Passive Voice

Many experts (including me) wish that passive voice in police reports would just go away.

Passive voice is a grammatical construction that omits the “who” from a sentence. Here’s a sentence written in active voice (which is better for police reports):

I transported Sanders to the county jail.  ACTIVE VOICE

Here’s the passive voice version:

Sanders was transported to the county jail.  PASSIVE VOICE

One obvious problem is with this sentence is that you don’t know who did the driving. And that’s why I’m always astonished when I see passive voice in a police report. Shouldn’t supervisors be concerned? What if there’s a question later on about that drive to jail?

And yet many reports feature passive voice. It’s especially likely to creep in near the end of a report, when an officer is writing about arresting the suspect or handling evidence.

Here’s a challenge for you. Take a look at three of your recent police reports. I can just about guarantee that there’s at least one passive voice sentence in each of those reports, and I can even tell you where you’ll find it.

Go to the bottom of the report – often called the “disposition” – where you tie up all threads: where the evidence went, what happened to the suspect, and so on.

I can just about guarantee that you wrote a sentence like one of these:

  • The evidence was logged into the evidence room (instead of “Officer Canby logged the evidence into the evidence room“).
  • Smith was read his Miranda rights (instead of “I read Smith his Miranda rights“).
  • Fallon was treated for her injuries (instead of “Paramedics treated Fallon for her injuries”).
  • No further action was taken (instead of “I did not take any further action“).

How do I know you probably wrote one of those passive voice sentences? It’s not some magical powers I possess. The answer is that I almost never read a police report without passive voice. (Mind you, I read lots of reports from some fine police writers. But most have passive voice sentences near the end.)

Here’s what’s especially interesting. When I ask officers why they wrote those sentences, they look at me blankly. They can’t give a reason. It’s just something they did without thinking about it.

So here’s a question for you: Do you think there’s any effective writer in the world who makes writing choices for no reason, without thinking about them? (Hint: the answer is no.)

Did you notice anything those passive-voice sentences had in common? Here it is: The sentence never named the person who performed the action. It’s as if there was a ghost who read those Miranda rights or logged that evidence or treated those injuries.

I’ll discuss another problem with passive voice in my next post.

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