Head’s up: There’s a new weapon out there
De-contextualization is being used against officers, departments and the entire profession
This article originally appeared in the September 2019 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Influencing lawmakers | New weapon against cops | Anti-police sentiment, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.
By Duane Wolfe
Throughout the academy, into your FTO phase and up to today you have been trained to look for, identify and appropriately deal with weapons you might find at a scene and on the people you deal with daily.
Over time the types of weapons officers encounter have remained consistent; hands and feet, blades, blunt objects, firearms and a variety of “weapons of opportunity.” You and your partner’s ability to spot those weapons and activate a planned response to handle them has kept you safe. When you miss them, you or someone else may be seriously injured or killed.
Now, offenders are using a new weapon against you, your partners, your department and the entire profession. It’s called de-contextualization – removing or manipulating the context of an incident to change its perceived meaning.
De-contextualization can be hidden in plain view, go completely unrecognized and, when not dealt with, it can potentially harm all of us. As with any other weapon, you have to know what it looks like and how it works to render it safe or at the very least, lessen the damage it may inflict.
So how is it used?
Smartphones, as you know, give anyone with a phone the opportunity to record anything at any time. The media, including social media platforms and broadcast news, thrive on video. Often the smartphones recording police interactions are turned on after a situation escalates into police use of force. In some cases, the footage is actually edited to eliminate the situation and behavior that served as the catalyst for the use of force and shows only the force officers were compelled to use.
Without a full video of the incident, the viewer is left to draw their conclusions about what they see and hear. By not having the full incident recorded, the context is removed or seriously skewed. Often, a false narrative follows.
Ignoring the real reason for the interaction
Frequently, we see recordings that focus on some small aspect of a force event but ignores the real reason for the involved officers’ actions. Here are a few examples from recent events:
- A man was “shot by the police because of a burned-out taillight.” The reality was the vehicle was stopped because the driver resembled an armed robbery suspect. When police engaged him, he attempted to draw a gun, despite multiple warnings from the officer not to do so.
- A man was shot by police while “simply sitting with his girlfriend and baby.” The rest of the story: the suspect had been firing a pistol in an urban neighborhood. When the police saw him sitting on a curb with a gun in his hand, he fled, then turned and fired at the officers.
- A man was shot “for selling CDs.” In fact, officers had responded to a report of a man threatening people with a gun. When approached, the suspect fought with the officers, then attempted to draw a gun.
Changing the meaning of words and phrases
This is another way to de-contextualize. For example, taking a well-established and generally understood word like “warrior” – one who serves to protect the people – and changing it to mean “Someone who is at war with the people.” Or taking a term like “The Thin Blue Line,” which has represented a symbol of law enforcement for decades, and claiming it’s a symbol of racism.
Misrepresenting the spirit or meaning of the law
A common example of this is when people over-simplify the law and say that officers “just need fear” in order to use deadly force. They inaccurately claim that all officers have to say is, “I was in fear…” and they can justifiably shoot people. Obviously, these statements have taken the law and twisted it to mean something inaccurate and unlawful.
These are just a few examples of de-contextualization.
So how do we as individuals, departments and a profession deal with this weapon? The answer is to re-contextualize. Insist that the context of an event, a word or phrase or the law is not overlooked or lost and proactively provide that context when it’s available.
Here are several ways to re-contextualize:
- Provide the public with evidence of why police acted as they did as soon as it’s possible, practical and legal.
- Educate the public, including critics, on the law and the duties and responsibilities of law enforcement. Offer citizen academies and invite the media, politicians and critics to participate. This can be eye-opening and helpful in the re-contextualization effort. Offer the opportunity to participate in realistic training scenarios so that civilians can understand the law, tactics and the limits of human performance and gain first-hand knowledge (context) of the realities of our profession. You have nothing to lose. If they choose not to participate, that provides another context.
- Continually emphasize ALL the factors that contributed to a particular incident’s outcome.
- Understand that not everyone who de-contextualizes is doing it to harm the perception of law enforcement. Most people repeat only what they hear and never bother to delve deeper to gain knowledge of the complex issues at hand. These are the people that we need to reach because they have a mind that may be open to change.
- Understand that those who choose to use this weapon do so to further their own agendas. Whether they are our critics, the media or a politician, we as a profession need to publicly hold them accountable for their words and actions. We do not control broadcast media, but we can and should have a profound influence on social media.
About the author
Duane Wolfe is currently a law enforcement instructor at Alexandria Technical and Community College in Alexandria, Minnesota, as well as a conference speaker, expert witness, and widely published law enforcement columnist. During his 25-year law enforcement career in Minnesota, he served as a patrol officer, and a use-of-force and firearms instructor.