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Your English teacher was right: Active voice is better than passive voice

One tip to improve your report writing that will help reduce case turndowns and liability

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The easiest way to make writing clear is by reducing the use of passive voice.


This article is part of a series, Report Writing for a New Generation: Merging Technology with Traditional Techniques, which covers general police report writing skills along with plain English instruction, professional and technical writing best practices, and how technology is changing the way officers write.

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I do not remember much of what I learned in high school. I was the typical high-school boy more concerned about playing sports, lifting weights and dating than learning complicated sentence structure, advanced grammar, or sentence diagraming. The one thing I did remember from English class was that my teacher, Mr. Clark, always stressed the importance of using active voice instead of passive voice. The problem, however, was none of the students even knew what active voice was and why we should use it.

The misuse or overuse of passive voice is the number one mistake I see in police reports and one of the leading causes of dropped cases, inadmissible evidence and police report writing-related lawsuits But why?

Using passive voice is technically grammatically correct, but passive voice severely weakens the sentence and leads to ambiguity and confusion in police reports. Passive voice hides the subject (doer) of the sentence – which is not what you want to do when trying to explaining who did it.

I always prefer the active voice over the passive voice since active voice sentences are stronger and clearer. Also, active voice pushes the subject first and makes the subject the most important part of the sentence.

Real police report examples of passive voice

I am going to use a lot of examples in this article. Each example came from real police reports, but I changed the names and addresses to protect the agencies and officers.

Here are three real-life examples of passive voice taken from police reports:

Miranda was read to Aiden by FTO Davison. Under Miranda, Aiden told FTO Davison she knew the check in her possession was forged.

Brittany was assured by Alicia that he would have the computer back in a couple of days, because he needed it for his upcoming trip to South America.

Jason was killed after his truck struck the palm tree.

Notice something in common? Was read. Was Assured. Was Killed. Passive voice includes all those to be verbs.

The last sentence example came from a homicide report where the suspect shot the victim in the chest. The victim drove 500 yards and slammed into a palm tree. The force of the crash snapped the top half of the palm tree, which fell directly on top of the victim crushing him.

The defense counsel jumped on the phrase “Jason was killed after…” The defense tried to confuse the order of events saying the tree killed the victim, not his client, since the victim “was killed after” the palm tree fell on him. If the tree killed the victim and not the bullet from the gun, the prosecutor would have had to file criminal charges on a lesser offense.

Passive voice causes confusion

All professional writers and writing style guides prefer the active voice. When a sentence is passive, the subject receives the action. Here is a good example from my son’s 4th-grade writing textbook:

The ball is kicked by John.

The ball is the subject, and the ball is being acted upon: it is kicked by John.

What is the most important part of a sentence? When the sentence is written in passive voice, the ball becomes the most important. If you want to make John the most important, then use the active voice:

John kicked the ball.

Passive voice is confusing because it pushes the subject of the sentence backward in the sentence, making the action the most important, not the subject doing the action.

When the subject receives the action, the sentence is naturally weaker and causes confusion because of double meanings (ambiguity).

What exactly is active voice?

In professional writing and even fiction writing, the most basic technique for making descriptions come alive is to use active, vivid prose. The active voice pushes the subject of the sentences forward, making the subject the most important, not the action.

Let’s look at our elementary school example again:

John kicked the ball.

John is the subject, and John does the acting. What did he do? John kicked.

Most common mistakes for passive voice

No more grammar school lessons, I promise. This section combines what we learned about active and passive voice sentences into real-world application.

Searches and evidence

Prosecutors must know where, when, what and who collected every piece of evidence. Passive voice hides most of that critical information.

Passive: While conducting a search of the vehicle, a small brown handbag was located underneath the front passenger seat.

Passive voice does not tell the reader who is doing what. Who searched the car? You? Officer Smith? The next-door neighbor? Did you find the handbag or did the mailman?

Active: I found a small brown handbag underneath the front passenger seat when I searched the vehicle.

Arrest and transport

One of the highest liability tasks for an officer is making arrests. However, an officer can mitigate a lot of legal issues related to arrests by writing in the active voice.

Passive: Joavanni was arrested at 1530 and booked at County Holding Facility for the violations of XYZ.

You can see the obvious problem with this statement. Who arrested Joavanni? How did he get to the County Holding Facility?

Active: I arrested Joavanni at 1530 and booked him at County Holding Facility for the violations of XYZ.

Subject information

A quick way to get sued for unlawful arrest or get your criminal case thrown out by prosecutors is to use the passive voice when describing subject/suspect information.

Passive: Due to prior knowledge of Jake Smithson being a drug dealer and knowing he carries a weapon, a high-risk traffic stop was conducted.

This passage came from an officer-involved shooting on the east coast. The defense attacked this statement because of its vagueness. Yes, the suspect did have a gun and, yes, the suspect did point the gun at officers. But that information did not matter in this case.

The detectives wrote they knew the suspect. But the defense claimed the suspect had no police involvement in that department and the police did not know their client at all.

The detectives later admitted they knew the suspect only from Facebook posts.

Knowing a person via social media is significantly different than knowing a person in real life. Whenever you say you “know” someone, be prepared to document how.

Passive: Upon arrival, I contacted Reginald Fairfield, who is known from previous encounters.

Who knows Reginald? Everyone in his circle of friends knows him, but how do you know him.

Active: Upon arrival, I contacted Reginald Fairfield, who I met at the loud music call last night (insert report number here).

Use of force

Use of force documentation is more important now than it has ever been. Clear, precise, direct, descriptive wording is best. There are times when passive voice sentence structure is better, especially in use-of-force incidents. That is why I say prefer the active voice. But choosing to use passive voice over the active voice needs to be done strategically. In most cases, active voice in use-of-force incidents is much better.

Passive: James was placed on the ground.

Who placed James on the ground, and what does placed even mean?

Active: I grabbed James by the right arm and pulled him down to the ground.


Many countries require the police to identify a person using the following three ways:

  • Verbally
  • With a State or Federal ID
  • Picture using government software.

What is important is who made the identification and what type of identification the suspect provided. If the suspect’s identification is not clear, especially for those non-U.S. agencies, the entire case will likely be dismissed.

Passive: Jake was verbally identified. He was also identified using his Florida’s driver’s license photograph.

The passive voice sentence is unclear. Now, let’s look at the active

Active: Jake told me his name was Jake Anderson DOB: 08-01-1981. I confirmed Jakes’ identity using his Florida driver’s license photograph.

Jake was the one identifying himself, but the officer confirmed it.

How to fix passive voice

First, set up your spell check correctly. If you set up spell check correctly, it will automatically flag your passive voice sentences.

Then, look for to be verbs: was (sometimes), is, am, are, have been, has, will be, being. To be verbs can lead to passive voice sentence structure.

Lastly, rewrite the sentence so that the subject is closer to the beginning of the sentence.

You can go back and review the sentence examples in this article. Compare the active voice examples with the passive voice. Rephrase your sentence to avoid those pesky to be verbs.


All professional writers and governmental writers strive to make their writing as clear as possible. And the easiest way to make writing clear is by reducing the use of passive voice. Switching to active voice makes your sentences stronger, helps avoid confusion and reduces civil liability. Always prefer the active voice.

Remember, report writing should not be hard. But just like anything we do in law enforcement, practice is key to make writing easier. Pick a few of these topics outlined in this article and try to apply them to your next report. Once you feel comfortable with one topic, move on to the next. Then rinse, lather, repeat.

NEXT: When to use passive voice: 8 tactics of professional writers

Joshua Lee is an active-duty police sergeant for a municipal police department in Arizona. Before being promoted, Joshua served five years as a patrol officer and six years as a detective with the Organized Crime Section investigating civil asset forfeiture, white-collar financial crime, and cryptocurrency crimes.

Joshua is a money laundering investigations expert witness and consultant for banks, financial institutions, and accountants. He is also an artificial intelligence for government applications advisor and researcher.

Joshua holds a BA in Justice Studies, an MA in Legal Studies, and an MA in Professional Writing. He has earned some of law enforcement’s top certifications, including the ACFE’s Certified Fraud Examiners (CFE), ACAMS Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialist (CAMS) and the IAFC’s Certified Cyber Crimes Investigator (CCCI).

Joshua is an adjunct professor at a large national university, and a smaller regional college teaching law, criminal justice, government, technology, writing and English courses.