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Theoretical Criminology

The Author(s), 2010


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Vol. 14(2): 155182; 13624806
DOI: 10.1177/1362480609351545

Legitimating police violence


Newspaper narratives of deadly force
PA U L J . H I R S C H F I E L D A N D D A N I E L L A S I M O N

Rutgers University, USA and Independent Scholar


Abstract
Newspaper coverage of police-perpetrated homicides may reflect
and promote public and official tolerance for police violence.
Interpretive content analysis was performed on 105 news articles
appearing in 23 major daily newspapers between 1997 and 2000
that center on incidents of deadly force. Using Thompsons (1990)
conceptual framework, patterns of ideological content were
identified and analyzed. Most articles, subtly drawing upon iconic
images of police professionals and vigilantes, cast victims of police
killings as physical and social threats and situate police actions
within legitimate institutional roles. Articles appearing after police
killed Amadou Diallo are less likely to demonize both police officers
and victims, partially reflecting efforts to frame deadly force and
police racism as systemic issues.

Key Words
crime news deadly force ideology police accountability
police violence

Dominant representations in the news media depict crime as an individual


moral failing, criminals as irredeemably dangerous, victims as innocent, and
police as honest and heroic public servants (Barak, 1994; Beckett, 1997).
Accordingly, attributions of evil and blame in homicide accounts promote sympathy for victims and a harsh response to offenders (Peelo, 2006). But the lines
between victim and offender can be blurry. Who, for example, is the victim and
who, the wrongdoer, when a police officer kills a criminal suspect in the line of
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duty? This article examines the specific manner in which news accounts assign
moral and legal culpability in such cases. We find that newspaper articles
employ various strategies of symbolic communication to construct images and
mobilize meanings that legitimize police violence. However, major events like a
sensational police killing can shift patterns of symbolic construction in police
violence news, even if only temporarily.
To cultural criminologists interested in ways the news media dehumanize
or delegitimate particular social groups (Ferrell, 1999) and reinforce injustice
and oppression in the realm of criminal justice (Cohen, 1972/1980; Hall
et al., 1978), news coverage of police violence is an interesting case. The
meaning of police violence is often highly contested (Cerulo, 1998; Kaminski
and Jefferis, 1998), requiring news crafters to negotiate between competing
narrative frameworks. Police officials tend to present deadly force as a
legitimate and necessary, though unfortunate, procedural response to a grave
threat (Lawrence, 2000). This official frame mirrors the conventional role
assignments and dramatic elements in crime and police fiction (King, 1999).
Competing interpretations invert stereotypical roles, casting criminal suspects
as sympathetic victims and the police, as villains. Thus, news accounts of
police killings, especially those whose moral valuation is ambiguous, provide
a critical test of the resilience of dominant cultural images of crime and police.
Modal news constructions may also help explain the lack of accountability for wrongful police killings, a frequent cause of urban unrest
(Skolnick and Fyfe, 1993). In the USA, police can legally employ deadly
force only if they reasonably deem it necessary to protect themselves or
others from serious harm (Davis, 1994). The portion of the 10,724 police
killings declared justifiable by American police agencies between 1976
and 2004 that were, in fact, legal is unknowable (Brown and Langan,
2001; Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2002, 2005).1 However, even
under highly dubious circumstances, whether due to juries reluctance to
indict or convict police officers or bias and missteps in investigations,
criminal charges and harsh administrative sanctions are rare (Skolnick
and Fyfe, 1993; Davis, 1994; Human Rights Watch, 1998).2 The widespread tendency to give violent police wide latitude has deep cultural and
historical roots (Lawrence, 2000). Given the news medias role in constructing public opinion and mediating official responses (Beckett, 1997),
mainstream news accounts are a useful site to study the cultural legitimization of police violence.
We decipher and analyze the ideological content of newspaper accounts
of deadly force in the USA from 1997 through 2000. Whereas past research
has analyzed the selection of themes, frames, and sources in such accounts,
or examined audience reaction (Cerulo, 1998; Ross, 2000; Chermak and
Weiss, 2005; Chermak et al., 2006), we probe their linguistic and symbolic
content. Applying Thompsons (1990) scheme for discerning ideological
content, we examine how news articles construct deadly force victims
as physical or social threats and frame police actions as a normal and reasonable response.

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Police violence in American culture


Symbolic interpretation of any text requires consideration of the cultural
and historical context of its production (Richardson, 2007). Dominant
frames resonate with stereotypes of police and suspects and the scripted
portrayals of their encounters that circulate through the wider cultural
space (Binder, 1993; King, 1999; Rafter, 2006). Three police archetypes
that may link the police depicted in news of police violence to broader cultural frames are the professional, the vigilante, and the oppressor.
The first figure is the police professional (e.g. Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential),
whose judicious exercise of authority is fettered by myriad rules and regulations
(Walker, 1980; Reiner, 1985). This icon traces its roots to the New Deal.
The negotiation of a respectable role for the working class in American
democracy demanded the rights to due process, which recognizes the freedom and dignity of the individual in criminal justice (Melossi, 1990).
In contrast to the professional police officer, who deploys deadly force
within strict legal parameters, stands the vigilante. A cultural product of
American traditions of self-governance and popular justice (e.g. lynch mobs),
the vigilante embraces deadly force as a just response to dangerous criminals
(Walker, 1980). Despite vigilantisms historic raison dtre, the gradual expansion of central government weakened this tradition. Ideals of popular justice
continued to resonate with the public, however. Historical commentary suggests that police brutality functions as delegated vigilantism against perceived social threats (Walker, 1980; Skolnick and Fyfe, 1993).
The vigilante image of law enforcers attained prominence during the
1970s and 1980s (e.g. Dirty Harry, Robocop) because of widespread perceptions that due process restrictions on police power led to escalating
crime rates (Reiner, 1985). Though still celebrated in popular media (e.g. The
Shield), the vigilante cop must stay between the lines of newspaper accounts.
This is because state agencies, who control the initial flow of information
about most police-related news (Chermak and Weiss, 2005), derive legitimacy from perceived adherence to established rules and procedures without
regard to race and social status (Weber, 1964; Tyler, 1990). Police brutality
exposes contradictions between ideals and practice, fueling resistance and
unrest (Comaroff and Comaroff, 1991; Skolnick and Fyfe, 1993).
The vigilante can never be summoned alone to the front stage of official discourse. Rather, the images of the professional and the vigilante,
like the good cop/bad cop dyads of crime fiction, are often paired. The
vigilante provides a back-up narrative when appeals to reason fail.
Narratives of professionalism interfused with contradictory vigilante
subtextual references do not necessarily disquiet readers. The professional
crime-fighter harboring an inner-vigilante embodies both the conflicting poles of human consciousness as well as a parallel tension within the
police force and society, whereby official espousals of nonviolence conflict with popular demands for swift justice (Newman, 1993; King, 1999;
Rafter, 2006).

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Operational alliances and the symbolic fusion of the professional and the
vigilante are only possible because they both confront dangerous criminals.
The third pertinent police image, by contrast, depicts violent police as agents
of repression and redeems their victims. Forged in the Civil Rights Era
(Reiner, 1985) and conjured by major episodes of police violence, the oppressor is particularly salient in the collective memory of African-Americans, who
recall him obstructing, literally and figuratively, marches toward freedom.
Peaceful protest and accusations of racism following contemporary deadly
force incidents can help cue a civil rights news frame (Lawrence, 2000).

Police violence in the news


Cultural resonance is but one factor shaping the structure and content of
news. The relational activity of news sponsors and routines of news production are also important (Gamson and Modigliani, 1989) and often promote exculpatory accounts of police violence. Following organizational
routines, editors initially assign police stories to reporters covering the local
crime beat. Early studies depict the subversion of crime/police reporting by
police organizational sponsorship (Chibnall, 1977; Fishman, 1980; Ericson
et al., 1989). To ensure rapid access to pertinent and sensitive information,
police reporters often foster close ties to police officials. Collegiality with
and privileged access to police may foster identification with police values
and obligations to carry out public relations functions on behalf of the police
(Barak, 1994; Ericson, 1995; Lawrence, 2000; Chermak and Weiss, 2005).
Even crime-beat reporters eager to expose police malfeasance face professional norms and constraints that foster exculpatory accounts. Conventions
dictate that they, in pursuit of efficiency, defer to official definitions of crime
events (Lawrence, 2000). Obtaining and verifying accounts from eyewitnesses and non-officials is often nearly impossible for reporters pressed to
produce a next-day account of the incident. This norm is also aligned with
bounded notions of journalistic neutrality, whereby officially verifiable
claims are considered more authoritative than claims from non-officials
(Ericson, 1998). Journalistic imperatives like immediacy, titillation, and conventionalism also align news accounts with audience thinking and morality
(Cerulo, 1998: 95), imbuing police with professionalism and crime-fighting
imagery (Chibnall, 1977; Ericson, 1995; Lawrence, 2000).
Occasionally, deadly force stories outgrow the organizational and thematic
confines of the normal violence frame (Cerulo, 1998). Whereas most incidents of police violence garner limited coverage, the involvement of city
leaders, outside agencies, and local and national activists resituate events as
foci of local political controversy (Lawrence, 2000; Ross, 2000). This invites
unofficial and critical interpretations of focal incidents as well as local incidents that occur amid the controversy (Ross, 2000). These voices and
related images may activate a civil rights frame, recasting violent police in
antagonistic roles.

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Whereas local controversial incidents affect the frames that are subsequently
available and desirable at the local level, the question of whether nationally publicized, controversial police killings affect news accounts of local
police homicides remains unexplored. When police violence is in the public
spotlight, nuanced, critical stories on that topic may increase. The present
study directly examines such reframing effects by comparing coverage
of mainly local incidents of deadly force before and after the killing of
Amadou Diallo.
Diallo, shot 19 times (of 41 rounds fired) by four NYC police officers on
4 February 1999, is a prime candidate for reframing effects. Detectives in
the elite Street Crimes Unit killed Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant
with no criminal record, after they purportedly mistook his wallet for a
gun. The killing and the officers eventual acquittal triggered numerous
mass protests, and Diallo became a national symbol of the dangerous mix
of racial profiling and hyper-aggressive policing. Over the next six months,
Diallo was mentioned in 1032 articles printed in the 28 major daily newspapers (USA) covered in Lexis-Nexis. The severe police overreaction to
Diallo thrust the incident out of the vigilante and professional frames. New York
Times polls revealed sharp multi-ethnic increases in the share of New
Yorkers who believed that the NYPD use excessive force (Weitzer, 2002).
Perhaps the Diallo incident overlaid a civil rights frame onto the mostly
white audiences image of normal police violence, reducing news-framers
use of vigilante and due process imagery.
Assessing temporal variation in semiotic patterns (i.e. before and after the
Diallo incident) provides an important test of the importance of shifting
cultural and ideological currents in shaping news accounts. Stable patterns
in news coverage of police killings following Diallos death would support
counter-arguments that news accounts are reflections of objective circumstances of police shootings or of journalistic conventions for reporting on
violence more generally, rather than ideologically conditioned symbolic
constructions.

Interpreting and analyzing ideology


The present analysis illuminates how news coverage can, however unintentionally, legitimize instances of deadly force. Legitimation is achieved through
the cultivation of shared valuations of objects, phenomena, actions, and
actors in everyday life (Thompson, 1990; Comaroff and Comaroff, 1991;
Richardson, 2007). An inquiry into the legitimizing function of deadly
force accounts, therefore, must analyze the possible meanings these accounts
mobilize. The richest semiotic interpretations analyze the interplay among
texts content, structure, and context, the processes of production and
transmission, and their reception and appropriation (Thompson, 1990; Wodak
and Meyer, 2001). Because the production and reception of police violence
news are explored elsewhere (Cerulo, 1998; Chermak and Weiss, 2005), we

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focus primarily on the content of newspaper accounts of deadly force, probing
how the meanings mobilized by these symbolic forms nourish and sustain
the exercise of power (Thompson, 1990: 292).
Few studies of police violence news focus on content. Lawrence (2000)
uses quantitative content analysis (QCA) to depict the structural, topical,
and factual elements of a decade of police violence stories in two major
newspapers. Lawrence focuses on whether articles define use of force as a
systemic or an individualized problem and the causes and consequences of
alternate frames. Typical news accounts privilege official depictions of
police violence as a normal, authorized response to dangerous behavior.
QCA, however, inevitably glosses over the subtleties, intricacies, and contingencies of meaning that flow from the richly variegated contexts and formats of media communication (Richardson, 2007).
Critical discourse analysis (CDA), by contrast, interprets possible manifest and latent meanings of individual texts in relation to patterns of
textual features and the socio-cultural and institutional context of their production and consumption (Wodak and Meyer, 2001; Richardson, 2007).
Adopting an approach faintly resembling CDA, Scraton and Chadwick
(1986) discuss the coverage accorded a handful of deaths in police custody
in England. They describe how the news media, taking their cues from official reports, portray the victims of police homicide as violent, reckless, or
otherwise culpable. Case studies, however, are merely illustrative. No prior
studies strike a balance between the rigorous interrogation of ideological
content within particular news accounts of police violence and the documentation of semiotic patterns across an accumulated body of news representations (and spatial or temporal variation therein). The present study
pursues this balance, subjecting to QCA semiotic patterns discerned through
limited CDA.

Method
Next, we introduce our mixed quantitative/qualitative approach to documenting how newspapers mobilize images and meanings of police violence.
The images of the professional, vigilante, and civil rights oppressors help
form the cultural backdrop against which we interpret the symbolic content
of news coverage. We focus on depictions of the victims and perpetrators of
police homicide, whose character and actions are critical to the perceived
legitimacy of police killings. Deemphasizing objective features of articles
like keywords and structure, we focus on the mechanics of symbolic construction (Thompson, 1990).
To be sure, the present portrait of over 100 articles inevitably forfeits
much intricacy and subtlety. But what our hybridized approach to discourse
analysis lacks in complexity, it makes up for in scope; and, we hope, vice
versa. We adopt CDAs core assumption that the range of meanings of news

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text depends on contextual, referential, grammatical, and syntactical aspects
(Thompson, 1990). Thus, in assessing whether words impute positive or
negative characteristics or motives to police and victims, we strove to
embed those words in the context of the article and the (mass-mediated)
background of the incident. We analyze far fewer linguistic concepts and
devices than typical CDAs (Meyer, 2001) but pursue more holistic and
situated interpretations than large-scale QCA permits.
Thompsons (1990) strategies of symbolic construction is our analytical
framework, because it specifies measurable ways in which symbolic forms
sustain relationships of domination, including violence under the color of
authority. A pre-test on a separate, smaller sample of deadly force articles
pared Thompsons schema down to five especially relevant linguistic and
symbolic techniques, corresponding to Thompsons five modes of ideology.
In a grounded theoretical fashion (Meyer, 2001), we derived two additional
strategiesobjectification and anonymity/invisibilityalong with seven
corresponding counter-strategies that challenge police killings. All strategies
are defined in the next section.
Sampling
Whereas prior research samples are restricted to a few newspapers (Lawrence,
2000), we selected articles from a national major papers database. Sampling
105 articles permits interpretive analysis of some depth, without undercutting all claim to national relevance. We obtained articles using LexisNexis
by entering 22 search terms (e.g. police kill!) associated with deadly force.
Our target sample can roughly be described as 50 articles from the two
years both preceding and following the Diallo incident. Our sampling frame
encompasses four years in order to uncover durable ideological currents.
The pre-Diallo sampling pool (n = 2525) includes articles from 1 January
1997 to 3 February 1999 and the post-Diallo pool includes 4 February
1999 to 31 December 2000 (n = 3797). The size discrepancy is due to the
prodigious national and international coverage the Diallo case generated.
Within each pool, we randomly assigned identification numbers (id) and
screened articles in order of id. The first 50 eligible news articles were
selected from each sub-sample. Eligible articles appear in a domestic paper,
recount a specific incident of deadly force3 that leaves open the possibility,
however remote, of excessive force. Contrary circumstances (e.g. victim shot
police first), observed relatively rarely, may obviate legitimization strategies.
Five extra articles not about Diallo were randomly selected from the sampling pool to replace the five Diallo articles for the pre- and post-Diallo
comparisons (described later). The 105 sampled articles represent 23 major
daily domestic newspapers and 86 separate incidents of deadly force. Five
incidents were the foci of three or more articles. Sampled newspapers,
shown in the Appendix, serve large mainstream audiences in 20 metropolitan areas in 18 states.4

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Coding
We coded only portions that bear on the legal and moral justification of the
shooting or help construct an image of the key actors. We characterized
each relevant claim as supportive or critical of the police version of events
and as from an official or non-official source. After selecting and coding a
subset of articles, coding criteria were refined and articles accordingly
recodeda process requiring several iterations. We stress that coded textual
elements are not inherently ideological. After all, it is the function that such
elements serve in the moment of their use that is of interest (Richardson,
2007: 38). Thus, we flexibly embed our analysis of these strategies and their
ideological implications within the texts. We next describe the ideological
strategies and counter-strategies (parenthetically delineated) we derived
from Thompson (1990) and corresponding coding criteria.
Rationalization (repudiation)
Thompson (1990: 61) defines rationalization as a chain of reasoning which
defends or justifies a set of social relations. Rationalization is evidenced in
articles that give primacy to explanations which make police actions appear
logical and accordant with professionalism and legally permissible deadly
force. We label arguments that question the rationality or legality of police
action as repudiation.
Expurgation of victim (police)
Thompson (1990) defines expurgation of the other as the symbolic construction of a scapegoat that must be resisted or purged. Articles that portray deadly force victims or perpetrators as evil, strange, or threatening
manifest expurgation (Scraton and Chadwick, 1986). Police officers and
officials allegedly call upon such images when concocting cover stories for
police homicides (Hunt and Manning, 1991; Waegel, 1984; Chevigny,
1995). A particular type of expurgation, reference to prior criminal history,
merits special designation, because it is a core feature of cop vigilante narratives but marginal to self-defense justifications. (Police shooters are rarely
aware of victims criminal pasts.) Alleged crimes that led to fatal police
encounters were also coded separately but not always as expurgation. Preencounter crimes are generally an indispensable narrative element, and their
mere disclosure may not qualify as expurgation. By contrast, any claims
that could vilify police officers were coded as expurgation of the police.
Inclusion of police (victim)
Exemplifying symbolization of unity (Thompson, 1990), inclusive symbols bind the police (or victims) with the wider community and promote

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audience identification with the subject. Any language that praises or
humanizes the subjects by associating them with positive roles or laudable
personal qualities qualifies as inclusion.
Euphemization (dysphemization)
Euphemisms substitute a term that elicits a positive valuation for a relatively unpleasant term (Thompson, 1990: 62). Dysphemisms do the opposite.
These linguistic devices were coded only with respect to words depicting
lethal police actions. For example, deadly force underlines the essential
normality and legality of police violence and minimizes its gravity. Pejorative
terms like murder and brutality are recorded as dysphemisms.
Passivization (activation)
Syntactical structure can also mobilize particular images of the acts and
actors depicted in a deadly force narrative. For instance, passive constructions can deprive actors of agency (Richardson, 2007). Stating, the suspect
was killed obscures both the actor and the action. A form of reification, it
constructs a historical state of affairs as if it were permanent, natural, outside of time (Thompson, 1990: 439). Situating the suspect before killed
displaces agency onto the victim, whose incrimination is essential to both
due process and vigilante narratives.
Conversely, unfolding shootings with active constructions may help symbolically criminalize police by imputing agency to them. Activation is not
always incriminating, however. Calling attention to the actor can unfold
events through the actors eyes which, depending on other contextual information, may cast police as protagonists (Cerulo, 1998). We coded only the
grammatical construction of police actions immediately preceding and
including lethal violence and victims actions that allegedly provoked it.
Objectification (subjectification)
Objectification denotes any text that transforms socially constituted claims
about police killings into apparent facts. Newspaper stories, by design,
obscure the social exchanges, belief structures, and political/organizational
considerations that generate and shape them (Fishman, 1980; Smith, 1984).
They also tend to reify the socially conditioned results of official inquiries
and investigations, which reflect police and partnering organizations
shared meanings and goals (Ericson, 1995; Lawrence, 2000). News accounts
can obscure the fuzzy, contested nature of interpreted reality though the use
of verbs like indicated, found, and reported and through burying or
depersonalizing sources. Objectification can reinforce other ideological
strategies; for example, by validating text that rationalizes a shooting or
expurgates a victim.

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Conversely, we code language that marks possible facts as subjective
claims as subjectification. Both rationalizing and repudiative claims may be
devalued by personalizing them (especially disparagingly) and restricting
them to what claimants can see from their vantage points (Smith, 1984).
Journalists demarcate subjective claims with quotation marks or words that
personalize their sources or stress their subjectivity (e.g. alleges, contends).
Anonymity and invisibility (naming and imaging)
Pursuant to administrative rules, police often withhold the names and
identifying characteristics of officers involved in civilian deaths
(Lawrence, 2000). Such omissions may have ideological implications, if
not intent. Journalists who cannot identify officers are generally prevented from probing their character and background. Because most
people have positive images of police (Sourcebook, 2006), readers may
typically associate faceless officers with a timeless and benevolent social
role. Whether articles name officers or include evaluative personal characteristics is noted.
We recorded basic features of each article including topic (incident,
investigatory/adjudicatory proceedings, civil litigation, protest activities, or
other), section, length in words, news source (staff writer or wire service),
and timing (pre- or post-Diallo). To bolster coding reliability, 10 initial articles
were coded by both authors and differences reconciled. At least a dozen
additional articles were partially or fully double-coded on an ad hoc basis,
because of inevitable ambiguities and multiplicities of meaning.

Findings
Table 1 describes the topics, newspaper locations, scope, and average length.
A slight majority (56.2 percent) were next-day incident reports. Investigations
comprised the second largest portion, followed by protests and civil litigation.
Incident reports were relatively short, averaging 396 words versus 504 words
among articles covering other topics. Investigations and protests generated
the lengthiest stories. Gunfire caused all deaths but two.
Symbolic strategies
Whereas 95.2 percent of articles included any of the six pro-strategies that
directly legitimate police violence (rationalization, euphemization, activation or expurgation of victim, and passivization or inclusion of officer),
only 59 percent of the accounts include counter-strategies that undermine
its legitimacy. Correspondingly, 92.4 percent of articles included at least one
type of claim (95 percent from official sources) that supports the legitimacy
of the shooting, compared to 50.5 percent which included claims that

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Table 1

Description of the full sample of newspaper articles

Article characteristic

Percent

Mean length

Article topic
Incident
Investigation & adjudicatory proceedings
Civil lawsuits & litigation
Protest activity
Other

56.2
23.8
3.8
12.4
3.8

396.3
555.1
429.8
500.0
275.8

Section
Front page
Later in paper

11.4
88.6

860.9 (334.7)
389.8 (229.8)

Year
1997
1998
1999
2000

25.7
19.0
29.5
25.7

402.3
380.9
459.6
513.2

Scope
Local
National
Total

82.9
17.1
100.0

(231.2)
(366.3)
(304.6)
(317.7)
(118.9)

(286.1)
(192.2)
(266.2)
(352.4)

443.2 (277.2)
445.7 (329.1)
443.7 (285.0)

Notes: N = 105. Length is measured as the mean number of words. Numbers in parentheses are
standard deviations.

challenged its legitimacy (77 percent from non-officials). Official sources


predominate in 78 percent of the articles. Patterns of the use of various symbolic strategies are detailed in Table 2.
Rationalization
We find that 69.5 percent of articles lend prominence and credibility to
accounts that provide legal justifications of lethal actions. These accounts,
almost always from officials, commonly highlight direct threats posed by
victims and officers reasonable responses to them. Appeals to legalism and
professionalism are transparent in the following citation of a States Attorneys
exculpatory ruling about the death of a man police shot twice in the back.
Police alleged that the victim gained control of an officers gun and, while
lying facedown, pointed the weapon up and behind him at the officers:
(T)he evidence clearly shows that Officer Houston and Sgt. Brevi reasonably
believed that it was necessary to shoot Mills in order to prevent their own
imminent death or great bodily harm to themselves and to others, that they
had nowhere to retreat in order to avoid the attack, and that they had no
safe alternative to shooting Mills, the report said.
(St. Petersburg Times, 23 January 1997, p. 1B)

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Table 2

Symbolic strategies in full sample

Pro-strategies

Percent

Individual strategies
Rationalization
Expurgation (victim)
Inclusion (officer)
Anonymity of officer
Euphemization
Multi-strategy patterns
Violent officer actiona
Passive/reactive dominant
Victim provocative actiona
Active dominant
Aggregate results
Mean number of pro-strategies

69.5
61.9
16.2
61.9
45.7

72.5
97.8
3.46
(1.47)

Counter-strategies
Individual strategies
Repudiation
Expurgation (officer)
Inclusion (victim)
Naming & imaging officer
Dysphemization
Multi-strategy patterns
Violent officer actiona
Active dominant
Victim provocative actiona
Passive/reactive dominant
Aggregate results
Mean number of
counter-strategies

Percent
34.3
16.2
26.7
38.1
7.6

22.5
2.2
1.10
(1.15)

Notes: N = 105. Numbers in parentheses are standard deviations.


a
The share of articles in which passive/reactive voicing of police violence predominates and
those in which active voicing predominates do not add to 100 percent, due to the 5 percent of
articles that feature both constructions equally. Patterns in the grammatical voicing of violent
police officers exclude three stories that lack verbs to describe homicidal police actions.
Likewise, patterns in the voicing of victims actions allegedly provoking their deaths exclude
the 15 stories that use no verbs to depict such actions.

This prominent, extended quotation situates police actions within the legal
parameters governing deadly force. Although this long article (658 words)
notes that the shooting drew an angry crowd of more than 100 people, it
(and its five predecessors in this newspaper) lends no space to accounts questioning how someone lying on his belly pointed a gun upward at police.
Rather, the article implies that opposition to the shooting is based only on
emotions and an incomplete understanding of the facts:
Residents of the area accepted Coes decision with calm Wednesday, but
Mills family still cant understand why the officers had to kill him. Im
so mad I dont know what in the world to do, his mother, Evealene
Guillen, said.

Reinforcing the impression that the officers had no other choice and that
opposition is irrational and unfocused, the article quotes two upstanding community residents who both purportedly believe that the police are telling the
truth. Repudiative accounts were available, however. The following quotation
from an eye-witness appeared on the same day in the Tampa Tribune: One
friend said Fleita began hitting Mills, knocked him down and shot him when
Mills tried to get up (23 January 1997, p. 6). Neutralizing any residual basis
for opposition, all contextual and background information (e.g. bottles thrown
at riot-helmeted police) fits a crime narrative. Any racial dynamics underpinning the shooting or its aftermath are unexplored.

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Table 3

The subjective and objective framing of claims from various sources


Total
claims

Percent
objectified

Percent
subjectified

Percent
neither

Source type
Official
Non-official

458
161

59.8
1.2

19.7
57.8

20.5
41.0

Claim type
Supportive
Contradictory

436
183

58.7
10.9

21.1
49.7

20.2
39.3

Source/claim subtypes
Official supportive
Official contradictory
Non-official supportive
Non-official contradictory

416
42
20
141

61.5
42.9
0.0
1.4

20.0
16.7
45.0
59.6

18.5
40.5
55.0
39.0

Type of claim/source

Notes: N = 619. Chi-square test results show that all non-overlapping groups exhibit statistically
significant differences in the portions of objectified and subjectified claims (p < .001).

Repudiative claims are present in only 34.3 percent of sampled articles.


Whereas both rationalizing and repudiative claims first appear, on average,
in paragraph five, civilian eyewitness claims (86 percent critical; 14 articles),
on average, appear in paragraph nine.
Objectification
Typical framing patterns, shown in Table 3, bolster the cogency of rationalizing claims. Objectification is generally reserved for official claims about deadly
force. Whereas 59.8 percent of official claims are framed objectively, only
1.2 percent of non-official claims are framed as such (20.5 percent of official
claims, which often used neutral words like said, are classified as neither).
The preceding rationalization example, though enclosed by quotation marks,
was coded as objectified, because an ostensibly unbiased source (the report)
is cited rather than its human author, an elected State Attorney who, like all
criminal prosecutors, depends on police cooperation to do his job effectively.
Furthermore, the citation is an afterthought appended to a complex sentence.
Subjectification
Opposing patterns apply with respect to the framing of non-official claims about
deadly force. Half of contradictory claims, compared to only 21.1 percent
of supportive claims are subjectified (39.3 percent of contradictory claims
are coded as neither). Two excerpts distinguish the typical, personalized
presentation of contradictory claimsin this case from a witnessand the
typical matter-of-fact tone of official claims:

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Another of Millers cousins said she witnessed the incident. (Tyisha) never
moved, said Anthonete Joiner, 18. She was reclined on her seat.
(Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 30 December 1998, p. A4)
An unarmed car burglar was accidentally killed by police yesterday during a
struggle on an upper East Side street, police said.
(New York Daily News, 19 August 1999, p. 8)

The first excerpt recounts the death of Tyisha Miller, who was reportedly
unconscious in her car with a gun in her lap when police fired 27 shots at
her. Though repudiative claims predominate, they are marked as subjective.
In this excerpt, the eyewitness is personalized twice (another of Millers
cousins and Anthonete Joiner, 18)and further subjectified with quotation marks. In the second example, by contrast, the anonymous official
source is an afterthought. Quotation marks and actors and claimants
names are all absent.
Expurgation of victims
We separately enumerated the accentuation or dramatization of crimes that
led to the police encounter, other information that taints victims, and unrelated criminal history. Overall, 26 percent manifested expurgation through
descriptions of pre-encounter crimes or criminal history, 19 percent through
derogating the victim as a person, and 17.1 percent through both means
(62 percent total).
Most articles (56.2 percent) mention crimes committed by the victims
leading up to their police encounter, generally in the first paragraph (40 percent)
or headline (32.4 percent). Although 35 percent of these comments were
not coded as expurgation, early references to the crime leading to the
police encounter are an entry point for the reader. Against this context,
police actions more often appear legally justified (Cerulo, 1998). Mentions
of criminal history (24.8 percent) are less innocuous, often introducing a
vigilante subtext. As shown by the following excerpt from the New York
Daily News article above, noting a victims criminal background and the
dearth of effective legal responses (and gratuitous reference to a box cutter and a putatively violent drug) fits better with vigilante than due process
narratives:
The person [who] was shot has 21 convictions or arrests and hes only
30 years old, Giuliani said. He had on him a box cutter, a crack pipe and
stolen property. It appears as if the police officers were justified in what
they did.
(New York Daily News, 19 August 1999, p. 8)

This shooting of a man who, like Diallo, was unarmed and had no
known history of violence, occurred during persistent public outcry over
the Diallo case. Except for brief mention of ballistic evidence supporting

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the official accidental shooting narrative, the rest of the article (intentionally
or not) constructs a foil for Diallo. The victims prior criminal history is the
articles central theme. Even a quotation from the victims mother forwards
the vigilante subtext: Hell never steal from someones car again.
Over a third of the articles construct victims as demonized others in alternate ways such as referring to the victims martial-arts attacking position
or actions like lunged or menaced. Expurgation can also be achieved merely
by associating victims with deviant social contexts, for example, by describing
the location of a shooting as a hub of drug activity or a magnet for men
looking for anonymous homosexual encounters. Five articles use code words
with negative racial connotations (e.g. gang member).
Expurgation of police
Relatively speaking, the expurgation of officers is rare, mild, and indirect.
Sixteen percent of articles include text which likely arouses suspicion of
police actions. Only five mention prior violent incidents involving the officers, and none describe abortive inquiries. Police personnel files are not
readily accessible. However, whereas third parties are occasionally quoted
to reveal victims drug or mental health problems, no articles use hearsay
evidence (e.g. civilians or ex-girlfriends who claim negative encounters with
the police shooter) to divulge accused officers violent reputations or personal troubles. Besides mentions of prior complaints, expurgation is usually
in the form of subjectified yet impersonal accusations leveled at officers by
activists or Victims families (e.g. body was riddled with bullets from
people we pay to protect us).
Inclusion of victims
Positive language to describe the victim (e.g. father, good worker) occurs
in 26.7 percent of articles. Whereas expurgation describes victims by their
fatal flaws, inclusion elicits empathy (Peelo, 2006), such as for William
Whitfield, an unarmed, young man killed by an officer (later revealed to
have fired his weapon more frequently than any other NYC police officer)
who followed him into a store (apparently in response to nearby gunfire).
Despite being a next-day report, the article includes positive portrayals of
Whitfield from at least four friends and relatives: The dead mans grandmother, Willie Mae Whitefield, also of Williamsburg, described him as a
young man with a heart of gold who helped everyone, loved basketball
and only had minor brushes with the law (New York Daily News, 26 December
1997, p. 8).
This unusual investigative effort not only reflects the heart-wrenching
storyline (an innocent killed while trying to arrange Christmas dinner for
himself, his girlfriend, and young children) but, perhaps, also the fact that
the notorious police sodomization of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant,

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occurred in an adjacent neighborhood only four months earlier and was
still a regular news topic. As exemplified above, the symbolic inclusion of
victims is manifested primarily within subjectified, non-official claims.
Inclusion of police
Against expectations, the inclusion of police is exactly as infrequent as their
expurgation. Only 16.2 percent of articles attach positive imagery or affectionate labels (15-year-veteran, and 18 commendations) to police.
Whereas victims are subjectively humanized through positive personal qualities, police are lauded objectively, largely in terms of professional roles.
Anonymity and invisibility
More commonly, articles construct positive police images by default, leaving
officers characteristics to readers imaginations. Most articles (61.9 percent),
especially initial incident reports, leave police perpetrators nameless. Only
12 state that the names of the officers were withheld or unknown. Victims
anonymity is more rare (16.2 percent) and clearly explained. Most officers
are also faceless. Only 26.7 percent of officers, compared to 73.3 of victims,
were described in expurgatory or inclusive terms.
Euphemization
Nearly half of all articles (45.7 percent) employed euphemisms for lethal
police actions. Fatally shot or some variant of this phrasing (e.g. fatally
wounded) were the most common palliatives. Euphemisms, as below, may
help frame a homicidal act as a deviation from legitimate procedures rather
than as violence: Prosecutors are trying to determine if the officer overreacted when she fired at Haggerty, sources said (Chicago Sun Times, 9 June
1999, p. A1). Describing the officer as possibly overreacting when she fired
at the victim (whose mobile phone she allegedly mistook for a gun) instead
of using verbs like killed or shot her dead minimizes the gravity and willfulness of the officers actions.
Whereas euphemisms were often relayed in the journalists own voice,
only two journalists chose dysphemisms to describe police killings. Of
the remaining nine dysphemisms, eight were attributed to non-official
sources.5 Examples include police execution and believes her son was
murdered.
Passivization of the police
Passivization furthers the transfer of blame from police to victims but in an
unanticipated manner. In only 20.6 percent of articles, the passive voicing

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of police actions leading up to and including killing surpasses active voicing,
and active voicing predominates in 64.7 percent. However, active voicing
generally fails to impute primary agency to the police. Active voicing helps
cast some police as protagonists. One article adopting a hero cop frame
actively voices the response of Shawn Saunders, a Denver police officer
credited with saving a suicidal man the previous yearwhen he encountered two men fighting in a parking lot:
The man on top had an object in his hand and was jabbing it at the man on
the bottom. Saunders, holding a can of Mace, tried to break up the fight. The
man on top jumped to his feet and jumped at the officer, still holding the
object in his hand. Saunders dropped his Mace, pulled his gun and shot
Bowyer once in the chest Bowyer was clutching a can of mace
(Rocky Mountain News, 4 May 1998, p. 4A)

There is little doubt that the actively voiced series of actions in the fourth
sentence imputes agency to the officer. However, when situated in the
broader context of the article, it becomes clear that this statement does not
incriminate the officer. Rather, centering on the officer and his actions casts
him as the protagonist and unfolds the story from his point of view. This
purpose is achieved not only through active voicing and inclusive imagery
but also through describing the victims weapon through the officers eyes, as
an unknown object, rather than objectively as a (non-lethal) can of mace.
Another reason that active voicing, as in the above example, does little
to delegitimize shootings is that lethal police acts are generally depicted as
a direct reaction to a threat. Of the articles relying more on the active
voice, 65.2 percent are better described as mostly reactive. A prototypical
example is, When he turned and pointed a gun at them, the officers
opened fire.
Grouping passive and reactive voicing alters the basic pattern. Of the 102
articles that use verbs to describe police actions, 72.5 percent rely primarily
on passive/reactive voice, and only 22.5 percent describe the police primarily as acting upon victims (5 percent do both equally).
Activation of the victim
In sharp contrast, articles overwhelmingly activate victims. Nearly 98 percent
describe victims actions allegedly provoking their deaths in the active voice,
and 2.2 percent rely primarily on the reactive voice. We uncovered no instances
in which activation casts victims as protagonists.
Interactions among strategies
The observed symbolic techniques interact in complex ways, alternately
reinforcing, counterbalancing, and overlapping each other. Understanding
the role and success of these strategies in legitimating or de-legitimating
requires more consideration of patterns that span multiple strategies.

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Although 59 percent of articles evidence at least one counter-strategy
(mean = 1.10), they are often overwhelmed by pro-strategies (mean = 3.46).
Over half of the articles employ four or more distinct pro-strategies. This
excerpt illustrates how multiple symbolic strategies reinforce, magnify, or
moderate each others impact:
The officers chased the man into a nearby office park, where he turned and
lunged at one of the officers, who shot the man once in the upper body. After
a struggle, the suspect was tackled by both officers. As they were taking him
into custody, he collapsed and died, police said.
(Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 12 December 1997, p. H6)

Although the first words direct attention and agency to the police officers,
this is offset by the grammatical activation of the victim. Grammatical passivization of the officers (was tackled) furthers the transfer of agency to
the victim. The act of shooting the victim is reactive, and the victim is the
only person given agency in his death (he collapsed and died). Moreover,
his death is temporally and spatially dissociated from the shooting.
Before this excerpt, the piece relays the police claim that a woman yelled
that the man had a knife. This article never verifies the existence of the
woman or the knife (nor do any subsequent articles). Yet this tenuous claim
grounds the rationalization of the killing, the victims lunging at officers. A
subjectified knife claim may raise questions as to if, how, and why the victim lunged, casting doubt on the shootings justification.
Readers are provided little basis to question the police version, because it
is divorced from the social actors and interactions that produced it. Some
police claims are not labeled as such, and police and investigators are the
only cited sources. Moreover, the victims lunging at an officerthe most
critical element of the due process narrativeemanates solely from the
journalists authoritative voice. Shoring up this tenuous legal justification,
back-up vigilante imagery enters the scene. Helping to neutralize the death
of this essentialized villainous other, the piece relays investigators claims
that the would-be auto thief exhibited erratic and violent behavior and
possessed suspected crack cocaine.
Before and after Diallo
Next, we examine whether the framing and construction of deadly force
shifted in the aftermath of Diallos death. The five Diallo articles were
replaced with five randomly selected articles from the sampling pool.
During the pre-Diallo period, sampled articles, following crime reporting
conventions, rarely reported victims race. Only three of the 50 pre-Diallo
articles did so and two stated ethnicity (Latino). In three separate articles,
mentions of civil rights marches and lawsuits likely encouraged readers to
impute these characteristics and may have evoked the image of the police
oppressor. But, civil rights images and themes were generally overridden
by official narratives that rationalized shootings and expurgated and

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Hirschfield and SimonLegitimating police violence


activated victims. Among the 11 pre-Diallo articles containing civil rights
imagery or narratives (including the five race-explicit articles), nine
included rationalization and five expurgated victims. They averaged 3.82
pro-strategiestypical for this period.
As news related to the Diallo incident, which often centered on massive
protests and inquired whether police are too quick to shoot black men, proliferated nationwide, this pattern changed. The racial dynamics and ramifications of police shootings, itself, became a legitimate news frame and it
colored the lens through which reporters (and possibly audiences) viewed
subsequent shootings, particularly those that evoked Diallo (e.g. unarmed
black man, non-black police officers). Race or ethnicity was explicitly
stated in 12 of 50 post-Diallo articles (plus the Diallo articles). The following opening lines of articles printed only five days and two weeks, respectively, after focal killings, illustrate how race emerged from obscurity after
the Diallo tragedy:
Governor John G. Rowland has ordered the investigation into the fatal
shooting of a black teenager by a white city police officer taken out of the
hands of Hartford Police.
(Boston Globe, 18 April 1999, p. D8)
The Morris County Prosecutor, said yesterday that he would ask a grand
jury to consider whether race played a role in the police shooting death of a
black driver
(New York Times, 16 June 1999, p. B6)

Post-Diallo news stories more often pursued a race angle, in part, due to
changing patterns of newsworthy events. Police killings fell from 369 in
1998 to 308 and 309 in 1999 and 2000, respectively, before climbing back
to 378 in 2001 (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2002). Incidents that
occurred during the firestorm over Diallo may have generated more newsworthy reactions from political and investigative officials and non-officials.
Accordingly, the share of post-Diallo news articles that centered on the incident itself declined from 68 percent of the pre-Diallo sample to 50 percent
post-Diallo. Likewise, follow-up stories focused on ensuing investigations,
trials, and protests jumped from 22 percent pre- to 42 post-Diallo.
Topical shifts, reflective of objective historical developments or not,
reshape the overall symbolic construction of deadly force. When lethal
police actions are actual or potential foci of political controversy, other
sources besides police press releases are needed to craft the news. Accordingly,
as Table 4 shows, three strategies to legitimize police shootingsrationalization,
expurgation of victims, and passivization/reactivation of policesignificantly
declined in the two years post-Diallo. The mean number of pro-police strategies also fell significantly during the post-Diallo period, especially during the
first six months.6
Perhaps a more theoretically compelling question, however, is whether
the Diallo incident changed how articles on a particular topic constructed

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Table 4 Patterns of symbolic strategies in deadly force news before and after the
Diallo shooting
Symbolic strategies

Pre-Diallo (N = 50)

Post-Diallo (N = 50)

Individual strategies
Rationalization
Repudiation
Expurgation (victim)
Expurgation (officer)
Inclusion (victim)
Inclusion (officer)
Anonymity of the officer
Euphemization
Dysphemization

78.0
32.0
74.0
24.0
24.0
14.0
58.0
50.0
6.0

62.0*
34.0
56.0*
8.0**
28.0
20.0
66.0
46.0
6.0

Multi-strategy pattern
Violent officer actiona
Passive/reactive dominant
Active dominant

81.6
16.3

66.7*
25.0

3.86
(1.1)
1.04
(1.2)
413.78
(267.87)

3.26**
(1.6)
1.06
(0.9)
476.98
(289.9)

Total strategies
Mean number of pro-strategies
Mean number of counter-strategies
Mean length

Notes: Numbers in parentheses are standard deviations.


a
Patterns in the grammatical voicing of violent police officers exclude three stories that lack
verbs to describe homicidal police actions.
*p < .10; **p < .05 (chi-square tests and two-tailed tests).

police killings. We find partial and preliminary evidence of two general


changes. First, even initial incident reporters apparently took a more cautious, balanced tone. During the pre-Diallo period, despite statistical controls for article topic, articles are 80, 85, and 90 percent more likely to
exhibit expurgation of victims, passivization/reactivation of police, and
rationalization, respectively. However, these effects do not attain statistical
significance (p < .25), and it is possible that objective circumstances triggering deadly force also changed after Diallos death. Whether Diallo
weighed more on the minds of police and civilians encountering each other
or on journalists encountering news of deadly force cannot be settled here.
Second, after the Diallo shooting, different ideological strategies to undermine the legitimacy of police killings emerge. Among the 13 post-Diallo
stories coded as evoking civil rights imagery only 46 percent include
rationalization compared to 82 percent pre-Diallo (see earlier).
Unexpectedly, one counter-strategy, expurgation of police officers, also

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declines dramatically. Whereas 24 percent of pre-Diallo articles include
some text that, however mildly and indirectly, maligns individual officers,
only 8 percent of post-Diallo stories do so, despite the greater salience of
critical actors. Accordantly, the Boston Globe article above (701 words)
waits until the last paragraph to note the two prior complaints for drawing his weapon against the officer, who shot an unarmed teenager in the
back. This shift reflects an effort on the part of activists and, perhaps,
some journalists to frame police and their victims, not as individuals, but
as the archetypal white city police officer or black teenager. Within a
professional police frame, such depersonalization shifts agency to victims
and helps impute rationality to police officers. Within a civil rights frame,
however, the dearth of language demonizing individual police officers
underscores the pointoften echoed in quotations from activiststhat
particular police and their actions are merely symptoms of the larger, systemic problem of police racism.

Summary and discussion


Mainstream newspapers, in respect of reformist ideals (Lawrence, 2000),
periodically document and problematize the inability or unwillingness of
police and judicial agencies to hold police accountable for killing civilians
(Jackson, 1998; Hartocollis, 2006; Roe et al., 2007). Absent from these
investigations is discussion of how these same newspapers often normalize,
obscure, and rationalize police violence. This article, consistent with Lawrence
(2000) and Scraton and Chadwick (1986), documents that newspaper
accounts of deadly force typically lend primacy and authority to official
versions of events neatly circumscribed by laws governing deadly force.
This is not due merely to the relative infrequency and inaccessibility of contravening unofficial accounts. When counter-claims appear in crime incident
articles, they are generally subjectified or otherwise devalued. The reliance
upon official sources translates into a majority of news accounts that
rationalize and normalize police violence by associating it with the performance of a legitimate institutional role. This professional image is realized, in part, through the virtual absence of any information on personal
problems or features of police organizations that dispose some police officers toward violence (Skolnick and Fyfe, 1993). Faceless officers lack the
moral subjectivity of individual actors yet possess the immanent authority
of the Law itself. Readers may project any number of attributes onto these
amorphous figures. To some, faceless officers conjure masked vigilantes
(e.g. Batman), symbolizing the hidden, vengeful will of society in general
(Newman, 1993). In another frame, they may appear as agents of racial and
class oppression.
The victims of police homicide are generally not presented in the same
sympathetic manner as are most murder victims (Peelo, 2006). The use of

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crime frames raises the specter of the predatory criminal, a vilified and
racialized media icon (Hall et al., 1978; Barak, 1994). Patterns of expurgation and reactive/passive and active constructions suggest that news stories
generally present police killings as the logical consequences of victims lawless or troubled behavior.
Critical assumptions and their implications for analysis
Scientific standards of evidence and proof are appropriately applied only to
our analyses of the unambiguous properties of texts like identification by
name and race. However, the findings that emerge from hermeneutic
processes fall short of social scientific standards of validity (Meyer, 2001).
The meaning of text and their constituent elements is relative to the intent
and spatio-temporal context of the communicator, the structure of the text
and medium, the structural position and subjective dispositions of the
intended audience and interpreter, and other dimensions of production,
content, and reception (Thompson, 1990). Reflexive analysis of how some
of these contingencies guided, distorted, or limited our analysis of the legitimation of deadly force is in order.
Our interpretations hinge on some grounded assumptions about the
newsmaking process. We assume that the images and perspectives afforded
the greatest primacy have as much to do with the narrative and political cues
available to journalists as with objective facts or even standard news practices (Lawrence, 2000: 133). Though journalists are better positioned to
learn the objective facts of a particular case, we are better situated to judge
how well the balance of ideas and images within and across news accounts
accord with logic and scientifically grounded constructions of reality. Thus,
our generalizations regarding the exaggerated, imbalanced focus on the
criminality and marginality of the victims of deadly force presume that
most suspected criminals, as humans, are fluid blends of contradictory
propensities (Matza, 1964). Likewise, the prominence in news accounts of
rational, professional police-perpetrators conflicts with evidence that police
violence is often employed for ambiguous or expressive reasons and may be
a form of social and political repression (Skolnick and Fyfe, 1993; Chevigny,
1995; Jacobs and O Brien, 1998).
Our analytical strategy may offer additional evidence of an indeterminate relationship between news constructions and objective reality. We
find that the framing of police killings changed after the Diallo incident.
Likely due to a decline in police killings coupled with heightened interest
and activism in response to police killings, fewer stories centered on the
incident itself. These accounts were longer, more prominent, and more
often located within wider topical and cultural frames, and, thus, were less
likely to relay the official version unchecked and to taint victims. With
Diallos image forged in the public consciousness, an expanded range of
narrative possibilities included antagonistic, careless, or racist police officers

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Hirschfield and SimonLegitimating police violence


and innocent victims. Although declines in pro-police strategies within
particular narrative templates (incidents, trials, etc.) are not statistically
significant, the expurgation of police declines dramatically. Rather than
absolving officers involved in controversial shootings, this appears to facilitate their association with the oppressor icon. However, within articles
that do not evoke civil rights themes, it could serve to dissociate officers
from those involved in more controversial incidents.
Another feature of communications that conditions their interpretation
is the socially structured context in, for, and about which it was produced.
While the examples provided are consciously attentive to context, discussions of broader interpreted patterns are set against an overly uniform
cultural, political, and organizational backdrop. That said, our analytical
tasks of abstraction and generalization derive legitimacy from the fact
that the basic elements of sampled crime incident narratives appear to
follow standard, predictable discourse patterns (Halmari and stman,
2001) across space and time. Within a conceptualization of news as
meaning in the service of power (Thompson, 1990: 292), the standardized depiction of police and victims within news narratives on deadly
force appears to supplant individual identities, personal histories, and
subjectivities with those of abstract stereotypes or archetypes infused with
ideological meaning.
To be sure, a non-trivial share of articles individualize, humanize, and
contextualize police, victims, and their deadly encounters. However, these
articles had a decidedly different frame, tone, and apparent ideological
function. Generally centered on protest activity or civil lawsuits, they provided a platform for victims family members, civic leaders, and activists to
decry instances or patterns of excessive force. Though clearly outnumbered
by crime incident articles, critical articles may deserve more weight. Like
good dramatic narratives, serialized, in-depth news stories and associated
editorials and photographs draw readers into these incidents and succeeding events. Faithful followers of critical coverage, when reading about subsequent deaths at police hands and when judging police in other contexts,
may reference these deviant cases.
Suggestions for further research
This article documents general patterns of ideological content. Future
research should examine systematic sources of variation in ideological
patterns (e.g. race of victim, the political leanings of newspapers and
constituencies). The methods developed here for analysis of newspaper
texts can also be adapted for analysis of other types of legitimized violence and of televised official violence, including fictional narratives.
Likewise, investigating the secondary mediation of deadly force coverage
by the audience (Thompson, 1990) is an essential next step in examining
the legitimizing function of news coverage of police killings. Most Americans

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distrust the news media (Sourcebook, 2006), and a sizable minority distrusts
the police (Weitzer, 2002). A critical test of whether the symbolic strategies
examined here legitimize or disparage deadly force is whether their presence,
prominence, sequence and configurative elements expectedly influence readers
moral valuations (Cerulo, 1998). Whether the characteristics of individual
readers, especially race (Kaminski and Jefferis, 1998; Weizter and Tuch, 2004),
modify these effects should also be examined. A final test of ideological
importance is whether variation in media construction of deadly force incidents predicts official responses.
Understanding the prominence of particular images and frames in crimerelated news, political/legislative discourse, and in the wider culture
requires interrogating the semiotic or socio-linguistic patterns in news
accounts and assessing their impact. We hope our article provides a template for the measurement of patterns of ideological content on a scale that
is large enough to explain variation in public and official responses to crime
and violence but small enough to keep varying dimensions and shades of
symbolic significance within view.

Appendix: Sampled newspssapers, their locations, and article


frequency
Newspaper name

Location

Atlanta Journal and Constitution


Boston Globe
Boston Herald
Chicago Sun Times
Columbus Dispatch
Daily News
Denver Post
Houston Chronicle
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
New York Times
Omaha World Herald
Oregonian
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Rocky Mountain News
San Diego Union-Tribune
San Francisco Chronicle
Seattle Times
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
St. Petersburg Times
Star Tribune
Tampa Tribune
Times-Picayune
Washington Post
Total

Atlanta, Georgia
Boston, Massachusetts
Boston, Massachusetts
Chicago, Illinois
Columbus, Ohio
New York, New York
Denver, Colorado
Houston, Texas
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
New York, New York
Omaha, Nebraska
Portland, Oregon
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Denver, Colorado
San Diego, California
San Francisco, California
Seattle, Washington
St. Louis, Missouri
St. Petersburg, Florida
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Tampa, Florida
New Orleans, Louisiana
The District of Columbia

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Frequency
9
3
1
6
2
10
6
4
3
14
5
2
4
6
2
1
2
8
3
1
3
1
9
105

Hirschfield and SimonLegitimating police violence


Notes
We are grateful to Karen Cerulo, Daina Harvey, Jan Reinhart, Michael
Welch, and three anonymous reviewers for helpful feedback and to Joseph
Hirschfield, John Lang, Robin Simon, and Pierre Tannous for editorial
assistance.
1. The cited reports aggregate justifiable homicides of felons, defined as anyone who, when killed, was involved (or thought to be involved) in a violent
felony (Brown and Langan, 2001: 3). For reasons that will become obvious,
we reject the felon label.
2. One investigation revealed that, among 185 police brutality lawsuits
between 1986 and 1991, more defendants were promoted (9.2 percent) than
disciplined (4.3 percent), despite the $92 million in damages these lawsuits
exacted (cited in Vaughn et al., 2001).
3. There were two exceptions. One treated two cousins killed in a single incident as a unit. The other detailed two unrelated but similar incidents and
covered them homologously.
4. Recent research characterizes, during time periods that overlap heavily or
completely with our study period, the political leanings of the editorial
boards of 13 sampled newspapers (which provide 65 percent of the articles
in our research sample). Eight leaned toward Democratic candidates or liberal positions, three gravitated in a rightward direction, and two toward the
political center (Gentzkow and Shapiro, 2006; Ho and Quinn, 2008). Ten
sampled newspapers are the only large daily newspaper serving their metropolitan community, and eight have a single competitor. All of them assign
reporters to cover crime and police on a daily basis.
5. Two dysphemisms were also coded as expurgation of the police. Variants of
the word slain were used six times but not coded as dysphemisms.
6. Multivariate regression models (not shown) affirm that once shifts in articles topics are taken into account declines in these three pro-strategies are
no longer statistically significant. The drop in the portion of crime incident
articles explains the significant effect of the Diallo incident on expurgation
of victims and passivization/reactivation, while rendering its negative effect
on the number of pro-strategies only marginally significant (p = .095).
Likewise, the rise in the share of articles centered on investigations or trials
(often of controversial killings) is the most important explanation of the
decline in rationalization.

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PAUL J. HIRSCHFIELD is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University
in New Brunswick, NJ. His scholarship focuses on the causes and consequences
of criminalization, especially in the realm of inner-city schools and neighborhoods. His current projects focus on the impact of proactive policing on childrens
moral attitudes and delinquent behavior and on the extent and impact of the
reintegration of school-aged offenders into New York City public schools.
DANIELLA SIMON received her BA in Sociology from Rutgers University. She has
since been working as a Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst, providing
early intensive behavioral interventions to young children with developmental
disabilities.

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