Let’s say you recently accepted a supervisory job for a law enforcement agency several states away. You’re just getting to know the officers you’ll be supervising.
You want to evaluate the writing skills in the department, so you decide to read some recent police reports. The first report includes this sentence:
Bruising was observed on the alleged victim’s right cheek. Scratches were observed on her throat. Spots of blood were seen on the front of her blouse.
You pick up another report and read these sentences:
I saw a broken plate, three pieces of fried chicken, and a baked potato on the floor near the kitchen table. I noticed a kitchen chair was lying on its side.
You glance at the names and see that the reports were written by different officers. What impressions would you form?
* * * * *
Years ago, supervisors would have trusted the first officer (“bruising was observed…”) and mistrusted the second (“I saw a broken plate…”). The word “I” immediately raised the possibility that an officer was biased and unprofessional. To ensure objectivity and accuracy, officers had to write in passive voice (“was observed,” “were seen”).
Do you still fall into the passive-voice habit? Many police writers do.
Here’s the truth – and it’s either good news or bad news, depending on how up-to-date your training has been:
Objectivity and accuracy are character traits, not verbal tricks. Because police officers are human beings, it’s possible that bias will find its way into a report, or an officer might omit necessary information. Fatigue, time pressure, and human frailty can lead to errors.
You can’t guarantee honesty and professionalism by writing in passive voice and avoiding “I.” Sorry!
Let’s go back to those two officers. Are they telling the truth? Are they unbiased observers? Do they have a passion for thoroughness and accuracy?
To find the answers to those questions, you’ll have to get to know them. You can’t just dismiss Officer #2 as unprofessional because he used “I” – and you can’t accept everything Officer #1 says as absolute truth because she used passive voice.
Here’s one conclusion you can safely draw, however: Officer #1, who writes almost every sentence in passive voice, may benefit from a refresher course in report writing!
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Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from Amazon.com for $17.95. For a free preview, click on the link or the picture below.
Updated, with a new chapter on Writing Efficiently
“It will definitely help you with your writing skills.” – Joseph E. Badger, California Association of Accident Reconstructionists Newsletter
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