13 December 2011

The power of words - police report

Words can be very powerful tools. Think of the subtle differences between disguise, mask, camouflage, and conceal - all so similar, yet they conjure different images in our minds, conjure different emotions. As a writer word choice can be both conscious and unconscious, we want to draw our readers into the story as deeply as possible, but we want to guide their emotional journey.  We use words as signposts as to which characters to love, which to hate, what situations are about to be dangerous.

However, it's not only fiction writers that understand the power of words, even in writing designed to be cleansed of all emotional response word choices have power. One place where that can be made clear is the police report, as evidenced here: The Art of the Police Report.

Police departments have strict rules governing reporting writing (and a report must be written on every incident). "Crime reports are written in neutral diction, and in the dispassionate uni-voice that’s testament to the academy’s ability to standardize writing. They feel generated rather than authored, the work of a single law enforcement consciousness rather than a specific human being."

"An incident report tells only what happened: where, when, and to whom. It offers multiple perspectives of the same event from often contradictory points of view of cop, victim, suspect, and witnesses. An incident report lists the inventory of all physical evidence collected and booked. Anything from shell casings and rape-kit underwear to a three-legged dog in a custody dispute.
In structure, an incident report is a strict chronological narrative. It begins with a Source of Activity section, which tees up the story. It’s where the narrator introduces himself and offers his credentials for telling this tale: On 4-6-10 at approx. 1922 hours, my partner Ofcr. Brown (badge #13312) and I (Ofcr. Martinez badge #14231) were in full uniform traveling westbound on Gage Avenue when we received the radio call of an LUAC in progress at 82nd St./Central Ave."
 You get the picture... 

In the article the author, who reads hundreds of incident reports a day, talks about how one cop uses words to evoke an emotional response through inflection and narrative voice (It's worth reading the full article). "Officer Martinez writes incident reports that technically follow the academy’s guidelines. He avoids modifiers and descriptors. He traces the physical action of an event without opining or speculating. He offers accounts that contradict his own findings. He’s succinct and factual. He tells the literal and empirical truth. He writes in the dispassionate narrative uni-voice that conveys objectivity and distance. So why is Martinez instantly discernable on the page from a hundred other cops?"

Let's go through an example:

"At a Lewd Acts on Child crime scene, Martinez’s partner, Brown, writes, “The Victim sustained multiple injuries.” Martinez would tell us, “The baby was bleeding from three orifices.” There’s a world of difference here. Brown gives us a victim; Martinez gives us a baby. Brown offers a fact; Martinez paints a picture. Brown’s statement moves us forward; Martinez makes us stop dead and envision the horrific crime that caused such injuries. Both statements are neutral on the surface, but the specificity of Martinez’s language makes the reader see and feel.

At the same crime scene, Brown says, “We placed the Suspect in a felony prone position and took him into custody without incident.” Martinez would write, “We cuffed the father.” Martinez’s version reminds us of the unnatural aspect of the crime, that a father (presumably) committed it. He edges near the academy no-fly zone with father in place of suspect, but gets away with it because the sentence describes police action—the cuffing—rather than any actions of the suspect. Also, nobody disputes the fact that the suspect is the father; it’s the type of father he is that’s at issue.

At the same crime scene, Martinez might note that there’s “no food in the apartment.” This is an empirical fact, so technically admissible. It doesn’t speak to the specific crime of Lewd Acts on Child, but it does subtly add to the moral charges against the parents. Martinez inflects the barren apartment and makes it speak. Details bring scenes to life. Sometimes the image can tell everything.

In the witness section of the report, Brown might say, “Victim’s mother gave no statement.” Martinez would tell us, “Mother refused to cooperate.” This carries a totally different emphasis and meaning. Martinez doesn’t speculate if she’s protecting her husband at the expense of her child. He doesn’t need to. What kind of mother refuses to speak when her baby is bleeding from three orifices?

Examine these two versions of the same incident, side by side. They admit the same facts. They’re both truthful. But one—Martinez’s—is also persuasive. Why? It’s subtly inflected in every line to signal its agenda. Though it labors under the constraints of the report format, it uses emphasis and diction to suggest how we interpret what it tells us. It may look impartial, but it’s aimed like a weapon."

And there you can see the power of words. So next time you're writing something down, fiction or simple a report for work, think about your word choices.

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