I recently read Ben Montgomery’s article for the Tampa Bay Times titled, “Why Cops Shoot.” In response to the local police department’s sparse and incomplete records on civilian shootings, the newspaper requested documents from 400 Florida police on each situation where a person was shot during a five-year period. The motivation was to paint a broader encompassing picture of police violence than was being provided by the agencies.
The Tampa Bay Times was not alone in its desire for more information on officer-related shooting deaths in the area, as many family members affected by this violence are still searching for answers as well. The article begins by introducing Natasha Clemons. Still perplexed about why officers fired on her son, Rodney Mitchell, during a traffic stop gone awry. Information about Clemons’ relationship with her son is conveyed by details from the night of his death. Examples include the gospel CD in the car stereo and the license plate “GODANGL.”
Photographs are used throughout the piece to convey visual minutia impossible to translate to text. Upon the page loading, readers are greeted by a photograph of a shirtless, middle-aged man surrounded by four police officers. Three are holding hand-guns, the fourth’s knuckles tight as he clutches a black rifle to his shoulder as he aims at the shirtless man. Wires from a taser can be seen extending from the suspect’s bare chest, his arms gripped tight around himself, and his mouth agape as he falls backward. This image is paired with the title of the piece, “Why Cops Shoot,” in large capital letters directly below.
The piece makes use of images from a variety of sources. In between paragraphs are family photographs, screen-captures from cellphone footage posted to the internet, images taken by professional photojournalists, and materials provided by police departments. The latter section includes official portraits of officers, forensic images showing numbered trajectories of bullets through a car window, and a particularly visceral image of Mitchell’s dried and coagulated blood splashed on a childhood photograph of him and his sister.
The authors also used audio and video recordings from interviews with mothers who have lost sons to police violence. I would like to address these media elements together, as their presentation was reliant on the other. The article’s first video segment uses audio recordings of Clemons’ explaining her persistent disbelief about her sons’ killers not facing criminal charges superimposed over video footage of from a local Black Lives Matter meeting. This juxtaposition communicates to readers to inherent relationship between Clemons’ pain and her political activities. Had these pieces not been combined, the article would not have been as successful in communicating the relationship between the activists and struggles they have overcome.
The elements of media are woven together by the article’s text component, which follows the narrative surrounding Clemons’ life after the death of her son. Natasha Clemons serves as our protagonist, whose process of grieving and coming to terms with the tragedy provide personal conflict for the piece. The use of such a personal narrative also prevents readers from glossing over the statistics contained, as the story illustrates how disruptive a single death is on a family and community. The narrative could be also considered in media res as it begins with the death of Clemons’ son and the rest of the article following the aftermath.
This story is an extremely effective package that conveys the toll that paranoid policing can have on individuals, parents, siblings, and entire communities. By using a single story to examine a larger phenomenon, the article provides the heart and humanity that is often missing from academic articles on statistics of police shootings. I believe that this speaks to the audience the piece was conceived for, as the emotional component is the hook for everyday readers who would never open a sociological academic journal article with their morning coffee. However, readers who finished this article would likely come away just as informed as if they had skimmed the journal article.