Describing a Police Shooting: A Lesson in Legal Writing

There are a lot of ways to characterize any event, and a good lawyer can use language to describe a situation and also advocate for their client. I learned from experienced colleagues who were teaching students this skill. The example my colleagues used was drawn from a tragic event nearby: a police shooting of a person who had not yet harmed others but who was behaving erratically and had brandished a weapon.

My colleagues used two documents from the case. The first was written by a pro-police advocate who described the scene and the confusion and fear felt by the officers before their fatal shot was fired. My colleagues contrasted that description with another one written by a community activist who was appalled that the police shot the victim rather than pursuing other options first. Students considered how the two accounts had such different stories to tell, despite an agreement on the basic facts of the event.

Recently a tragic attack occurred in a shopping mall in Australia. I found myself professionally interested in the exact words used in one characterization of the event. The BBC quoted the assistant commissioner of the New South Wales Police describing the police officer’s actions during the confrontation as follows: “She confronted the offender […] As she continued to walk quickly behind to catch up with him he turned to face her, raised a knife, she discharged a firearm and that person is now deceased.”[1]

I was impressed by the way that this recitation of the events does not directly name the officer as the cause of any injury to the person wielding a knife. “She discharged a firearm and that person is now deceased.” Perhaps the two events may have been causally linked, but this statement does not specify whether that is the case. I think this is an extreme example of using careful language to separate an actor from an action or the consequences of that action.

In a much lighter example, consider a board game in which I won and my friend lost. My friend says he struggled to win the game because his pieces were placed in a less powerful configuration than his opponent’s pieces. I might point out that my friend placed the pieces poorly.

You see, my friend emphasizes that “the pieces were placed” and uses the passive voice to distance himself from his placement choices. I emphasize my friend’s action by using the active voice and saying “he placed” the pieces less-than-strategically, contributing to his loss. If we were advocates for the losing player, we might say: “the pieces were placed. That player then lost the game.”


[1] Hannah Richie, Australia PM Hails Cop Who Shot Sydney Attacker as “a Hero,” BBC News, Apr. 13, 2024, (last visited Apr 15, 2024).

The post Describing a Police Shooting: A Lesson in Legal Writing appeared first on Slaw.

Related Posts