On Writing: JPD against the Borg

Jean-Luc Picard should beam down here to Juneau to get the best advice on how to fight the Borg.

After my last column’s diatribe against bureaucratese from some of our local Borg-Wannabes, my friend and fellow scribbler Clint Farr sent me an email with a link to a model of how to wage the good fight against institutionalization, a model that comes from—of all places—the Juneau Police Department.

“Of all places”: let me confess to a prejudice. In my experience, our uniformed services tend to be among the worst offenders in producing documents puffed up with bureaucratic linguistic bloat. So I have come to expect such slobber from the military and from police departments and other such institutions.

I am happy to announce here that I am abandoning that prejudice.

On the CBJ website, the JPD has one page in particular that deserves not just recognition, but admiration. It isn’t just well written; it’s very well written. And it’s enjoyable—when was the last time you could say that about government writing? And unlike most bureaucratic writing, it conducts the business of government by talking to us like — wait for it — like neighbors.

The webpage I’m talking about is the JPD’s advice on when to call them about bears, and I quote its three brief paragraphs in their entirety to show how it’s done:


Dear Juneau Resident,

You do not need to call in a bear sighting unless the bear is a threat to people or property or it can reasonably be anticipated the bear is going to become a threat. Bears just walking around being bears is not something that needs to be reported. If the bear is just walking around being a bear in your living room, that would be an example of a situation where a reasonable person would believe that big problems are about to happen and JPD should be called. A bear did get into a house with two residents in the Lemon Creek area years ago. A very exciting evening for all involved, not the least of which was the bear.

If a bear is in garbage, then there is enforcement that may need to happen concerning someone attracting bears by not securing garbage.

Chasing bears out of an area may seem like it solves a short term issue but that practice leads to long term issues as the bears become desensitized. The worst case scenario is the bear then needs to be destroyed. That is why JPD officers want to leave bears alone unless there is a compelling reason to scare the bear.

That’s it: just three paragraphs, but there are so many things good and right and even lovely about this short passage that I hardly know where to start. It’s got heart and soul. It opens with an epistolary salutation that frames its advice as a letter: “Dear Juneau Resident.” The writer is addressing not some abstract and faceless public, but real people, people who live here, presumably like the writer herself (or himself). The JPD’s advice comes across not as some imperative bureaucratic blah-blah-blah, but as a friendly letter.

Moreover, the writer is having so much fun writing this, the reader can’t help but chuckle at the comic understatement about bears being bears in living rooms.

And look at the words the writer uses, the ordinary and casual diction. We aren’t told to “maximize bear avoidance strategies” or to “utilize approved refuse containers” or to “demonstrate appropriate reticence in oral communication with JPD in regard to bear activity in proximity to residential sectors.”

Instead, we’re reminded that “bears just walking around” can sometimes be “big problems” and make for “a very exciting evening.” The ordinariness of the writer’s diction helps convey the main point about our bears: they’re an ordinary fact of life here in Juneau and not generally a problem. And this ordinary dictions also helps persuade us, perhaps unconsciously, of the common sense of the JPD’s recommendations.

We know that, however ordinary, bears can be dangerous, and that’s why it’s important that we heed JPD’s advice about how to respond to bears in our neighborhoods. The job of this prose is not solely to advise us how to act, but also to help us remember that advice. The writer’s style makes that lesson readable and fun, and because it’s fun, it’s memorable. Mission accomplished.

The passage’s only circumlocution — usually a sign of thoughtless and needless wordiness in bureaucratic writing — is here put to good use. In that second paragraph, the writer seems intentionally roundabout to avoid sounding unnecessarily accusative when pointing out how our carelessness can be dangerous to bears. When criticizing a neighbor, you should always be diplomatic, especially when you’re the cops.

Confident in its authority, JPD here avoids the pseudo-authoritative, authoritarian trash we hear these days from so many other institutions. The message comes across in simple conversational English — without the bologna, without the blather, without the bull.

This isn’t just good writing. It’s good government. In refusing to be attracted by garbage, the Juneau Police Department shows us some real leadership.

Lead on, JPD.

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