An LAPD shooting makes a bid for the passive voice Hall of Fame

The purpose of police Twitter accounts is to inform people about public safety. The purpose of passive voice is (often) to avoid responsibility. These don’t go together well. Today we examine how the Los Angeles Police used passives that twist the truth into bizarre shapes in describing police shootings.

A correspondent brought to my attention four hall-of-fame-level passive tweets from the LAPD. What did they say and, more importantly, what, if anything did they communicate?

What is an “Officer-Involved Shooting?” It’s capitalized so it must be important. Does this mean an officer shot someone, or that someone shot an officer? (Almost certainly the former, or they would have described it differently.)

Why do we give a crap about a “Public Information Officer” responding? Presumably this is someone expert at police public statements. Putting that in the second sentence indicates that appearances are extremely important.

The only grammatical passive in this tweet is that the area “will be impacted” (not, one hopes, by zombies). But what does that mean? What should we, as residents, do? That’s pretty opaque.

Maybe there will be more information in the rest of the tweets. Let’s see:

If you wanted to describe police shooting people as if it were some sort of inevitable, machine-like occurrence that didn’t involve people or judgment of any kind, you might write what is in the tweet: “The suspect produced an article that resembled a handgun, at which time an Officer-Involved Shooting occurred. The suspect was struck by gunfire.”

Did an officer shoot a gun? Doesn’t say. It’s just an “Officer-Involved Shooting.”

Where did the gunfire that injured the suspect come from? Doesn’t say. He was just (passively) “struck by gunfire.”

Most importantly, what should we, the public, do about it? There is nothing about that in the statements.

Finally, we have this:

This is not preliminary information. This is no information.

Straightforward information is crucial in a charged environment

When police shoot someone, there are going to be questions. Some will assume that the police inappropriately profiled the victim and responded too quickly. Others will be certain that the police need our support no matter what. It is not the job of the police communications mechanisms, including Twitter accounts, to resolve these issues. It is their job to communicate what happened and what to do about it.

Passive voice can slip unnoticed into statements, and is not always evil. But when the passive avoidance of responsibility is so obvious that it draws attention to itself, it does more harm than good. You end with statements that communicate “We are trying to avoid responsibility.” And that’s going to make things worse.

I take particular issue with “Officer-Involved Shooting.” If police shot someone, say that they shot someone. You can explain why, but don’t imagine that citizens will believe you are justified just because you call it by some strange name intended to obscure what actually happened.

In this case, what happened (according to KTLA) is that two officers shot someone who apparently had a gun.

How would you explain that in a way less likely to sound bizarrely defensive? Like this:

Two LAPD officers, responding to reports of a man with a gun, made contact with the man on an alley near 7th, Hill, and Olive streets. After making contact, and for reasons that are not yet clear, the officers ended up shooting the suspect. He was taken to the hospital with non life-threatening injuries. Officers recovered an object that appears to be a handgun at the scene.

Police have closed off the immediate area to conduct an investigation of the shooting.

These are facts. Some of the facts are relevant to public safety. Some are relevant to the justification of the shooting. But none of them sound bizarrely evasive.

4 responses to “An LAPD shooting makes a bid for the passive voice Hall of Fame

  1. Wow! I usually enjoy your blog, but this one takes the cake. Maybe the LAPD has a different agenda from yours. Reasonable minds may differ. I see a quick blast of information aimed at the public obviously designed to be as unloaded as possible. As a preliminary statement, it’s also possible – given the terminology – such truncated statements are being directed as much or more toward law enforcement personnel as the general public.
    A Public Information Officer is headed out there to gather facts and make a coherent public statement without flubbing of fudging those facts – that’s what they get paid to do. It’s a lot like whenever someone is in a car accident. It’s good advice to not make spontaneous statements, particularly where liability is unclear. PIOs might “spin” facts so as to not make a bad situation worse. If they do it correctly, they won’t come off as spinning themselves into a wad of suspicion.
    Officer-Involved-Shooting could be viewed as a term of art. As you guessed, it probably means that an officer shot a firearm and very likely hit the target. Who shot first? Details at 10!
    That an area where someone was shot “will be impacted” goes without saying. You assume the public is not smart enough to figure out what that means.
    I’m no law enforcement advocate, but it seems that your evaluation of these passive statements was either just to write something snarky about law enforcement tweets describing shootings – or predicated on an obvious bias. Peace out.

    1. Thanks for your note. I have no particular opinion about the LAPD. And to be clear, my criticism is based on how they communicate, not whether there was a problem with this shooting.

      It’s fine to send a public information officer. It is not as good to make announcing that the second thing you put in the message.

      If the LAPD is using Twitter to communicate to its officers . . . well, that’s strange. In general, Twitter accounts are for communicating with the public. They have police radios and other channels to communicate with officers.

      It’s fine to call it an “Officer-Involved Shooting” if you say what you mean. To say “the suspect was struck with gunfire” when what you mean is “a policeman shot him” is just obscuring the truth.

      If the police want us to trust them, the first step is to talk to us without obscuring who did what with things that sound this evasive.

  2. Use of the passive voice and standard phrases like “Officer involved shooting” are so ubiquitous, I suspect they must be rules taught in Police Academy classes and enforced thereafter every time an officer files an incident report. Those flaccid writing style rules were probably adopted on the advice of attorneys, seeking to make written records as generic and passive as possible for purposes of protecting police in lawsuits.

    I agree with you that vague language and passive voice often raise more questions than they answer, but I doubt we’ll see the day when law enforcement or lawyers use less bullshit when they write or speak.

  3. As I read their statements I couldn’t help but wonder if the LAPD has a style guide. I’d bet that their communiques are dictated in part by their lawyers. I think their intent is to say something, but nothing that might get them in trouble down the road – trouble with their supporters, trouble with people who oppose them, trouble with the press, legal trouble.

    How many times in the past few years have we heard/seen/read of shootings and other actions where police are involved and where initial reports of what occurred differ substantially from what actually occurred? Many. I think the police are understandably reluctant to say too much too soon. So they choose to say as little as possible and use passive voice to help them do it.

    The initial LAPD statement certainly doesn’t say much about what happened, but I think that’s ok for an initial statement. It does provide a simple answer to a simple question, “Was an officer involved somehow?” Maybe an officer shot someone. Maybe an officer dropped a weapon and it discharged, but no one was hit. Maybe a person being taken into custody took an officer’s weapon and shot someone else. Maybe, maybe, maybe. “Officer-involved shooting” doesn’t say enough to pose a problem for the police later on. And that’s their objective.

    As for “Officer-involved shooting”, the Police Data Initiative (https://www.policedatainitiative.org/) states, “Although no national or standard definition exists, an officer involved shooting (OIS) may be defined as the discharge of a firearm, which may include accidental and intentional discharges, by a police officer, whether on or off duty. In some cases OIS datasets only include instances in which an officer discharged a firearm at a person and may not include discharges directed into or at a vehicle, animal, etc.”

    It’s clear that the LAPD statements don’t meet your good writing standards, but I believe they do serve the organization’s purpose, much like Bill Belichick’s did when he turned down the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.