Calling a Spade a Spade, or a Rubber Bullet a Rubber Bullet : NPR Ombudsman Last week's column elicited varying responses on how the media should identify projectiles used by police in crowd control situations. Here are staff and police responses, and some of the more thoughtful comments from readers.
NPR logo Calling a Spade a Spade, or a Rubber Bullet a Rubber Bullet

Calling a Spade a Spade, or a Rubber Bullet a Rubber Bullet

Last week I wrote that it's not accurate to call the rubber bullets, bean bags and other things police shoot for crowd control "non-lethal projectiles." I encouraged reporters to demand that police tell what it is they are shooting, and that more research is needed on just how lethal these things are. Even the emerging new technical term, "less lethal projectiles," while more accurate, is awkward and obfuscates more than it clarifies.

Here are some of the more thoughtful responses from readers, staffers, police experts and the Oakland, CA, Police Department, subject of the original NPR report.

Robert Garcia, executive director of Newscasts:

I must say, "less lethal" is downright awkward. It really is better if we can find out exactly what's being used, which realistically, is not always a readily available fact. I totally agree that governments should make police agencies be specific in this regard.

Sgt. Don Whitson, Fort Collins, CO, Police Department:

I testified last week as an expert witness in a police use-of-force civil rights trial in U.S. Federal District Court. I think we must take the terminology for granted. The plaintiff spent a great deal of time discussing the reasons why we use less lethal, rather than non-lethal, less-than-lethal, not lethal etc. But it does come down to the fact they are not designed to be lethal, but could be if used that way intentionally, or in rare cases, accidentally.

Oakland Police Department's chief of staff Sgt. Christopher Bolton said Oakland also uses the term "less lethal" when referring to this kind of force:

Our policy governs the use of these terms and distinctions. While "lethal" force is that which creates a substantial risk of causing death or serious bodily injury, "less-lethal" force is any use of force, other than lethal force, which by design and application is less likely to cause serious bodily injury or death. However, the possibility of an unintended lethal outcome, although very rare, exists. Less-lethal force includes the application of chemical munitions.

On Twitter

@katywaitt: @markfollman @SchumacherMatos I object to the term "non-lethal" and think we should demand the police and media stop using the term. #OWS

@OccupyPdx: @markfollman @SchumacherMatos The more proper term is "less lethal" but if you aim it at the head of someone 10 ft in front, that's voided.

@daudig (Dave Gilson, senior editor for Mother Jones): Weapons industry calls em "less lethal" MT @markfollman: "Non-lethal projectile" is false police-speak, says NPR ombuds

On the Blog

Henry Norr (hnorr) wrote:

Why not just say "projectile," without qualifying adjectives, until you could determine exactly what kind of projectile it was? Ms. Kahn said she wanted a term that was accurate and concise. Plain "projectile" is obviously more concise, and it avoids the misleading implications of the police-speak terminology.

Charles Brown (CharIes) wrote:

Wow. for once, I am going to stand up in defense of an NPR reporter. Under the circumstances that Mr. Schumacher-Matos seems to correctly describe, I cannot imagine what other term the NPR reporter ought to have used. The term "less lethal" is suggested as a technically more accurate term, but the Ombudsman comes back to the obvious point; it is really best if one can describe accurately the projectile in question (tear gas canister, bean bag, dowel, etc.), which is unknown in this case, apart from the fact that it was one of a family of crowd-control devices and not a bullet, a slug or a shotgun shell load.

I cannot ever recall more ado being made about less in relation to an NPR story. (Where so often much ado is made about nothing at all.)

Observe Reason (reasonedobserver) wrote:

However, in regards to defining "Non-lethal" projectiles, to use the terminology provided by law enforcement does not imply that NPR is attempting to "cover-up" the truth, but rather is using common terminology. That this same terminology is not used in Europe is irrelevant. We are not in Europe and must deal with American usage.

That said it is incumbent upon NPR to insure that full disclosure is provided once it is established.

Rather than resort to clumsy syntax, perhaps simply stating that the 'victim' was struck by a "projectile" used by riot control police might be the best initial way to state the occurrence, to be later followed by a specific description( e.g rubber bullet, fired tear gas canister etc.) of said projectile.

It is nonetheless NPR's responsibility to be as accurate as possible.