On the word ‘lie’ and passive voice in covering the SWAT raid
Explaining how and why our stories look and sound the way they do, and what’s coming next
Demonstrators march up Central protesting police violence on Thursday, July 7, 2022. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)
A home burned down. A boy died inside.
Regardless of everything I’m about to say a little further down about how those two statements are phrased, those are the most important things to center as we continue pursuing the story about what SWAT did and why last week in Albuquerque.
Brett Rosenau was 15. If you, like me, are a ways out from that, do you remember what you were like at 15? Maybe you didn’t yet know what your passions and interests would be. Maybe you still watched TV with a big bowl of cereal in your lap.
Rosenau was visiting a friend when SWAT showed up and launched munitions at the place. If this doesn’t happen in your neighborhood, it might be hard to imagine what that must have been like. The police cars everywhere. The percussive sound of police launching gas grenades into the windows.
“Different types of munitions were used,” Albuquerque Police Department Chief Harold Medina said the next day at a news conference. “It is unknown exactly where in the home the individual was.”
Those vague statements paint a picture of police unsure of exactly where to aim their launchers but blasting tear gas and pepper spray and flash bangs around anyway.
A family lost their home. They don’t have their belongings. On Thursday morning, the SWAT officers got to go back to their houses. But the people who lived in that one didn’t.
People want police to be held accountable for this. I get it. What I’m about to talk about is maybe a little technical and grammatical, and a hard pivot from what I just laid out. But I want to walk you through some of our decision-making.
This info we have for certain so far: Rosenau died of smoke inhalation, according to early autopsy results, and firefighters delayed entering the house because, Medina said, they didn’t know whether the person police were after was armed.
We don’t know who told firefighters to hold off. We don’t know if police ever found a gun in the house or on the person they were after. We don’t have the results of an investigation into whether the gasses and flash-bangs police shot off caused the fire. And Source New Mexico doesn’t yet have other info proving what caused what, either.
For a lot of people commenting online, it seems obvious and incredibly frustrating that we’re not reporting it this way: Albuquerque police burned down a house and killed a teenager.
That’s active voice. And trust me, we get it. I bust chops all day about passive voice. I know it feels weird, like we’re removing accountability. But as news reporters, we can only report the facts we have for certain.
BREAKING: APD was “mistaken,” spokesperson says. There were no federal warrants out for Qiaunt Kelley last week when SWAT was called to the ID, where a home burned down and a teen died. APD relayed bad info to the press. It was repeated in most coverage. https://t.co/iURlc0MctA
— Source New Mexico (@source_nm) July 12, 2022
Some folks online have suggested that we’re using passive voice because we are kowtowing to the authority of police and that we’re afraid of reporting the story correctly because then we won’t get looped into police calls and news releases.
As the editor-in-chief of this outlet and a longtime local reporter who’s covered a lot of police violence with a critical and questioning lens, I can promise you this is not the case. As soon as we have information about that for sure — and we’re looking for it every way we can think of — we’ll report it out. The Source NM crew of experienced, investigative reporters has been working on covering this contextually and systemically.
And while I don’t want Source New Mexico to be in the story — like I said, the focus should be on the people who’ve lost a home and a child — I aim for this outlet to be accountable to you. That means answering questions and concerns about process and language.
Of course we welcome tips and information: [email protected].
The word “lie”
Qiaunt Kelley arrived at the house with the teen earlier in the evening. He had a warrant out for his arrest because of parole violations. This is part of why, police say, they ended up in a SWAT standoff. Kelley and Rosenau were working on a motorcycle in the yard when detectives moved in to arrest him, according to police, and he ran inside the house. He eventually surrendered as the home burned.
For about a week, police said they had federal and state warrants, plural, for Kelley. This wasn’t true.
Ever since we broke the story, Twitter comments are rolling in about the framing of that article. “APD was ‘mistaken’ about federal warrant for the man targeted in SWAT raid” is our headline. People are asking why we haven’t said: Police lied about warrants.
We’re open to criticism and conversation on this, but here’s my thinking: The word “lie” indicates intent. To use the word “lie,” we would have to have information showing that Police Chief Harold Medina, APD spokesperson Gilbert Gallegos or the police lieutenant who spoke knew what they were saying was untrue when they said it.
It may seem like common sense to online commenters to use the word “lie,” but Gallegos told us he didn’t know there weren’t federal warrants until he couldn’t find them on Tuesday after we’d been asking for days. News reporters just do have a different and more restrictive standard for relaying information than everyone else does, even police it appears.
We’re working on this thread of our ongoing coverage, too, and if we can pin down that it wasn’t just a mistake, we’ll report that out.
What we were really trying to say with Tuesday’s story is that police had one parole violation warrant for Kelley when they fired gasses and the like on the house. What they told everyone afterward was wrong.
My mistake, too
I reported Source’s first story on the SWAT raid. I attended a protest the day after it happened, hearing speeches from demonstrators and the people who lost their home. In writing it up, I also listened closely to the 20-minute news conference APD filmed and posted online. (You can watch the whole thing here.)
The way they phrased the information about the warrants seemed weird to me. What they said implied that Kelley had a warrant out for a recent car theft at least. APD spokesperson Gallegos called a lieutenant to the podium who said something about “federal probation violation for carjacking” and another for “unlawful taking of a motor vehicle out of the city of Santa Fe.”
Community outraged after a SWAT standoff leaves a teen dead and a home destroyed
That sounds like they’re saying he recently took someone’s car from them using violence, and maybe also stole a car from Santa Fe? In reality, we learned later, Kelley already served his time for a carjacking conviction, and he was out on parole. In March, months ago, a warrant was issued due to parole violations that aren’t specified in the arrest warrant beyond which conditions he is said to have violated.
I can see where reporters got “car theft” or “carjacking” from that news conference under deadline pressure with no other information available. We scoured databases for warrants. Several journalists helped. Nothing.
I asked APD to see copies of the warrants. No dice.
I felt like it would be odd to report the story without anything on what police were saying about why they were after Kelley. I figured if we had them on record saying it, we could hold them accountable if it turned out not to be true. So I reported out their strange-to-my-ears language in quotes, with a note that we’d asked to see the warrants and hadn’t yet.
Since then, I’ve wondered if that was the right call. Maybe it would have been better to leave it out altogether.
APD is facing allegations that SWAT officers burned down a house and killed a teenager. So officials are using language in a particular way as they work to explain what they did that night, and they’re rolling out what they can to emphasize that the guy they were after was dangerous and needed to be picked up at all costs. Even, potentially, the cost of a home and a life. Because though we don’t know what caused what, we do know that as the sun came up, that was the toll.
Gallegos, Medina and a police lieutenant gave false info to media when the department was taking heat. And it went everywhere.
Leaning into racist stereotypes
Kelley is Black. Rosenau is Black. The family who lost their home is Black. The people in the area now called the International District in southeast Albuquerque are mostly Brown and Black.
For a series I did for KUNM in 2019, the team I was working with researched the demographics of the area, and we described it this way. “This part of Albuquerque is unlike anywhere else in the state. It’s home to the largest number of African American people, one of the biggest urban Native American populations and more Hispanic people than nearly all the neighborhoods immediately around it. It’s called the International District in part because it’s the starting place for refugees and migrants who come to Albuquerque from all over the world.”
And it’s often the most heavily policed region in the city. People who live there have said it feels like the ID is under siege day-to-day.
There is a well-documented history in this country of police and politicians creating and capitalizing on white fear of Black and Brown violence. And the result of that is state violence, extreme rates of imprisonment, death, fatal immigration policy, generational trauma, stolen wealth and more.
Words like “fugitive” and “riot” from an APD spokesperson used on Twitter in relation to the SWAT standoff ring the bell of those vicious stereotypes. It’s low-hanging fruit, really, in a racist country like this one. It’s also not the more technical term Gallegos used in his official statement to us: “absconder.”
On Twitter, someone running the official @APD_PIO account started arguing with a state senator and also a freelance Source opinion columnist who is an anti-police violence activist. @APD_PIO evoked both words.
And despite @APD_PIO’s push to divert attention by saying shame on Source because this contributor, on their personal social media feed, was somehow inciting a riot (there has been no riot as of this writing), that’s really not the story here.
A home burned down. A boy died inside.
Advocates say APD is responsible for both.
Coverage is ongoing. As soon as we have anything for sure, we’ll get it out to you.
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