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.