The Public Eye

printed 09/27/2019

Risk-taker that I am, I made note last week of the police custom of “observing” incidents rather than “seeing” them, and suggesting in the process that the difference between the two at trial would be exile to a galaxy far, far away for being “observed” crossing against the light, as opposed to receiving a warning and a free car wash for having been “seen” doing the same.

As plausible as that undoubtedly sounds, especially the exile-in-space part, it is not true.

Before I explain why that is, I should point out that making ridiculous comparisons with regard to police practices can have ramifications.

“So, Mr. Dobson, we have observed you making fun of the police again. But before we discuss it, here’s a question for you: did you ever observe the 1932 movie, ‘I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang?’

I have, as it happens, and it’s not “Mary Poppins Returns.”

So, as I was saying, the police have a good reason for using “observe” instead of “see” on their reports.

As it turns out, I have been illuminated by a former law enforcement official, who advised me that police officers are taught to use “observe” in the police academy.

That’s because there’s no misunderstanding what’s being said or written. It also prevents officers from alienating juries with past participle abuse by saying, “I seen.”

I do feel comfortable saying, however, that someone, somewhere at some point in their careers declared that he or she witnessed an incident because they were “observating” at the time.

The fact is, the English language is constantly changing, as observers of the Merriam-Webster dictionary crew well know. That’s especially true in recent years, with hundreds of new words added to the acceptable usage list.

This includes the relatively new term, “adulting” which means to do what an adult would do, and is drawn from the new verb, “to adult.”

In other words, it’s now perfectly acceptable to say, “I adulted yesterday,” even though my belief is that anyone who says, “adulted” still has some work to do. Or, at the very least, might want to take up reading something besides the screens on their phones.

But “observe?” Perfectly acceptable in law enforcement usage as far as I’m concerned. Besides, teaching rookies to use a particular word helps to prevent them from using the wrong one that, again, might distract the court from its serious business.

My trusted law enforcement advisor says that can happen, as was the (true) case of an officer whose report and testimony didn’t exactly set the right tone.

Without going into the particulars, the officer achieved a degree of immortality, when, in his report and later in court, he referred to a part of the female anatomy as a “Virginia.”

You can probably guess what he meant, but the only observation I can make without inviting trouble is that it’s south of Maryland.

I only wish I could have been there to observe it.

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