Stop Calling Keith Lamont Scott "A Suspect"

by Noor Al-Sibai

After the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, who was not a suspect, it's imperative that those watching (and reporting) the news from the safety of their homes do all they can to humanize Scott — especially as the story continues to develop. That's why when I learned that the man shot and killed by police in my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, was initially being called a "suspect" in an "officer-involved shooting" in the local media, I was shocked. We must stop dehumanizing Black people killed by police, whether it's by not calling victims of fatal shootings "suspects" before the facts are known, or by refraining from using the phrase "officer-involved shooting." Both of these tendencies criminalize the dead.

Little is known at the time of writing about Keith Lamont Scott, the man killed by police in Charlotte this afternoon, but what his family and bystanders say happened is damning. According to The Root, cops looking for someone with an outstanding warrant reportedly saw a man with a gun leaving a vehicle. When Scott, who was not the subject of the search, returned to his vehicle, the police allegedly approached him and opened fire. According to the police report, Scott was armed and "posed an imminent deadly threat to the officers." The police also said they recovered the firearm after his death. The amount of time that elapsed between the police approach and their gunfire is currently unknown, but according to eyewitnesses, Scott was allegedly tased and shot four times, and was then taken to the hospital where he later died.

Some witnesses also alleged that Scott was unarmed (which the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department refuted) and was reading a book in his car while waiting to pick his son up from school when he was approached and then shot and killed by police. These reports conflict with the official Charlotte-Mecklenburg police reports and Bustle has reached out to the City of Charlotte for comment.

Although most local news organizations in Charlotte have taken out the word "suspect" in their headlines and replaced it with "person," the effect is similar — a sterile re-telling of police and eyewitness accounts that follows the technical rules of reporting on breaking crime stories, but in doing so, strips the victim of his humanity. One article from a local CBS affiliate refers to the shooting as an "incident" multiple times, and refers to Scott as a "person" throughout. Another, updated at 9:41 p.m. ET, nearly two hours after The Root broke the story nationally and claimed that Scott was not the person in the original police search, said it was "unclear if the person who was shot was the suspect police were looking for."

This isn't just a semantic argument. The use of tone and context in both the headline and body of a text greatly shapes what the reader takes away from a news story. Just like saying Black people are "looting" while white people are "finding food" after disasters like Hurricane Katrina plays into the implicit racist biases most Americans have, reporters and commentators referring to a victim like Scott as a "person" or a "suspect" and his murder as an "incident" makes it seem like his being shot and killed just sort of happened, or worse, immediately assumes it was his own fault.