Striking a balance when the facts are cloudy
Breaking down an NYT cop-shooting story
I liked the following story by Al Baker, a New York Times cop reporter, who put together a Nov. 14 police-shooting story with additional reporting feeds from five colleagues. It’s a model for the crucible reporters frequently must endure on deadline, when they anticipate the reader’s most penetrating question: What REALLY happened?
In the following police-shooting story, the best answer on deadline was: “a tragedy.” Whose fault was it? The reader wonders. “We’re not sure,” the newspaper answers, “but at this point here are the facts.”
Read the 1,800-word story for its straight-forward tone and its attempt to capture both sides of the story, at times with minute-to-minute narrative construction. (My observations are in caps:)
COMMISSIONER DEFENDS ‘TRAGIC’ SHOOTING
AS WITHIN POLICE GUIDELINES
By AL BAKER
THE LEAD IS A EFFECTIVE LITANY OF THE KNOWN FACTS
A troubled 18-year-old man. A furious family argument inside a first-floor Brooklyn apartment. A 911 call. Then, in the darkness, 20 bullets fired by five police officers. The 18-year-old is fatally wounded. The police say he was holding a hairbrush.
The episode unfolded in about 14 minutes in the apartment, an alley next to it and the sidewalk in front of it on Monday evening. The victim, Khiel Coppin, was struck by 10 of the bullets fired by the police and was later pronounced dead at Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center, the authorities said.
TIGHT DISTILLATION OF THE COPS’ CASE
Yesterday, the police gave their version of events, going to considerable lengths to defend the five officers who fired the shots — displaying elaborate charts, playing portions of a 911 call from Mr. Coppin’s mother in which he could be heard screaming, ”I got a gun,” and showing blowup photographs of Mr. Coppin’s handwritten notes, pulled from his pockets after he died.
”As we know the facts now, this shooting appears to be within department guidelines, as officers fired at someone they reasonably believed to be about to use deadly force against them,” Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said, describing the shooting as a ”terrible tragedy.”
BACK QUICKLY TO THE OTHER SIDE
Paul Wooten, a lawyer for Mr. Coppin’s family, responded brusquely to Mr. Kelly’s statements. He said the commissioner played only a small portion of the 911 tape ”that helps the Police Department,” and he demanded a thorough investigation. The police later released a transcript of a second call in which an operator phoned Mr. Coppin’s mother, Denise Owens, to get a better physical description of her son, whom Ms. Owens said was not armed.
Standing with Mr. Coppin’s mother, father and siblings outside the morgue where they had just identified his body, Mr. Wooten also disputed the contention by some officials that Mr. Coppin provoked the shooting as a means toward his own death, a phenomenon known in law enforcement circles as ”suicide by cop.”
”There’s no credible evidence at this time to suggest that this was a suicide attempt,” he said.
Some witnesses disputed the police account, and others asked why the police were unable to subdue the man without killing him. A group of residents from Bedford-Stuyvesant marched to the 79th Precinct station house to express their displeasure.
The shooting will be investigated by the office of Brooklyn district attorney and by the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau, officials said.
PERSPECTIVE GRAF REINFORCING THE TRAGIC NATURE OF THE CASE, SETTING THE READER UP FOR A MORE EXPANSIVE LOOK AT THE DETAILS
It was clear yesterday that in those moments in the darkness, sudden and seemingly random movements by Mr. Coppin collided tragically with moves by the police. Dissecting what happened during those 14 minutes, action by action, shows that whatever the level of training and preparedness of the officers, in a volatile and fluid situation a potential tragedy may be just around the corner.
”It is hard to justify shooting someone with a comb,” said one police official. ”And you find yourself in a position of defending the actions. Unfortunately, policing takes on the demeanor that you have to be right 100 percent of the time — and that is an impossible standard for anyone to meet.
”There will be a lot of controversy over this,” the official added. ”It was a tragic accident, a tragic mistake. And, unfortunately, you cannot take back the bullets.” Mr. Kelly said the events on Monday simply outpaced the department’s ability to respond.
THE STORY MOVES TO THE TROUBLED LIFE OF THE VICTIM
Mr. Coppin’s mother, Denise Owens, had experienced trouble with her son long before Monday.
Three times in January 2005, Mr. Coppin robbed people in the street, twice striking his victims and pointing a gun at them, according to a law enforcement official. He confessed to the robberies after his mother turned him in, and spent time in a juvenile facility.
Ms. Owens, the police said, struggled with her son’s psychiatric problems. He took antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs, and had been admitted to Kings County Hospital Center’s psychiatric ward, officials said.
On Monday, after reaching out to a crisis team, Ms. Owens told detectives, she asked her son to leave the apartment, but he refused. She said she twice pretended to call 911, to scare him into leaving. ”She also said that Khiel had picked up a tape dispenser, put it under his sweatshirt and said that he was, quote, ‘Prepared to die,”’ Mr. Kelly said.
HAVING ESTABLISHED A MINUTE-BY-MINUTE CHRONOLOGY, THE REPORTER SHARES IT WITH US. IT HELPS US FEEL THE HELPLESSNESS OF THE PARTICIPANTS. THIS ALLOWS THE TONE OF THE STORY TO CHANGE. THE SENTENCES GET SHORTER. (THE STORY AVERAGES 19.3 WORDS PER SENTENCE, WHICH FOR THE CLAUSE-HAPPY NYT IS TIGHT WRITING.) THE STORY MOVES WITH MORE FORCE.
Ms. Owens called 911 at 7:05 p.m. to report more trouble with her son. The call went over as a ”10-52,” which means a ”family dispute with a firearm.”
As Ms. Owens spoke to the operator, giving her address, a man she identified as her son was heard in the background saying, ”I got a gun and I’m gonna shoot you,” according to a transcript of the call. He repeated the threat four times during the call, which lasted 1 minute and 17 seconds.
At 7:07 p.m., two uniformed officers from the 79th Precinct arrived at Ms. Owens’s apartment at 590 Gates Avenue. They found the door to Apartment 1D ajar and saw Mr. Coppin holding two knives, one in each hand, in the hallway between the front door and a back bedroom.
The officers ushered out Ms. Owens and her 11-year-old daughter. Ms. Owens told them that her son ”was armed with knives, but not a gun,” Mr. Kelly said.
Mr. Coppin, however, told the officers he had a gun. As they approached him, he lunged toward the officers with the knives and yelled, ”Shoot me, kill me,” Mr. Kelly said.
Mr. Coppin then retreated to a back bedroom as the officers went the other way, to an outside hallway, where they met two detectives.
Mr. Coppin peeked periodically from behind the bedroom door, showing a knife or holding something under his sweatshirt while saying he was armed. ”At one point, he yelled at the officers, ‘Come get me, I have a gun, let’s do this,”’ Mr. Kelly said.
At 7:08, the officers called the emergency service unit, whose officers are trained in the use of nonlethal restraining equipment and tactics.
At 7:17, Capt. Charles McEvoy, the second in command at the 79th Precinct, joined the four officers in the hallway.
Captain McEvoy called for the hostage negotiation team. A lieutenant on the scene also called for technical assistance and response unit. In the next moments, the officers in the hallway heard Mr. Coppin moving a gate that covered the bedroom window. Officers in the street began yelling that Mr. Coppin was going out the window.
At 7:18, a sergeant on the scene reported Mr. Coppin’s location outside the window over the radio. Mr. Coppin dropped four feet to the sidewalk. He walked through an exterior gate and marched toward officers in front of the building — officers who had not been facing him inside. Captain McEvoy ordered five officers in front of the building — two officers and a sergeant from the housing bureau, and a sergeant and detective from the 79th Precinct — to back up and take cover, which they did, behind police cars.
Mr. Coppin ignored the orders to stop, show his hands and get down on the ground.
”He just kept walking toward the officers,” said Beverly Holloman, 50, who watched the police as Mr. Coppin climbed out a window three floors below hers. ”He wasn’t saying anything.”
Witnesses said Mr. Coppin had his right hand under his black sweatshirt and was holding an object, with his left hand on top of his right hand. He reached under his sweatshirt, pulled out the object and pointed it in the officers’ direction as if he were aiming a gun, Mr. Kelly said.
The police officers opened fire. No gun was recovered.
NICE TOUCH TO MAKE THE NEXT SENTENCE A SEPARATE ONE, RATHER THAN COMBINING INTO PREVIOUS GRAF
But the hairbrush was.
The officers range in age from 35 to 45, and each one has at least 10 years in the department. One of the officers fired six times, one fired five shots, two of them fired four times. The detective, the only one in plain clothes, fired once, using a revolver.
A spokeswoman for the city’s medical examiner’s office said Mr. Coppin was shot in the chest, his right hip, the back of his left forearm, the front of his right and left knees, and the back of his left leg. He also suffered three wounds to the left thigh and one to the front and another to the side of his right ankle.
INFO ABOUT VICTIM’S NOTES COULD HAVE BEEN MOVED UP BUT MY IMPRESSION IS THAT THE WRITER, STILL UNSURE WHETHER THIS WAS A SUICIDE-BY-COP INCIDENT, DIDN’T WANT TO PREJUDICE THE READER. THE SENTIMENTS VOICED IN THE NOTES ARE NOT CONCLUSIVE
The notes in Mr. Coppin’s pockets said: ”those closest 2 death iz closer 2 happyness” and ”that’s why more bums truly smile than millionaires.”
GOOD, TIGHT GRAFS ABOUT PROTESTS
There were angry outbursts in the neighborhood yesterday.
At one point, Mr. Coppin’s friends, acquaintances and others marched to the 79th Precinct station house to protest the shooting of an unarmed black man nearly a year after another black man, Sean Bell, was killed in a hail 50 police bullets in Queens.
The demonstration at the station house was led by a man waving a brown hairbrush.
”How many?” the man, Calvin B. Hunt Jr. said, referring to the number of police bullets. ”Twenty shots,” the crowd of about 100 people answered.
At the building where Mr. Coppin lived, several people described officers swarming in the street, their guns drawn, focusing on Mr. Coppin.
ENDING IS CONSTRUCTED TO REINFORCE THE POINT OF THE STORY: A TRAGEDY
A woman who witnessed the shooting but declined to give her name held her hands high to imitate how Mr. Coppin was holding his hands up as he stood in the window as police yelled for him to get down, though she could not see if he was holding anything. ”I spent the majority of the night on the bathroom floor, terrified,” said one woman.
”I’m a mother,” she said. ”Do you have any idea how it feels to know that I stood there and watched another mother’s child get shot?”