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Laura Kessel is managing editor of The News-Herald in Willoughby. She writes a weekly column and shares her thoughts here.

Friday, January 17, 2014

With a little help, language puts me on the right track

I’ll consider it a little victory.

It’s not often my thoughts match those of Euclid Police Capt. Scott Roller. At least not at the start of the conversation.

So, when it happened last week, I silently did a little happy dance in my chair in the basement of the Euclid Police Station.

We were there for what was my first meeting of the Euclid Citizen Police Academy Alumni Association. I graduated in November as part of Class 27.

The group serves many functions, but one of my favorites is that it raises funds to purchase body armor for the city’s police officers.

The discussion turned to an inquiry from an officer who wondered if the group would provide funds for a type of vest that far exceeded what other officers wear. It consists of heavier-duty panels, and it’s designed to be worn over the vest that most officers wear regularly. It’s not worn all the time.

My initial thought was “is that really necessary?”

Then, from the back of the room, Roller said he wanted to ask a question: “If someone asked for an armored personnel carrier, would you buy that, too?”

Yes! Let’s dance.

During the discussion it was decided that, yes, the group could probably buy the vest. But that’s not why the program was started.

You see, the purpose of the funding program is to encourage officers to wear up-to-date body armor all the time. This other vest? Yes, it is armor worn on the body, but it’s not the type of “body armor” that the program was envisioned to subsidize.

I’m resisting the urge to call what most police officers wear “bullet-proof vests.” That’s mostly because they’re really not “bullet-proof.” They have open sides where the arms come through, and, well, they only cover the chest and most of the officer’s back. Head’s open. Legs are open. Arms are open.

The words matter. And, thankfully, Roller is helping to keep me focused on them.

I’ve written about Roller before, in a column after an early class as part of the ECPA in which I realized how important asking questions is to police work.

In five months of knowing Roller, I’ve become well-versed in the art of his conversation. He works in questions as other artists work in clay or watercolor.

He’s a tricky guy, because as he asks, I find my own way to the answer.

I’m also learning to look at a subject in a different way. To look at underlying issues; to consider that things might not be a simple as they seem, or as I might like them to be.

It’s rare that I don’t take notes when we talk. A conversation Monday ended with two pages of notes and the topic of this column.

We got into a discussion about an incident that occurred late last year in Mentor.

A 56-year-old man was arrested when police responded to his apartment after reports that a man was threatening his neighbors with a knife. Mentor Police said the suspect had barricaded himself in his residence and refused to speak to police. Police made entry, and said the suspect charged at them with an object in his hands. Mentor Police said one of the officers fired a shot inside the residence that didn’t strike the suspect or anyone else.

The incident, which occurred on Dec. 14, remains under investigation.

The conversation took off when I asked why a shooting that involved one bullet, fired by someone Mentor Police willingly admit fired it, would take so long to investigate. As it turn out, there are some really good reasons that I hadn’t considered.

That conversation covered a lot of territory.

Some dealt with why it’s so important to me to know what happened that day. He understood my feelings that if we tell the public the investigation would be ongoing that we should tell them its results.

Some dealt with how the investigation has to protect the rights of both the suspect and the officer involved.

The law gives criminal suspects certain rights, but what about the officer?

“The suspect has rights in court. Doesn’t the officer have a reasonable expectation that he will be treated fairly, too?”

Then, there was the big one.

And, as a writer and editor, it’s this one that, to me, might be the most important.

I discussed the shooting using the word “accidental.”

Roller corrected me and used the word “unintentional.” Actually, it could be either, because we don’t know yet what happened.

Some might say he’s playing a game of semantics. I disagree.

I once had an editor who forbade the word “accident” in our coverage. His explanation was that it applied a legal definition that we’re in no place to make. We’d say wreck or crash.

For police, a shooting is either “unintentional” or “intentional.” Simplifying that, it becomes “he didn’t mean to fire” or “he meant to fire.” It widens slightly, though, when a shooting is deemed “intentional, but justified.”

Accidents do happen. Guns are machines, and machine parts break. But when someone pulls a trigger at a bad time, it might be unintentional, but it’s no accident the gun goes off.

This all started because I asked who’d be responsible for the damage done to the apartment from the bullet that was fired inside.

I admitted that I was trying to find another way to get at the outcome of the investigation. And, above, you see the progression of our conversation.

Once again, I found myself looking at the issue from another side. If we call it an “accident,” we tend to think, “accidents happen” and move on. When we call it “unintentional,” we accept the possibility that it might have been preventable. But it might not be preventable, too.

It’s an angle I hadn’t considered, and it’s an important technique that I need to master.

The language you use can force you to think about issues from angles you might not have considered, and change the nature of the discussion.

You should try it.

Twitter: @Lauranh


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