Baltimore City Paper

Wandering Eye: The right way to report on sexual assault, an update on SWAT culture, and more

On Monday, The Sun published an article by Ian Duncan about a new report from Human Rights Watch, which "says retaliation against military service members who report sexual assaults has contributed to a culture of fear and silence." It's worth reading because of the subject, but it's also worth reading as a great example of how to write about sexual assault. (Full disclosure: I used to work for an anti-sexual assault advocacy group and wrote a guide for its website for journalists writing about gender-based violence.) When describing the personal experiences of one sexual assault survivor in the West Virginia National Guard, Duncan doesn't use the word "alleged," which is loaded with connotations that can cast doubt in a reader's mind as to the validity of a survivor's story. He also avoids using the passive voice when talking about rape, which is important: Journalists disproportionately use the passive voice when talking about sexual assault, even though research has shown this construction correlates with readers thinking survivors are to blame for their assaults. I do have qualms about articles that open with details of a sexual assault to "hook" the reader, as Duncan does, but at least he does it in a way that's far less exploitative than many stories do (looking at you, Rolling Stone). (Anna Walsh)

Here is Mother Jones updating us on the state of SWAT culture. At a Southern California SWAT convention called "Urban Shield," reporter Shane Bauer and a videographer find that it is just exactly the same as it was in 1998, when I took a look at the Central Florida SWAT scene (the SWAT epicenter at the time) and when Radley Balko took up the story a few years later. The bottom line: All that gear means money—for manufacturers and, crucially, for the cops who get involved in the training/sales circuit. It is a huge conflict of interest, as the most gear-head, heavily armed police become financially tied to (if not dependent on) weapons manufacturers. Those cops then teach tactics, and those tactics become doctrine, used to support more weapons purchases and to defend against the countless lawsuits that follow. The MoJo team did not focus on this, though—they got too bogged down by the secrecy and bad vibes from the SWAT guys. Same bullshit happened to me in 1998, when one department declined to even say how many officers were on their SWAT team. MoJo got some good scenes though, and found that the money now—$4 billion from Homeland Security alone—dwarfs what was available pre-9/11. Keep that in mind, and this quote MoJo got from a retired cop, which is the takeaway from any story about elite police units: "If we didn't think that drugs were the most evilest thing in the history of God's green earth," he says, "and weren't running hither and yon trying to catch people with dope in their house, none of this would have happened." (Edward Ericson Jr.)

Poisoning, the good old-fashioned way of drugging someone surreptitiously and killing them, is making a comeback! Or so says The Washington Post. The evidence for this includes the death of a Russian man who exposed a tax fraud ring before emigrating to London, an English nurse convicted of poisoning 22 people, and the exhumations of historical figures Simón Bolívar, Pablo Neruda, and Yasser Arafat, all of whom were suspected of being poisoned. Enter John Emsley, the author of "The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison." "Poisoning may be enjoying a comeback, or it may be that it’s harder to get away with it now," he tells The Post, adding that "Forensic chemistry is now so sophisticated that it’s possible to detect poisons at levels that previous generations would not have thought possible." (Brandon Weigel)