Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Rewriting You: Law Enforcement Edition

When rewriting a probable cause statement for publication in the newspaper's police blotter, I find the "global search and replace" routine invaluable. That means valuable. I would totally replace "invaluable" with "valuable," to save ink.

After doing a lot of this lately, I can't help noticing that police officers have a uniform writing style. I sometimes entertain fantasies that they have special buttons on their keyboards to insert stock words and phrases. A more plausible fantasy holds that they learned this special lingo - let's call it Law Enforcementese - in a special class at the academy. More likely, they just learned it the way babies learn to talk, by imitating the language used by those senior to them.

Another fantasy I have is of going to the academy and teaching a crash course on writing better, unlearning the bad habits learned from senior officers and replacing them with a style that wouldn't need to be translated for the newspaper. Short of that, however, I'm just going to have to content myself with Ctrl-H (find and replace).

Here are some of the seek-out-and-destroy missions I assign my word processor when I have to edit the typical police blotter entry. After copying and pasting the reporting officer's statement into the news story:

1. I replace all instances of two spaces with one space. Sometimes I have to repeat this operation a couple times, for example, to catch longer series of spaces. This isn't just a law enforcement thing. Pretty much everyone types two spaces after a period, even though one space has been the industry standard for quite a few years. There seems to be a shared false memory that people were taught this in eighth-grade typing class, sort of like the widespread belief that Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s (Fact: Mandela died in 2013 after having been president of South Africa 1994-99) or that comedian Sinbad starred as a genie in a 1990s movie called Shazaam (Fact: Shaq played the genie and the title was Kazaam). Thereby hangs another whole essay. The point is: Find-and-Replace to the rescue!

2. I replace a lot of unnecessarily long and boring words, which suck the energy out of the story, with shorter and more transparent words that let it all shine through. For some mysterious reason, writing in such a way that a dramatic event turns into a snoozefest seems to be the standard operating procedure for law enforcement, or the Cop SOP. Taking some frequently used find-and-replace routines for example, you'll replace the word "stated" with "said"; "informed" with "told"; "located" with "found"; "illuminated" with "lit"; and "responded" with "went."

3. You'll often replace "observed" with "saw," but you have to be careful. Sometimes, depending on the context, you'll want "seen" or some other word, and sometimes "observed" really is the most apt word. Another edit that sometimes works but sometimes doesn't is replacing "obtained" with "took."

4. Some of your replacements will involve persons' names. Often, on the first mention in a probable cause statement, the perp's full name will be given, followed by the phrase "the above named defendant." This phrase will then be used in lieu of the perp's name in practically every sentence thereafter. I can't believe anyone would go to all the trouble of typing "the above named defendant" 20 times when they could just type "Jones" (or whatever the perp's last name is). This is why I think they have a button on their special Law Enforcementese keyboard to insert the phrase "the above named defendant." Either that or they copy and paste it, which is the kind time-saving device I could get behind if it wasn't so gosh-darn time-wasting at my end. So, after pasting in each probable cause statement, I look for instances of "the above named defendant" and either delete it (in the first instance) or replace it with the perp's last name.

On the other hand, you don't necessarily want the names of victims, witnesses or peace officers splashed all over the page. So, a lot of my find-and-replace routines run the opposite way, taking proper names out and replacing them with Victim, Witness, Female, Mother, Father, Son, Daughter, Complainant, Officer, Deputy, Investigator, Sergeant, Agent, Trooper, Informant, etc. Each character in the story gets a unique designator. This also applies when the original report has been redacted to replace names with strings of letters like AAA, BBB, the person's initials, etc.

5. Quite a few find-and-replace routines replace something with nothing, disposing of frequently repeated verbiage that adds nothing significant to the story. For example, phrases like "brown in color," "red in color," etc. are a standard feature of Law Enforcementese descriptions of vehicles, articles of clothing, and whatnot. The same meaning can be conveyed, in most instances, without the words "in color."

Another phrase that can be deleted without prejudice to the report's intended meaning is "incident to arrest," as in, "During a consent search of the above named defendant's red in color motor vehicle incident to arrest, Deputy Tyler located a micro baggie containing a white crystalline substance that field tested positive for the presence of methamphetamine." Adding hyphens to such phrases as "field tested" and "micro baggie" is also one of my things. I'll bet the word "motor" is surplus to requirements, too.

I'm really not asking anyone to change how they write. If, all of a sudden, law enforcement officers stopped doing their paperwork in Law Enforcementese and started submitting newspaper-ready incident reports, I would have a lot less to keep me busy on a quiet Wednesday afternoon. So, as you were, officer!

No comments: