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Cold case: why police speak gobbledygook

South Australia's finest appear to suffer the most from this affliction.

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The Informant has never shied away from important issues, no matter how difficult or sensitive, so we readily took up this challenge from two readers: explain why police say "persons" when they mean "people". If only we hadn't: the question baffles police themselves.

The matter popped up during Operation Roam last month, the annual fugitive hunt that's become quite successful at nabbing hard-to-trace offenders. The campaign aims to "apprehend" (or arrest) "key persons of interest", and asks the public to help find the "wanted persons". (Several media outlets even repeated this language crime. Their sin is greater than the police's, of course, but as journalists are beyond salvation we'll ignore them.)

After chatting with police staff about this pressing issue, it became apparent that some forces are well aware that people struggle to understand cops' elliptical syntax. Indeed, in some jurisdictions, plain English campaigns inside law-enforcement agencies are wiping out jargon that has clung on stubbornly for deacdes.

So we created the "persons index" to highlight where the scourge is worst. The map above shows how often cops across Australia use the word "persons" instead of "people". It's based on published texts and, as you can see, the problem is most severe in South Australia – which is particularly odd, as its police force is the only one with a formal policy of using "people".

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Cops also prefer the uptight phrasing in laid-back Queensland, where a spokesman told us "there is no set protocol on this terminology". And the issue causes some frustration in Victoria Police, whose spokeswoman said (with some resigation) that the "persons" jargon had been used "for as long as anyone can remember".

"There are a number of words that are so widely used among police that they form part of their vocabulary – such as 'decamped' rather than fled, 'male person' rather than man or 'black-coloured' rather than black. As more senior police train new recruits, these terms become ingrained in police and continue through the organisation in each graduating squad," she said.

Unsurprisingly, here in Australia's jargon capital, the police tried to explain why "persons" was correct. An ACT Policing spokeswoman told us: "The terminology of 'persons' is consistent with criminal law legislation. For example, section 131.9 of the Criminal Code Act 1994 references property belonging to two or more persons." Sigh.

This unfunny gag's still going on

Another update for readers: 102 days have now passed since The Australian newspaper apparently breached an ACT Supreme Court order to suppress a report of substantial interest to Canberrans. And 102 days have passed without the court referring the matter to police – while insisting that The Canberra Times upholds its non-publication order.

We've grumbled about this case before – that of ex-ACT Brumbies boss Michael Jones versus the University of Canberra and others – so we won't detail it other than to say that the suppressed report, written by KPMG, apparently raises serious questions about how millions of Canberra ratepayers' dollars were spent.

We don't enjoy being annoying but open justice is too important a principle to simply drop. Justice Michael Elkaim now presides over the case. We hope he finds the time to send a short email to the police or, better yet, allow some public scrutiny of this matter by ditching the gag order. How about before the ACT election, Your Honour?

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