In analyzing the lead paragraphs of numerous newspaper stories that covered the lawful shooting of Ezell Ford, it is apparent that exclusion of relevant facts from those lead paragraphs assisted in the creation of an inaccurate narrative of the events leading up to and including the shooting. For some, this inaccurate narrative has blossomed into an urban legend, and this particular yarn goes something like this: Los Angeles police officers unlawfully targeted and gunned down an innocent, unarmed black man who happened to be out for a stroll heading back to his home. This urban legend is simply untrue.
A careful, even cursory, reading of the official report of the Ford shooting, issued by the Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s Justice System Integrity Division, categorically refutes the urban legend version of what occurred. We find it curious as to why some print media outlets choose to “bury the lead” and not include the comprehensive investigative findings from this report to initially frame an accurate narrative of events for their readers.
The importance of the words and phrases utilized in a lead paragraph of a newspaper story cannot be over-emphasized. In most instances, lead paragraphs set the tone for a newspaper story and are used to deliver the basic facts of a story with subsequent paragraphs utilized to buttress, support, explain or even justify content contained in the lead paragraph and reaction to it. In this day and age when, according to the Washington Post, most consumers of news read just the headlines and/or the first paragraphs, what is contained, or in many instances, what is omitted from lead paragraphs can leave a lasting impression in the reader’s mind.
Take, for instance, the headline and lead paragraph below from a Los Angeles Times article published on January 24, 2017:
No charges against LAPD officers who shot and killed Ezell Ford, D.A. says
Los Angeles County prosecutors said Tuesday they will not criminally charge two Los Angeles police officers who shot and killed Ezell Ford during a clash near his South L.A. home in 2014. This conclusion drew the ire of activists who say LAPD officers are rarely held accountable when they use deadly force.
This lead paragraph begs several questions, does not accurately portray the events that justified the shooting and omits a critical finding made by the District Attorney’s Justice System Integrity Division report on the Ford shooting.
By utilizing the phrase “not criminally charge” in the lead paragraph without utilizing the essential conclusion from the investigative report that “prosecutors concluded that Ford posed an immediate threat to the officers and they acted lawfully when they shot him” leaves an impression that although not charged, the officers' actions were not justified.
Couple “not criminally charged” with a portion of the last sentence of the lead paragraph where “activists” allege “LAPD officers are rarely held accountable when they use deadly force” and the reader is left with the impression that the officers need to be held accountable for what was legally deemed a justified shooting. Typically, holding someone accountable is for a bad act or bad behavior, and that is not what the D.A. found in this case.
Characterizing that the officers shot Mr. Ford after a “clash” does not come close to describing what occurred prior to the shooting. For a reader of only the headline and first paragraph of this story, “clash” could have meant a verbal altercation. Clearly, a verbal altercation for most would not justify deadly force, but that is not what occurred in this case. Utilizing “clash” in the lead paragraph is not fair to the officer who was tackled by Mr. Ford and had to fight to keep control of his service weapon in a violent confrontation initiated by Mr. Ford.
The actual description of the confrontation is described in detail in the D.A.’s report. They concluded and the evidence supports that Mr. Ford tackled the officer, fought violently for the officer’s weapon, that the officers gave numerous lawful verbal commands to stop, that the officers believed their lives were in imminent danger and subsequently shot Mr. Ford to stay alive. Period.
What is also left out of the lead paragraph or the subsequent paragraph is why Mr. Ford was stopped. Mr. Ford was sitting on a couch with identified gang members in front of a known criminal gang house where drugs are dealt on a frequent basis. Drug purchasers consume the drugs bought at this location at a nearby alley a few feet from where Mr. Ford was sitting with other known gang members.
Mr. Ford was observed by two uniformed Los Angeles police officers driving in a marked LAPD police car walking away from the congregation of gang members. The D.A.’s report states that when Mr. Ford saw the police officers, he tried to gain distance from the officers and put his hands in his pockets and waistband. The officers observed these actions and concluded that Mr. Ford, having just left a known gang and drug hotspot, may be attempting to discard drugs or be in possession of a weapon.
So the officers did what thousands of officers do every day: they stopped their car and attempted to initiate a consensual conversation with Mr. Ford. Let’s run through the facts one more time. Mr. Ford was on a couch in front of a house sitting with identified gang members at a location where drugs are dealt and consumed. Mr. Ford, having seen the police officers, tried to gain distance between himself and the officers, and put his hands in his pockets and waistband.
When the officers attempted to speak to Mr. Ford, he kept walking away. An officer placed his hand on Mr. Ford’s shoulder and Mr. Ford turned around and tackled the officer, and violently attempted to seize the officer’s weapon. Mr. Ford’ s DNA was found on the officer’s holster, and the other physical evidence and witness statements confirmed the assault on the officer by Mr. Ford.
Fearing for their lives if Mr. Ford was successful in seizing the officer’s weapon, the officers used deadly force to stop Mr. Ford.
A more accurate lead paragraph to the LA Times article published on January 24, 2017, would look like this (our additions in bold):
Los Angeles County prosecutors said Tuesday they will not criminally charge two Los Angeles police officers who shot and killed Ezell Ford after Ford tackled an officer and attempted to take his weapon in a violent assault near his South L.A. home in 2014. Prosecutors concluded that Ford posed an immediate threat to the officers and they acted lawfully when they shot him. This conclusion drew the ire of activists who say LAPD officers are rarely held accountable when they use deadly force.
The urban legend that the unarmed Mr. Ford was just out for a stroll and was targeted and killed by LAPD police officers for no reason other than being black is untrue, and lead paragraphs in newspaper stories should report that fact accurately.
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