Sullivan Advises Against the Use of Passive Voice in Criminal Reports

By Sophie Sullivan


Oftentimes, it seems as if the effort to remove implicit biases from our language and actions is unending. As we continue to learn and support others with reparative justice, we must also analyze the grammar we use in criminal reports to prevent further victimizing highlighted individuals.

Today, we understand that implicit biases surface in grammatical voice and syntax more often than they do in outright language. Exactly how this manifests, however, is less clear; making a conscious effort to use active voice is one linguistic choice that writers can choose to demand systemic accountability. In doing so, we stress the active nature of a crime — both its ongoing criminal investigation, its rippling effect on communities, and the greater impact it has on reform at large. We must use this tone in news articles and official police reports.

Take the first sentence of this subheader of The New York Times’ Oct. 16 article about Ahmaud Arbery’s death and the McMichael and Bryan trial: “Mr. Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was chased by armed white residents of a South Georgia neighborhood.” Throughout the article, the writer continues to describe Arbery’s murder primarily in the passive voice: “He was shot dead”; “he was killed.”

Ahmaud Arbery pictured here posing for a school photo.

The author may not have had discriminatory intentions in reviewing Arbery’s death in this tense. In doing so, however, they implicitly neutralize the murder — Arbery’s death becomes an event that occurred passively, rather than Travis McMichael, George McMichael, and William Bryan actively murdering him last February. The Times wrote a subheader with similar passivity in a 2015 article about Black teenager Michael Brown’s murder by a White Ferguson, MO, police officer: “Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, was shot and killed.” Though the two subheaders create symbolic emphases on Arbery and Brown’s lives by opening the articles with their name, their passivity makes the murders standalone and emancipates the murderers from blame.

There are select situations in which it’s simply not possible to use active voice while describing a crime or event. For example, if an investigation is ongoing, there may not be an evident perpetrator or system at play that clearly committed the action. Or, in the case of a report based on limited information, it can be difficult to clarify the course of events and those involved.

Still, though, preliminary reports must maintain active voice so that subsequent documents have a clear timeline of the involved parties’ actions. As Jeffrey Barg of The Philadelphia Inquirer observed, the Minneapolis Police Department noted that “[George Floyd] was ordered to step from his car,” and that he “appeared to be suffering medical distress” in their May 26, 2020 police report following Floyd’s murder. It does not specifically indicate that Minneapolis police ordered him, and fails to give evidence about the violence that officers instigated shortly after. Nor does the report attribute Floyd’s “medical distress” to Derek Chauvin’s kneeling on his neck for over nine minutes; rather, Floyd’s suffering becomes an isolated event, protecting the complicit officers.

The George Floyd memorial, pictured here, outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis, in June 2020.

To understand the effect passive voice has on accountability, we can rewrite these sample sentences into active voice: “Armed White residents of a South Georgia neighborhood chased Mr. Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, down streets”; “The McMichaels and William Bryan shot Arbery dead”; “A White officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager”; and “After officers kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, he suffered a medical emergency.” Here, there’s a broader scope of the event that more directly attributes Arbery’s and Brown’s deaths to their killers. Upon reading just one of these sentences, you understand the crime, the killer, and the victim; rather than taking reports at face value and risk an incomplete understanding of a murder, readers understand the scope of its impact with context. Though a seemingly minute detail in reporting crimes, using passive voice has exponential effects on how people interpret murders and a system’s implication in violence. To demand accountability, we must write actively.

(Sources: Minneapolis Police Department, NY Times, Philadelphia Inquirer)

Categories: Opinion

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