Policy corner: Reporting news of police killing a person

Among the reasons the killing of George Floyd by a police officer was such explosive news in 2020 was that what was revealed on video - Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes - was not what police first said about it.

The Minneapolis Police Department news release on the case was headlined, "Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction." "Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress," the release said later.

A similar situation occurred in the death of Laquan McDonald in Chicago. Chicago police did report immediately that they killed a 17-year-old boy, because he was armed with a knife, they said. Not until more than a year later, when video was ordered released, did the public learn Officer Jason Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times.

These and other cases making national news have informed how we in the media report killings by police - and even headline them. It turns out here in the suburbs, we've had quite a few of such killings lately. The police, it also turns out, have been straightforward in telling us about them.

We don't want to hide the fact that police killed someone, such as by using jargon like "officer-involved shooting" (that means what exactly?). We also want to reveal as many circumstances surrounding the killing as we can. Maybe the killing was justified, maybe it wasn't, but we want the facts out there.

On May 29, Fox Lake police said two officers killed a man who lunged at them with a knife. In the previous week, we had two killings by police: One in an exchange of gunfire that police said followed a chase in Kane County, and the other when a man armed with an ax threatened officers, according to police.

Notice that in even the brief descriptions of the recent few cases, I'm attributing to the police themselves. We did not witness the shootings, and in such cases we're rarely able to talk to all the parties ourselves - plus we haven't seen video or any other such evidence, though police cite bodycam footage in one of the cases above - so we're relying on the official reports so far. We are reluctant to declare the circumstances as absolute fact without attribution, because what if there turns out to be more?

We aim to practice this thinking even in headlines, too, such as when we wrote, "Authorities: Man killed by Fox Lake police had been wielding a knife."

Overall, we want to be as straightforward as we can about what's being reported, whether police are or not, but we also want to acknowledge when what we're reporting is only what authorities are saying at a given time.

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