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Representing Crime in The Phnom Penh Post Police Blotter

Representing Crime in The Phnom Penh Post Police Blotter

Dear Editor,

Regular readers of The Phnom Penh Post and new readers alike are often struck by the Police Blotter column. Some recoil in horror; some anticipate the bizarre and the "humourous"; others simply press on with reading the grim chronicle of domestic crime in contemporary Cambodia.

As a reader of the Post since its first issue in August 1992, I have always felt that the Police Blotter was conveying more (perhaps even much more) than a simple summarised account of crimes committed in the two weeks preceding each issue's publication. As a linguist with a toolkit appropriate to exploring this hunch in a systematic and principled way, I have been able to identify some of the factors that may account for why many readers find this feature fascinating as well as troubling.

My investigation examined the period from the Police Blotter's first appearance in 1992 (Vol.1 Issue 6) through to the end of 2007, during which some 340 Police Blotter columns appeared and in which some 7,000 news items of crime were reported.

First, a randomly drawn sample of up to three columns per year were selected (ie, 41 columns in total, or approximately 12 percent of the 340 columns published). This representative sample was subjected to a concordancing program that identified the frequency of individual words appearing in the sample. Second, a smaller sub-sample of each year's columns was investigated using a theory of language analysis known as systemic functional linguistics. This theory relates language use to its social context and is therefore able to go beyond mere descriptions of language use to provide explanations for how meanings are actually realised in written (and spoken) texts.

The concordancing analysis revealed that the five most frequent words found in the representative sample were: "a" (1,616 times); "the" (1,482); "in" (1,222); "was" (1,082); and "police" (767). The high frequency of the articles "a" and "the", the preposition "in" and the relational verb "was" is to be expected in virtually any corpus of standard (or near standard) written or spoken English. What was not expected in the concordancing analysis is the high frequency occurrence of the content word "police". Indeed, this word was found in 77 percent of the actual news items reported in the sample.

  ...THE POLICE ARE  TYPICALLY IF UNINTENTIONALLY CONSTRUED AS ‘TALKERS' RATHER THAN ‘DOERS'.

While concordances provide a useful overview of the vocabulary of the Police Blotter's news reports, a different linguistic tool is needed to provide a deeper analysis with the power to explain how meanings are encoded in particular wordings. We shall now turn to how, and to what effect, the word "police" was typically used in the Police Blotter.

Fifteen Police Blotter columns (ie, one per year from 1993 to 2007) were examined more closely for the appearance of the word "police" in their summarised news reports. Each clause in which the word "police" appeared was subjected to an analysis of the type of verbal process involved and the role of the word "police" within that process. Systemic functional linguistic theory holds that verbal processes in clauses provide the essence of how we construe human existence, for example, in terms of lived experience or reflections on that experience. A key finding, therefore, in the Police Blotter research is that two process types (among seven available) were dominant: Material (or "action") processes accounted for 39.2 percent of all processes found in these clauses, while verbal (or "speaking") processes accounted for 50.1 percent. (The remaining 10.7 percent of verbal processes included a small number of behavioural, mental, and relational processes.) While we would expect the police to be involved in physical action processes (eg, protecting, chasing and arresting) it is surprising to find that they are more often construed as being involved in speaking processes (eg, listening to witnesses or recounting crimes).

A closer analysis of the specific roles of police participation in these action and speaking processes also provides interesting findings. In action processes, the police are overwhelmingly found to be "arresting" suspects; much less frequently are they portrayed as "shooting/killing" alleged criminals, "confiscating" goods, "investigating", "seeking", "finding" or "rescuing". In speaking processes, the police are most often portrayed as speakers rather than listeners, and by far the most common verbal projector used is the word "said". Thus the police are construed as typically providing information (ie, recounting an incident or reporting something as fact) and through the use of the word "said" the content of what is stated takes on an air of neutrality or objectivity. Likewise, but less frequently, the police are construed as receivers of accounts of crime, usually reported from victims, their neighbours, or the offenders themselves. The most common verbal projector for construing the police as receivers of verbal messages is the word "told". Again the choice of this word provides a sense of neutrality or objectivity in these accounts.

To sum up, the police are typically if unintentionally construed as "talkers" rather than "doers". Moreover, the police as "doers" are typically construed as simply arresting suspects rather than actively engaged in other aspects of preventing or solving crime. It is very important to state categorically here that these findings are not claims about what Cambodia's police actually do, but rather how they are represented in the Police Blotter news items, following the production process outlined above. So, how do these findings of how the police are construed in the Police Blotter news items contribute to our perception of law and order in Cambodia?

The Police Blotter provides the reader an opportunity to "see" crime in Cambodia in a different way from that routinely reported in Western newspapers.  

When Western readers think of police, the image of an officer in a blue uniform poised to "serve and protect" readily springs to mind. When this image is transposed upon the representations of police in the Police Blotter, there is a serious mismatch. Instead of an "action" figure prepared to do something about crime, the Cambodian police officer is construed more often as a "talker" simply providing explanations for crimes already committed. This difference is part of what makes the Police Blotter an unsettling yet intriguing read.

Stephen H Moore

Macquarie University, Sydney

Send letters to: [email protected] or P.O.鈥圔ox 146, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length.

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