The killing of 13-year-old Tyler Lawrence on a Sunday morning two weeks ago still resonates in his home in Norwood and his grandparents’ Mattapan community, as his mother recalled his passion for basketball, and friends described him at a vigil a few days ago as a “peacemaker” at school.
But as loved ones work to keep his memory alive, the language law enforcement used to describe his death has sparked conversation over the way police talk about violent crime, and whether it says anything about victims like Lawrence.
Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden and Boston Police Superintendent Felipe Colon have both publicly stated that they believe the attack on Lawrence was “targeted,” or an intentional act. But Lawrence’s family quickly took issue with the term, telling the Globe last week that the word insinuates an incident involving a “bad kid.”
“People who live in the suburbs might look at that word ‘targeted’ and think, ‘Oh, he’s just another one,’ ” said Lawrence’s grandfather, Stanley Lawrence. “But he isn’t just another one.”
And in Greater Boston, a region where neighborhoods are often stereotyped, Tyler Lawrence’s family stressed that even his upbringing — as a boy living south of Boston in Norwood, who frequently visited his grandparents in Mattapan — is now under scrutiny.
“I have to do the work of pursuing justice for Tyler ... the work of getting people to understand that this is not typical — whatever they think typical is — of a family that lives in Mattapan or a young boy that gets shot down,” added his mother, Remy Lawrence. “This is not that.”
On Monday, Hayden clarified his earlier statement, telling reporters at a press conference that “we must [make] no assumptions about Tyler Lawrence from the evil intent of the shooter in this case.”
Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, said in an e-mail Wednesday that Hayden “used the term [targeted] at the scene to indicate that the shooter intended to shoot the victim, Tyler, and to make clear that other scenarios were not in play, such as a gunfight between groups, or a drive-by shooting, or a person randomly shooting people on the street.”
“Neither he nor the office have drawn any assumptions about Tyler from the shooter’s intent, and nor should the public or the media,” he said.
Borghesani added that the word “targeted” is commonly used among law enforcement to refer to the attackers’ intent, not the victim’s character. However, some academics disagreed.
“I would definitely assume ... that the kid was up to no good when he was shot, if a term like that is used,” said Peter Moskos, a former police officer and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Moskos said that terms such as “targeted” are useful to law enforcement for reassuring the public that a gunman is not on the loose, randomly attacking civilians. But he acknowledged that the language used in violent crime can come with stereotypes, simplifying complex situations and separating people into good guys and bad guys.
“You’ll hear the term ‘innocent victim’ a lot for non-targeted killings, and again, I think it’s a useful term because I want to know if it is an innocent victim,” Moskos said. “But that of course implies other victims aren’t innocent, which isn’t good.”
A spokesman from the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency, said defense attorneys often refer to recommendations offered by “The Language Project,” a guide published by the Marshall Project in 2021 to encourage media, public officials, and law enforcement to modernize the way they refer to people entangled in the criminal justice system.
Other experts noted that, while law enforcement officials have gradually adopted more sensitive language in response to public pressure, the use of new terms at a press conference falls short of an internal culture shift in the way officers discuss victims. Officials should consider the words they use when speaking to the public, said Northeastern University criminal justice professor Peter Manning, but old-school language such as “targeted,” “perp,” “addict,” or “ex-con” will likely continue to have its place at the water cooler or in the conference room.
“There’s more sensitivity about the public expression of cops and robbers culture and more concern about appearing to be consistent with citizens’ aims,” Manning said. “In the culture itself, I don’t think it’s changed one iota. It’s the same old, same old.”
Marsha Kazarosian, former president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, said she believes that in the police reform era, many in law enforcement are making a sincere effort to discuss violent crime without stigmatizing victims or offenders, but stressed that finding exactly the right words can be tricky, especially on the fly.
An alternative, she suggested after some reflection, could be: “It was an isolated incident that doesn’t pose a danger to the public at large.”
“Maybe that’s a better way to do it, instead of saying a targeted shooting ... [because] you can understand how someone on the receiving end is going to hear that differently than the way it’s meant,” Kazarosian said. “In this era, law enforcement is trying very, very hard to do it better, with less bias ... sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Ivy Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @itsivyscott.