Officer-involved passives

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Radley Balko's Washington Post article "The curious grammar of police shootings" begins by reminding us about "mistakes were made" (an utterance so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page), and proceeds to quote a description of a shooting that is not by a policeman ("The suspect produced a semi-automatic handgun and fired numerous times striking the victim in the torso"). He comments with approval: "Note the active voice. We have a clear subject, verb, and direct object."

So far so good: the suspect is clearly identified as the agent. But that reference to the "active voice" clearly implies an upcoming allegation that the police use the passive voice when talking about their shootings. And the article signally fails to establish this. One quoted police report says: "The suspect then ran towards the officers still armed with the sword and an officer-involved-shooting occurred." Another says: "When the suspect continued to advance on the officer while refusing to comply with his repeated commands, an officer-involved shooting (OIS) occurred." I grant you that this phrase "officer-involved shooting" (it even has its own abbreviation!) is a weird piece of slippery and evasive bureaucratic jargon. But the examples given are just as much in the active voice as the earlier one where the suspect does the shooting.

Somehow, in the chaos of the popular literature on passives (Strunk and White's infamous page 18 bearing much of the blame) it has become standard to charge these limp and impersonal uses of intransitive verbs like occur or ensue or happen with being passive (see my paper "Fear and loathing of the English passive" for more examples than a stick could be shaken at). That's a mistake. The way such sentences seem to refer to an event without laying any emphasis on the participants may be objectionable, but in grammatical terms they are not passives.

Unfortunately there are clear signs that Radley Balko simply cannot tell active from passive clauses. His next example comes with an explicit claim that the passive is involved:

There was a particularly egregious example of this with the L.A. Sheriff's Department last April. While responding to reports of a stabbing, LASD deputies shot and killed 30-year-old John Winkler. In an initial press release, the department said Winkler "aggressed the deputies and a deputy-involved shooting occurred." Note that Winkler's actions were put in the active voice, while the officers' actions were put in the passive.

No, they weren't. To say that an OIS occurred is certainly a strange way to state that a deputy shot a member of the public (as strange as saying "aggressed" for "ran toward"—see Balko's article for the details), but not every form of words that misses a chance to put an actor into the subject role in an active clause is a passive.

When is a clause actually a passive? I gave a detailed tutorial essay here on Language Log, and there is an informal description in the "paper I referred to above. But for some convenient examples we can go just a little further into Balko's article, to where some passives finally do turn up—though he fails to point that out, and doesn't notice that one of the passive clauses does explicitly assign responsibility. I'll underline the passive clauses in the following report extract quoted by Balko, and number them in red:

The situation of how the child was shot1 remains unclear. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation in Eastman was called to investigate the shooting.2 Sheriff Wooten said a deputy, who was not named,3 was approaching the property when a dog ran up to him. The deputy's gun fired one shot, missing the dog and hitting the child. It was not clear if the gun was accidentally fired by the deputy.4

1 The first passive clause has no agent phrase, but that is entirely reasonable, since the point being made by the first sentence is that it is not clear how to assign responsibility.

2 The second passive is also agentless, and fails to say who called the GBI to investigate; but in the context it is completely immaterial who made the call, so it was right to leave it out.

3 The third passive, the non-restrictive relative clause who was not named, likewise lacks an agent, but again, that is appropriate: if no one named the deputy, then an agent phrase would add no information at all ("who was not named by anyone" adds two pointless words).

4 Finally, the fourth passive actually does specify an agent. And although the larger context is querying the deliberateness of the act, the passive clause itself makes explicit reference to the gun being fired by the deputy. Passives do not necessarily conceal agency!

So although Balko's point about the phrasing of police press releases to blur lines of responsibility seems entirely valid, not a single one of these four passive clauses is relevant to making that point. Certainly, to say "the deputy's gun fired one shot" is absurd: It surely isn't in dispute that the gun was under the control of the deputy at the time, so he fired it. The unclarity is about whether the trigger-pull was an accident; but that is no excuse for writing as if the gun was autonomous (people don't kill people, guns do!).

Balko's bottom line (literally—the last paragraph of his piece) makes clear his concern. It is that police forces use misleading language to protect potentially culpable police officers:

All of this wouldn’t be much more troubling than your typical grammatical ass-covering by other public officials if it weren't for the fact that (a) we're talking about people getting shot and killed, and (b) in most cases, the same police agencies engaging in linguistic gymnastics to publicly deflect responsibility for police shootings will inevitably be in charge of investigating the same officers for the same shootings.

No disagreement from me about any of this. I just wish that people who try to hang this sort of point on the grammar of English knew enough elementary grammar to get it broadly right. But they don't. Balko's article suggests that he is one more journalist who doesn't know how to tell an active from a passive. We should expect more knowledge about language from professional wordsmiths, particularly when they insist on telling us proudly that their topic is grammar.

Thanks to Joan Maling and Tim McGowan for pointing me to the Balko article, and Richard E. Howland-Bolton for pointing out a word-processing slip error that I corrected a few hours after posting.

Update: To his great credit, Radley Balko has fully and openly acknowledged his errors, quoting Language Log, with virtually no wriggling: see this post for his retraction. Sometimes writing on Language Log seems like howling into the void, but not today!

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