose police had long claimed to be innovators in training, tactics, and technology. Protests erupted in outrage at the police violence that, more than a decade later, would also victimize Rodney King and spark an urban rebellion.

But Love’s death at the hands of police did more than just anticipate the 1992 uprising. One of its most lasting legacies is the phrase “officer-involved shooting,” which has metastasized from an arcane piece of LAPD jargon to a fixture in news coverage of police shootings across the country.

The Genesis of “Officer-Involved”

The phrase originated in the LAPD’s Robbery and Homicide division, which had long maintained an Officer-Involved Shooting Team to investigate cases where police fired on civilians. For years, it was confined to the Los Angeles police bureaucracy.

In the mid- to late-1970s, the term slowly infiltrated the Los Angeles press as police violence began to grab media attention. A variant first appeared in 1975, when the Los Angeles Times quoted a police spokesman declining further comment on a “police-involved” shooting of an unnamed and unarmed suspect in South-Central LA. The phrase “officer-involved” made its inaugural appearance in the city’s flagship paper two years later, following the killing of Ronald Burkholder, a white chemist and expectant father who was naked and unarmed when he was slain outside his lab (the officer who shot him claimed he had assumed a “martial arts stance”).

It was only after the Love case, though, that the term became commonplace. As Love’s killing developed into a scandal, the official description of her shooting entered the vernacular of the city’s press, presumably as reporters adopted the lingo of their official sources. The Sentinel, Los Angeles’s black newspaper, was one notable exception: though the publication followed the Love case closely, it appears the Sentinel never called it an “officer-involved shooting.”

The New York Times’ first use of the phrase appeared in a mention of the Love controversy — in scare quotes, as if it was an exotic piece of West Coast police jargon. Before long, however, national outlets had dropped the quotes, and “officer-involved shooting” was the purportedly objective way to describe incidents of police violence.

The phrase has real consequences for how the reading public understands police shootings.

Its passive voice obscures agency and avoids even the question of culpability; there is no action, only “involvement.” Its police origins give it a built-in bias, so when it circulates in the press, a police shooting, by definition a matter of power, becomes a question merely of procedure.

The query “was this shooting just or a criminal act?” becomes “was it in or out of policy?” Deeper questions — about the police’s political and economic relationship to the populations it serves, protects, or polices — are even easier to dodge.

Its clumsy evasiveness obscures meaning and denies the victims of such shootings even the slight dignity of victimhood. The person shot disappears into the phrase, swallowed up by the police spokesman’s pallid, passive-voiced, tortuous indifference.

The Love Case

The way police handled Eula Love’s death exemplified the post-shooting PR strategy familiar to any contemporary observer: deflect blame, assail the victim, and vow to investigate, but only internally.

The circulation of “officer-involved shooting” did the first quite elegantly. As for the second, Daryl Gates, the combative new chief of the LAPD, mocked Love as “the poor widow” in Watts who owed, he insisted, much more than $22.09 on her gas bill; O’Callahan called Love a “raging, frothing at the mouth, knife-wielding woman.” (Times reporters did their bit, describing Love in one lengthy profile as “unemployed and overweight” and “withdrawn and enigmatic” after her husband’s death from sickle-cell anemia six months earlier.)

And while one internal investigation criticized Hopson and O’Callahan, it also advised against any punishment for their “poor judgment”; Gates, meanwhile, permitted the implementation of some new protocols for post-shooting investigations, but successfully fought the independent oversight of the LAPD his critics were demanding.

The scandal of Love’s death was soon reduced to procedural questions about whether “risk of death” was properly “minimized,” whether her officer-involved shooting was “out-of-policy” or “in,” how to avoid adversely affecting “minority relations,” and how future officer-involved shootings might be handled more transparently.

There was little scrutiny of the spurious charge of deadly assault by the “knife-wielding” victim, which hinged on the police’s claim that Love was preparing to throw her knife (upon which no fingerprints were ever found). And in the end, there was no accountability: neither Varnado’s nightriders nor the Watts policemen were ever charged.

Ironically, the only time Eula Love’s first name was spelled correctly in the Los Angeles Times in these years was in that first perfunctory Southland report. The more urgent Love’s case got, and the more familiar her name, the more remote, the more purely symbolic, she became. Eula became “Eulia,” a “39-year-old black resident of Watts,” a PR headache for Chief Gates.

Today, the only photograph you can find of her online is a mug shot.

A History of Obfuscation

It’s easy to keep police brutality cases out of the public eye when few are watching. Protests make it more difficult.

The late 1970s were a tumultuous time in what was euphemistically called then, as now, “police-community relations.” Los Angeles police shot 142 people from 1977 to 1979, prompting congressional hearings in 1980. That same year, the Justice Department sued the city of Philadelphia and its mayor, the notorious ex–police chief Frank Rizzo, for police brutality that even the federal attorney general called “shocking to the conscience.”

Riots exploded in Miami in the spring of 1980; protests erupted in Baltimore after Ja-Wan McGee, a black teenager armed with a cigarette lighter, was gunned down by police; Kansas City was a “powder keg,” said Emanuel Cleaver, a black member of its city council.

In the last few years, the Black Lives Matter movement has again made police shootings an urgent political issue. Protesters have taken to the streets demanding accountability for cops and justice for their victims. And police have responded in an idiom of banalities and prevarications, often aided by the press.

Yet while protests are the impetus for increased media coverage of police shootings, they can also check the press’s unquestioning adoption of the police’s vocabulary — and perspective. Mike Brown’s murder in Ferguson in 2014 was only occasionally described as an “officer-involved shooting,” since mainstream reports on his killing were quickly forced to account for, and eventually became focused on, the protests that denounced it.

Scanning national newspaper archives for “officer-involved shootings,” one finds a litany of names of men and women whose deaths followed Brown’s, some of which became moderately well-known, like Tony Robinson last year in Madison, Wisconsin and Baltimore’s Korryn Gaines in July. More often, it is a roll call of the more obscure or forgotten fallen: those whose hashtags have faded as well as those who never really had one, like Richard Jacquez, an unarmed man shot in the back by San Jose police in 2015.

In its reporting on the Jacquez case, the Oakland Tribune reached out to a former San Francisco police captain for comment. His credentials, besides lecturing in criminal justice at a local college? He was “involved in an officer-involved shooting in 1989.” So redundantly involved, and yet so conspicuously uninvolved.

The history of police violence is a history of similar euphemisms, misdirections, and obfuscations. No modernist ever worked as hard as a police department to contest the coherence of meaning. But the Love case shows how, for the police, words really do matter.

When Gates reflected on the case years later in an interview, he turned not to the woman herself but to O’Callahan, one of the “officers involved” in her death, who had fallen on hard times after his retirement from the force and the commercial failure of his tell-all book. Indeed, while the bureaucratic phrase exonerated O’Callahan and Hopson, the real work it did was to make Love herself disappear. O’Callahan, Gates told the Times, was “just as much a victim of this tragedy as Eulia Love.”

Eula, that is.