Tag Archives: passive voice

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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Active Voice or Passive Voice?

Here’s a simple way to improve your reports: Use active voice whenever possible.

I tested the doorway for fingerprints. ACTIVE VOICE

The doorway was tested for fingerprints by me. PASSIVE VOICE

In bygone days, some officers thought that passive voice made reports more accurate, objective, and professional. Sadly, that’s not the case. Professionalism comes from a deep commitment to observing the highest standards possible. Rewording a sentence won’t transform someone who’s biased or careless into a model officer.

Let’s try a scenario. An officer is investigating a burglary. She goes into the bedroom and sees a beautiful ring on the nightstand. She realizes that the homeowner will probably think the burglar took the ring. What an opportunity! She pockets the ring.

Later the officer gets out her laptop and starts writing her report. She writes, “The bedroom was entered by this officer.” Typing those words transforms her into an honest person, and she returns the ring.

Ridiculous, isn’t it?

Suppose, though, you’re an officer who happens to like passive voice. You’re old-school, and that’s how you were taught to write. Why change?

Three reasons:

  • You want your writing to sound up-to-date and professional. Bygone terminology dates you.
  • Passive voice takes longer to write and to read. It’s going to slow you down if you’ve had a busy shift or you have a great deal of paperwork to review before a court hearing.
  • Passive voice creates confusion. Suppose you’re testifying in court and the question of Miranda rights comes up. “Who read Johnson his rights?” asks the attorney. “It says in your report that Johnson was Mirandized, but it doesn’t say who did it.”
    You gulp. You suddenly realize that the other officer at the scene, Joe McDonald, read Johnson his rights. Unfortunately McDonald isn’t in court today. The hearing has to be postponed until McDonald can testify.
    You could have avoided that embarrassing mistake if you’d used active voice: “Officer Joe McDonald used his Miranda card to advise Johnson of his rights.”

Here are a couple of pointers:

  • Active voice tells who did what: The burglar pried open the door.
  • Passive voice often uses by: The door was pried open by the burglar.

Note: Not all “was” and “-ing” words signify passive voice. These sentences are active voice:

Linda was washing her car. ACTIVE VOICE

The mayor was exploring a new approach to the problem. ACTIVE VOICE

Here are passive-voice versions of these sentences:

The car was being washed by Linda. PASSIVE VOICE

A new approach to the problem was explored by the mayor. PASSIVE VOICE

* * * * * *

There’s one situation when passive voice is useful: when you don’t know who committed an act.

The crime scene was compromised. PASSIVE VOICE (effective: You don’t know who compromised it)

The house was entered through the unlocked back door. PASSIVE VOICE (effective: You don’t know who entered)

Bottom line: When you know who did what, use active voice. Or – to restate the handy rule I gave you earlier – start every sentence in your reports with a person, place, or thing.