Saturday, June 28, 2014

"Fled on foot": Speaking for the defense

Newspaper jargon watchers, including my former boss at the Boston Globe, like to scoff at “fled on foot” as police-report language that newsies should shun. Normal people supposedly say “ran away.”
So I laughed at a metro story in this morning’s New York Times, where an arrestee describes his fellow suspect’s escape:
“He fled,” Mr. Zacharakis said. “He didn’t look at me. He didn’t worry about me.”
Though I’ve never written or edited the kind of stories that deal with fleeing, I’ve always had a soft spot for “fled on foot,” which allows for the kind of ambiguity that “ran away” does not. It’s entirely possible, after all, that the police (and you) know only that your suspect has eluded capture, apparently without the help of a vehicle. 

In the comments to McIntyre’s blog post on cop jargon, two editors make this very point. “Lacking any certain knowledge about a robber's getaway gait, I am loath to change ‘fled on foot’ to ‘ran away’” writes one.

Exactly. He or she might have crawled under a porch, climbed a drainpipe, pulled off a wig and melted into a crowd and sauntered around a corner. Fine, say “ran away” if witnesses saw him sprinting down the street; but what if the picture isn’t so clear?

I don’t see why we should flee from “fled.” The New York suspect may have learned the usage from the police, but its source doesn’t make it a bad word. It’s not fancy or long or hard to spell or pronounce, and it gets the concept across. Maybe I'm going soft, but that's good enough for me.