On Tuesday, April 18, 2017, three men were fatally shot in Fresno, California, by a man named Kori Ali Muhammad who was “already the subject of a manhunt in the death of an unarmed security guard last week.”
When a crime such as this one occurs, law enforcement has a difficult job, not just in regards to investigating the crime, but also when speaking out to the public about the situation. It is very important for law enforcement not to give wrong information about a case, especially this day in age when the level of trust in law enforcement is lower than normal. Police must avoid providing absolutes too soon until all details about a case are known; however, the public also demands information immediately and it looks poorly on the police if they don’t respond in a timely manner. This is why it is crucial for law enforcement to employ delicate wording in their public statements.
In reference to the shooting that occurred this week, police describe the incident as an alleged hate crime. Fresno Police Chief, Jerry Dyer, stated that
“one apparent motive in the downtown killings was that Muhammad had learned he was wanted in Williams’ death.”Dyer also stated that “investigators do not know what Muhammad’s religious beliefs are, but it doesn’t appear he targeted anyone based on religion.”
Use of the words “alleged” and “apparent/appear” may seem simple, but they hold an enormous impact on how the statements are perceived. Such wording allows law enforcement to avoid backing themselves into a corner. If instead the police were to say “it was a hate crime….the motive was this…he did not target anyone based on religion,” then they become accountable for the information they provided to be 100% certain. This is fine to say at a later time when all the evidence has been examined, but not as an initial statement about the incident. Not using words such as “alleged” and “apparent” presents a public statement as THEIR determination and requires admittance of being wrong if further evidence indicates otherwise. On the other hand, using such wording presents a statement as an objective view that can easily be dismissed if further evidence indicates differently. Solving a crime is stressful enough on law enforcement; cautious wording when addressing the public helps to reduce the additional stress of the public and media hounding them for what they say.
Cayla R. Nolder