You’re probably familiar with the weaselly way politicians tend to apologize when they’ve been caught red-handed. The most famous example is the line “mistakes were made.”
Use of the passive voice in an admission of wrongdoing has become so common that the political consultant William Schneider suggested a few years ago that it be referred to as the “past exonerative” tense.
You’ll often see a similar grammatical device when a police officer shoots someone. Communications officers at police agencies are deft at contorting the English language to minimize the culpability of an officer or the agency by not assigning responsibility.
Here is how the Los Angeles Police Department described a shooting that did not involve a police officer:
“On February 10, 2014, around 6:10 p.m., the victim was in the parking lot in the 13640 block of Burbank Boulevard, to the rear, when he was confronted by the suspect. The suspect produced a semi-automatic handgun and fired numerous times striking the victim in the torso.”
Note the active voice. We have a clear subject, verb and direct object. Contrast that with how the LAPD described this shooting by LAPD officers on May 12:
“While still in a position of cover, the officers encountered a male suspect who was armed with a weapon at which time an officer involved shooting occurred.”
Last week in Georgia, a deputy in Coffee County shot a 10-year-old boy in the leg. The deputy was participating in a manhunt for a robbery suspect who had shot a police officer. Here’s how a report from the Albany, Ga.,station WALB-TV described it: “The situation of how the child was shot remains unclear. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation in Eastman was called to investigate the shooting. Sheriff Wooten said a deputy, who was not named, 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.”
The most plausible scenario is that the deputy tried to shoot the dog and mistakenly shot the kid instead. It’s less plausible but possible that the deputy didn’t intend to fire at all, in which case he’s still negligent for mishandling his weapon.
What isn’t remotely plausible is that the deputy’s gun jumped out of its holster, walked up to the kid and shot the kid in the leg. Physics tells us that the gun could not have fired without some sort of intermediary action on the part of the deputy.
Yet the sheriff’s explanation, at least the way the WALB reporter relays it, leaves open just that possibility.
All of this wouldn’t be much more troubling than your typical grammatical backside-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 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.
Radley Balko is a writer for the Washington Post.