Your Ear Can Fool You!

It’s a common mistake: Because we don’t hear certain letters when we’re speaking, we assume we don’t have to use them in writing.

Wrong!

Probably the most common error is leaving out verb endings. Listen to yourself say these sentences aloud:

Coppin used to work with domestic violence victims.

We’re supposed to be in court at 9:30.

The memo lists everyone who’s going to the meeting.

What you probably noticed is that you couldn’t hear the d in “used to” and “supposed to”: It blends with the t in “to.” And most people don’t say the final s in “lists.”

Writing is different. You absolutely have to include those d and s endings.

Here’s a practice activity: Can you find and fix the errors in these sentences? Scroll down for the answers.

1.  I’m suppose to meet with the chief at 10:30.

2.  Before that park was cleaned up, drug sellers use to hang out there.

3.  A visit to the emergency room cost $250 before the doctor even sees you.

4. After Joe list the changes, I’ll make sure the staff knows about them.

ANSWERS

1.  I’m supposed to meet with the chief at 10:30.

2.  Before that park was cleaned up, drug sellers used to hang out there.

3.  A visit to the emergency room costs $250 before the doctor even sees you.

4. After Joe lists the changes, I’ll make sure the staff knows about them.

How did you do?

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Updated, with a new chapter on Writing Efficiently

“It will definitely help you with your writing skills.” – Joseph E. Badger, California Association of Accident Reconstructionists Newsletter

Criminal Justice Report Writing is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.

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What Should Be Left Out?

Officers are often concerned (as they should be) with completeness when they’re writing a report. But it’s also important to know what you should leave out.

Here’s a challenge for you: Read the news summary below. Note that this is NOT an actual police report. If you were the officer, what information would you leave out when you wrote your police report?

A 51-year-old Milwaukee man was arrested for attempted burglary after he was seen on security cameras at Currie Park Golf Course, 3535 N. Mayfair Road, at 12:10 a.m. June 9. A clubhouse window had been broken, causing $300 damage, but nothing appeared missing. When officers arrived, the man ran around the fairway until he gave up near the park entrance. Officers don’t believe he acted alone. The man was on probation violation, and the Jeep he had arrived in was stolen.

What would you have omitted?

Here’s my answer: I would omit “Officers don’t believe he acted alone” and “nothing appeared missing.”

Hunches, guesses, and theories are tremendously useful in police work, but they don’t belong in a report. What you could write, though, would be details that show how you came to that conclusion.

For example, you might have interviewed a security guard who reported seeing three men on the golf course shortly before midnight. Perhaps you talked to an official from the clubhouse who told you that nothing seemed to have been taken.

What you don’t do is draw your own conclusions: “Obviously all three were planning to burglarize the clubhouse.”

A man thinking

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Writing an Objective Report

Suppose you saw a driver cross the double line three times in two minutes. She staggered out of her car when you asked her to perform a sobriety test. Your immediate conclusion was that she was driving under the influence.

But professional criminal justice practices require you to omit these categories and conclusions. You state only facts and details, leaving it to your reader to draw conclusions.

These requirements seem to defy common sense – but there are good reasons for them. Facts and details can be useful in three ways:

  • They facilitate follow-up investigations
    Crimes often happen in patterns. Recording exactly what a suspect or witness says can be a huge help to an investigator who’s looking for habits and repeated behavior.
  • They prevent challenges
    An inmate can’t argue that you jumped to conclusions if you list the behaviors that indicated defiance: “Johnson clenched his fists, took two steps backward, and said, ‘You’re not my boss, and I ain’t taking any orders from you.’ Then he turned, walked through the doorway, and slammed the door.”
  • They help you avoid embarrassment
    If you announce in a report that you found the point of entry, or you knew a suspect was dangerous, a defense attorney might point out errors in your reasoning.
    Just state the facts: Describe the broken window and the footprints in the flowerbed, or list the behaviors that prompted you to call for a backup when dealing with the suspect: The threats against you (write them down, word-for-word), the weapon he was waving from side to side, the loud voice and flushed face.

Here’s a comparison of generalizations you should avoid and details you could use instead:

  • confused (Better: could not state her name and address)
  • afraid (Better: whispered the answers to my questions, her hands were shaking, twice said “What if he comes back?“)
  • reckless (Better: clocked at 50 mph in a 30 mph zone, crossed the double line while making a left turn)

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The Antonio Brown Police Reports

Antonio Brown is a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers. On January 18, the mother of one of his children told police about a fight between her and Brown the day before. No charges were filed. You can read the reports at this link: https://deadspin.com/here-are-the-police-reports-from-the-domestic-disturban-1832400256

I always encourage officers to read as many reports as possible. Ask yourself these questions: What parts of this report are effective? Would I suggest any changes?

I’m going to make two comments about this report.

1.  The paragraph below includes the officer’s thinking and conclusions – something not ordinarily permitted in a police report:

Antonio Brown

The officer explains why he couldn’t act on the allegation of battery – it had happened the day before. Usually an officer won’t give a reason for a decision. He also says that the woman admitted that Brown asked her to leave. Admitted is an admission of wrongdoing. Said would be a more objective word.

Perhaps there’s a good reason for the subjective language in this report. In general, though, reports need to be as objective as possible

2. The report is sometimes too wordy. Here’s an example: “By the complainant’s own volition, she stood in the doorway.” The report could simply say, “She stood in the doorway.”

Here’s another paragraph that could be more efficient:

The complainant then stated she wished to ‘cancel’ her report and stated she just wanted to leave without creating the complaint,” the report said. “The complaining was advised that Hollywood police would be authoring a report. The complainant left the police department at that time.

Here’s a more concise version:

The complainant said she wished to cancel her report and leave. I told her Hollywood police would be writing a report. She left.

Overall, though, this report is a detailed and accurate account of what happened. It shows that the situation was handled with courtesy and professionalism.

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Commas in Police Reports

Do you worry about commas? They’re not as tricky as you probably think. You can use commas confidently in almost any sentence by learning just three rules:

1.  Use a comma when a sentence starts with an extra idea:

Wilson had been drinking before he left for work that morning.  NO COMMA

Before he left for work that morning, Wilson had been drinking. COMMA

2.  Use a comma when you join two sentences with and or but:

I saw blood on the sleeve of Cameron’s shirt and called an ambulance. ONE SENTENCE – NO COMMA

I saw blood on the sleeve of Cameron’s shirt, and I called an ambulance.  TWO SENTENCES – COMMA REQUIRED

3.  Use two commas when you drop your voice and raise it again in a sentence:

Burton Memorial Park, which used to attract prostitutes and drug pushers, is now a safe place for children to play.

You can learn more about these comma rules by clicking here.

a red comma

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Try This Quiz

Here’s a quiz for you to try. (Answers are provided below.) Can you spot the common mistakes in these sentences?

1.  If you have alot to do next week, we can postpone the project.

2.  Superintendent Jones asked Officer Payne and I to meet with him tomorrow morning.

3.  There’s several messages from reporters who want to talk with you.

4.  The visiting room is busy today, it was unusually quiet yesterday, though.

5.  The staff canteen is expanding it’s hours of operation.

 ANSWERS

1. If you have a lot to do next week, we can postpone the project. (A lot is always two words – no exceptions.)

2.  Superintendent Jones asked Officer Payne and me to meet with him tomorrow morning.  (Think: “asked…me” = “asked Officer Payne and me.” To learn more, click here.)

3.  There are several messages from reporters who want to talk with you.  (Think: “several messages are there” = “there are several messages.” To learn more, click here.)

4.  The visiting room is busy today. It was unusually quiet yesterday, though. (Any idea that starts with it is a sentence: Use a period and a capital letter.)

5.  The staff canteen is expanding its hours of operation. (The possessive of its has no apostrophe – compare his, another possessive word with no apostrophe. To learn more, click here.)

the word "quiz"

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The Wayne Rooney Report

Wayne Rooney plays soccer for Major League Soccer’s DC United. On December 16 he was arrested at Dulles International Airport for public intoxication. You can read the full story at this link.

Here’s the report:

Wayne Rooney Police Report

Some comments:

  • This is a professional police report – objective, accurate, grammatical.
  • It could be more concise. You don’t need to repeat the date and time – you’ve already entered that information into the form on your laptop.
  • “Individual” is vague. Rooney is a man.
  • Many details could be condensed. Here’s a wordy excerpt from the report:

I approached the individual and asked what happened, and in his broken English he stated he went through the door at the bottom of the stairs because he thought it was a lift. The subject provided a United Kingdom passport and the the individual was identified as Wayne Mark Rooney.

Here’s a suggested rewrite:

The man told me his name was Wayne Mark Rooney. He showed me his passport. He told me that he went through the door at the bottom of the stairs because he thought it was a lift.

The first version is 50 words; the second is 37. That doesn’t sound like much – but when you think about all the reports you write in a year, those unnecessary words add up!

  • Some of the language in the report is old-fashioned police jargon: the individual, subject.
  • There are three instances of passive voice:

Mr. Rooney was placed under arrest for public intoxication

the individual was identified as Wayne Mark Rooney

Mr. Rooney was transported by Cpl. Spina

It’s more professional to write “Wayne Mark Rooney gave me his name” and “Cpl. Spina drove Rooney to….” The “was placed under arrest” sentence is a particular problem. Who arrested him? What if there are questions about the arrest in a future court case? The officer’s name should be included in the report.

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How to Revise a Report

Let’s drop in on an imaginary police department and watch a supervisor (we’ll call him Lieutenant Stickler) correct a report written by an officer new to the force (we’ll call him Officer Nervous).

Here’s the report submitted by Officer Nervous:

Upon arrival the Camry was observed to have the passenger side front window smashed out. The business owner, Linda Collins, advised that the victim’s vehicle had been damaged over the weekend; the actor(s) had attempted to open the trunk and removed several items from the vehicle itself, including the battery and GPS. Investigation is pending until the surveillance video is reviewed.

And here’s Lt. Stickler’s rewrite:

I saw that the passenger side front window was smashed. I talked to a neighbor, Robert Cary, who said he noticed the damage when he came back from a trip late Sunday night.

I saw scratch marks around the lock of the trunk. When I lifted the hood, I saw that the battery was gone. The business owner, Linda Collins, told me the GPS was gone. A surveillance camera monitors the rear of the building where the Camry was parked.

Here are Lt. Stickler’s comments:

  • “Upon arrival the Camry” sounds as if the Camry arrived. No – the officer arrived! (An English teacher – Lt. Stickler is married to one – would call this a “dangling modifier.”) And why even put “upon arrival” into your report? You’ve already filled in the location and arrival boxes in the report form.
  • “was observed” is passive. There’s an old superstition in law criminal justice that passive voice (“was observed” instead of active voice “I saw”) makes you trustworthy. Spend five seconds thinking about that, and you’ll realize it’s not true and never was.
  • “a neighbor advised” – no, he told you. Advised means counseled (“I advised her to see a doctor”).
  • “The actors had attempted to open the trunk” – how do you know? What did you see? To hold up in court, a report has to be specific. Were there scratches? Was the lock damaged? And why “actors”? This isn’t a play.
  • “removed several items from the vehicle itself” – busy officers avoid unnecessary words like these. Just list what was taken.

broken windshield glass

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Tips for Type 4 Reports

Report writing can seem overwhelming. There’s so much information to process! And when you’re just learning how to write reports, it seems like each one is different.

The good news is that – when you have some experience – there are only four basic types of police reports. The even better news is that each one adds something to the previous type – sort of like going up a flight of stairs. So you’re not starting over with each new type of report – you’re building.

symbols representing stairs

You can learn more about the four types of reports at this link. You can download a free handout here.

Type 4 reports are different because you, the officer, initiate the action. You saw or heard something suspicious and decided to intervene.

Your report has two important differences from most Type 1, Type 2, and Type 3 reports:

  • you weren’t dispatched to the scene
  • you have to establish probable cause

These differences will affect the way you start your report. First, you have to establish why you were at that location. Second, you have to give a detailed and convincing justification for getting involved.

Phrases like “acting suspiciously” or “something wasn’t right” don’t work here. You have to describe what was unusual about the suspect’s appearance or behavior, or what struck you as out of place about the scene. Examples might include:

  • you saw someone running down the street who kept looking behind himself
  • you heard a scream
  • you saw a light in an empty building
  • you noticed that a woman was struggling to pull away from the  man who was walking with her

You can read a sample Type 4 report here.

four steps

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The Challenge of Objectivity

Officers sometimes ask wonder how the objectivity requirement can be met in an actual police or corrections report.

Here’s an example from my own experience:

I was teaching in a correctional institution. (This was years ago, when the phone company still had human operators). One morning while I was eating breakfast, my phone rang. When I answered it, a woman said, “I have a collect call from John Thompson” [not the inmate’s real name].

I said, “I’m refusing the call” and hung up. I was shaken. “John Thompson” was an inmate in a class I was teaching. How did he get my number? What did he want? Was there trouble ahead?

As soon as I arrived at work, I wrote a report. Notice the challenges facing me: I couldn’t be sure the caller was an operator: I couldn’t see her. Nor was I sure that “John Thompson” was the person who tried to call me. I couldn’t see him either.

Most important, I knew that guesses, hunches, worries, and conjectures have no place in a criminal justice report.

Here’s what I wrote:

At approximately 0725 hours on [the date], my telephone rang. When I answered it, I heard a female voice say, “I have a collect phone call from John Thompson. Will you accept the charges”? I said “no” and hung up the phone.

Of course I was unhappy that an inmate apparently knew my home phone number and had tried to call me. But that information does not belong in an objective report.

I never did find out if “John Thompson” was the actual person making the call. I did, however, hear from the lieutenant that I had written an excellent report. Even better, there were no more collect calls.

 

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