police brutality / police excessive forceLast updated
Police brutality takes various forms, from harassment and intimidation to assault and battery, torture, and murder. Police brutality disproportionately affects Black and brown people. Mentioning racial disparities in police killings in related stories, and linking to a reliable source such as Mapping Police Violence, can help illustrate the scope of the issue.
Black-led publications have been reporting on police brutality against Black people since the early 1900s. In the 1960s, images of widespread police violence against demonstrators protesting the Vietnam War were televised. In 1991, a bystander videotaped footage of police brutally attacking Rodney King, a Black man, in LA, sparking debate about police violence. The police officers were later acquitted, leading to riots in the city. More recently, the police killings of several Black Americans has led to renewed activism by Black Lives Matter and antiracism demonstrators against police excessive force. By some accounts, the widespread uprisings of the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd and the killings of other Black Americans were the largest in US history.
It is rare for police officers to be prosecuted or convicted for excessive use of force. According to a 2021 CNN report, since 2005, at least 140 officers have been arrested on charges of murder or manslaughter and only 5 percent were convicted of murder.
When reporting on excessive use of force, especially against historically underserved populations, keep in mind that including overly graphic language and details can be gratuitous or sensationalizing. Similarly, including or linking directly to graphic images and video of police violence may be triggering or traumatizing. Using a high bar for when to include these types of media, and taking other steps — such as clearly marking an image as sensitive and linking to another news story that links to video, rather than embedding or linking directly to a video — can help avoid this.
Mentioning racial disparities in police killings in related stories, and linking to a source such as Mapping Police Violence, a project collecting comprehensive data on police killings nationwide to quantify the impact of police violence in communities, can help illustrate the scope of the issue. Precise language is important for a number of reasons, especially in breaking news situations: Murder has a legal definition, so saying an officer “murdered” someone before they have been convicted of that crime is not accurate phrasing. If an officer kills someone and is later removed from the police force, referring to them as a former officer in subsequent news coverage is the most accurate terminology. Finally, using what’s known as the “exonerative tense” — passive phrases like “officer-involved shooting” — is vague and can be misleading; it deflects accountability away from the person and institution responsible. Aiming for active language that centers the party committing the action is important for clarity. (See the “Ten Essential Tips” editorial tool for more.)
- NABJ Offers Guidance on Coverage of the Tyre Nichols Murder Footage (NABJ)
- How racist policing took over American cities, explained by a historian (Vox)
- Police Excessive Force (American Civil Liberties Union)
- Police Brutality in the United States (Britannica)
- Officer-Involved: The Media Language of Police Killings (National Bureau of Economic Research)
Police brutality is the use of excessive force against people by law enforcement. It disproportionately affects Black and brown people. Mentioning racial disparities in police killings in related stories, and linking to a reliable source such as Mapping Police Violence, can help illustrate the scope of the issue. Aiming for active language that centers the party committing the action is important for clarity.
Updated June 13, 2023, to include guidance about “exonerative tense.”