Using Active Voice in Police Reports

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Officers should use active-voice (not passive voice) to write their police reports. Passive-voice sentences used to be the norm in police writing, but that practice has been discredited. Using active voice ensures that each sentence will state which officer performed each action at the scene. Passive voice is especially likely to appear in the “disposition” part of a report (the last paragraph), which deals with arrests, transportation to jail, and logging in evidence.

Chances are you’ve heard this advice again and again: Always use active voice when you write your police reports. Unfortunately many officers continue to use passive voice in their reports. Passive voice is especially likely to appear in the last part of a report (the disposition), where the officer lists the final destinations for suspects and evidence. Here are typical passive-voice sentences that turn up in countless reports:

The suspect was read her Miranda rights and transported to the county jail. PASSIVE VOICE

The bloody shirt was logged into the evidence room. PASSIVE VOICE

You might be wondering why police reports shouldn’t be written this way. The answer is that passive voice omits an essential piece of information: Who performed the action.

Here’s a scenario to think about. Suppose questions arose in court about whether the suspect understood her Miranda rights. The judge would want to hear the officer’s testimony. But if there were several officers at the scene, the report doesn’t state who handled that task. That’s embarrassing for the agency, and it can cause a postponement if the officer doesn’t happen to be present in the courtroom that day.

Similarly, problems may arise if there was a problem with the evidence collected at the scene. Who found the bloody shirt and took it to the police station? The report doesn’t say.

Here are the same sentences written in active voice:

Officer Sondergard read the suspect her Miranda rights and transported her to the county jail. ACTIVE VOICE

I logged the bloody shirt into the evidence room. ACTIVE VOICE

Active voice is a common-sense way to express yourself in everyday situations. It’s unlikely that you would say “The laundry was done” if someone asked you how you spent your time Saturday morning. “I did the laundry” is a normal answer to that question. So why do so many officers lapse into passive voice in their police reports?

To find the answer, you need to dial back to an earlier time when the law enforcement profession was suspicious of the words I, me, and mine. A police report containing any of those words was considered subjective and unreliable. Officers were taught never to make statements like “I chased the suspect” or “The victim showed me the scratches on his arm.”

That kind of thinking was discredited long ago. Think about it: Wouldn’t you use I, me, and mine if you testified in court? But passive voice lives on in many agencies, despite the efforts of trainers and supervisors to banish it.

There’s an easy way to ensure that you’re writing in active voice: Just start every sentence with a person, place, or thing. In most cases you’ll be starting a sentence with I, since you’re the investigating officer. Sometimes you’ll use another officer’s name, and you might also write sentences about what a victim or suspect was doing.

Here are some examples of active-voice sentences:

I looked for the point of entry and found pry marks around the door handle. ACTIVE VOICE

Officer Hamlin questioned Mr. Paltrey about the fight. ACTIVE VOICE

Susan Quinton showed me the empty jewelry box on her nightstand. ACTIVE VOICE

Be watchful when you write a report, and double-check it before you submit it to your supervisor to ensure that passive voice didn’t creep into any sentences. You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you’re following modern police report-writing practices—and you might even be able to avoid a return trip to court.

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