Monday, October 31, 2022

Just the facts, in English, please

 My former colleague Bob Erlandson has forwarded a specimen from the Associated Press, about the Pelosi assault, as an example of what passes for police reporting: "The San Francisco Police Department responded to a report of a home break-in at about 2:27 a.m. Friday, a spokesman for. ..."

It's a sentence that combines a false precision with imprecision. They could have responded, as Bob remarks, at 2:27 a.m. or about 2:25 a.m. or about 2:30 a.m. but not at about 2:27 a.m. And you may be excused for supposing that it was the report that was received at precisely 2:27 a.m., with the police response coming some minutes afterward. 

This fudging of the time of the event and the time of the response is one of many irritations that crop up in police reporting. 

There is, for example, the misuse of the word suspect, which means in common English "a person suspected of a crime," that is, an identified person who is under suspicion. When the name of the person being sought is announced, that person is a suspect. But in the copspeak of police reports, suspect means "the person who did it," though the person's identity is unknown to the police. They could write gunman, driver, assailant, perpetrator, or any number of other serviceable nouns, but they always resort to suspect. I wonder whether the increasing use of person of interest is a way of getting around the confusion their usage has created. 

Let me add my lack of enthusiasm for the reporter, evidently subject to echolalia, who merely repeats the stock jargon of the police report, in which people bail out of the vehicle rather than abandon the car and flee on foot instead of running away. Guns are discharged rather than fired. Victims of shootings and stabbings seem never to be found in houses or apartments, but inside a dwelling.  

I understand that police officers are trained to write in this jargon, for uniform practice in giving evidence. What I do not understand is the inability of reporters to convey this information in the ordinary English that their readers speak.