Solving Diction Problems

If you’re an instructor or supervisor who often comes across errors when you read police reports, today’s post is for you.

The bad news is that many of those errors are caused by diction problems. The good news is that the problem is easy to solve.

Diction refers to the language choices that people make. Right off the bat that explanation might sound strange to you. Words fill our days, and most of those words come out of our mouths automatically. We rarely slow down and think about choices in everyday conversation.

And that’s the problem!

When officers write badly, it’s often because they’re carrying their conversational habits over to their reports: “didn’t have none,” “him and I,” “I seen,” and so on.

But there’s an easy remedy. Most people have had plenty of exposure to Standard English through school, television, radio, movies, and so on. If they stop to think about what they’ve just said or written, they’ll pick up the mistake right away.

It all comes down to who’s in charge. If you’re an instructor or supervisor who fixes all the mistakes yourself, officers have little reason to slow down and write more carefully. But if you hand back the offending report and insist on a rewrite without the mistakes, you’ll soon start seeing better reports.

You get what you ask for!

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Available from www.Amazon.com

Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds

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

Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview.

You can purchase your copy for $15.70 at this link: http://amzn.com/1470164450Criminal Justice Report Writing is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.

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Josh Brown

Football is back, and so is Giants Kicker Josh Brown. The NFL has decided to let Brown play despite his history of domestic violence.

Brown was arrested in May 2015 for domestic violence, but there were earlier signs of problems in his marriage. In October 2014 Brown called police to report that his wife, Molly, was kicking him in the ribs. No charges were filed. Brown and his wife subsequently divorced.

That October police report was recently made public at this link. It’s a hastily written report that could have benefited from a second reading and some corrections:

caller wants wife removed from apartment the  had a verbal dispute with his wife then when he bent over she proceeded to kick him in the ribs…

Everything was settled Husband and Wife were advised.

Academy instructors and agency administrators sometimes despair when they see reports like this one. What is to be done with an officer who writes so poorly?

In my experience, the solution is often surprisingly simple: Hold the officer accountable. Insist on a rewrite.

Anyone who graduates from an academy program knows that sentences start with capital letters and end with periods. The officer who wrote this particular report was probably tired. The report was written quickly. The officer didn’t go back to reread it.

The most important determinant in writing quality is…the boss.

If you fix cadets’  or officers’ mistakes for them, and you let careless writing slip by, you’ll get more and more of it.

But if you insist on quality writing, that’s what you’ll get.

Josh Brown

            Josh Brown

 

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The Stephen K. Bannon Police Report

You never know when a police report you’ve written is going to make news.

On January 1, 1996, a Santa Monica police officer responded to a 911 phone call hang-up and talked to a woman who claimed her husband had abused her. Charges were later dropped when the woman – Mary Louise Piccard – missed a court appearance. She later said she’d been afraid to show up in court. The couple eventually divorced.

That police report is in the news because the alleged abuser – Stephen K. Bannon – is the new CEO of the campaign to elect Donald J. Trump to the Presidency.

You can read more about the story at this link, and you can read the police report here.

The report is impressive. In 1996 many police reports – including this one – were handwritten. Although the officer did not have the advantage of a laptop to write on, the report is objective, thorough, and jargon free. The officer uses “I” to recount the events at the call.

Here are two objective statements that convincingly describe Piccard’s condition when the officer arrived:

I saw that her eyes were red and watery.

I saw red marks on her left wrist and the right side of her neck.

I have a few quibbles. A few words in the report are misspelled (including argument and a lot). But we need to remember that the report was written before spellcheckers were available.

For efficiency, I’d suggest omitting “upon my arrival” in this sentence:

Upon my arrival, I was met at the front door by X.

Here’s what’s really impressive: If you read the report carefully, you can tell that the writer has been to college. Take a look at this sentence, for example:

X said she spit at him and he reached up to her, from the driver’s seat of his car, and grabbed her left wrist.

The verb should be “spat,” but  otherwise this is an elegant sentence.

This officer deserves credit for an excellent report – and Santa Monica should be proud that it adopted sensible report-writing practices more than 20 years ago.

Here’s a question for you: If one of your reports turned up in a news story 20 years from now, would you – and your agency – be proud of what you’d written?

Make_America_Great_Again_hat_(27150179783)

 

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Writing Honest Reports

This week law enforcement received an important reminder about the necessity for scrupulous honesty in police reports. Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson has agreed to fire seven officers for making false reports in the 2014 Laquan McDonald case. Chicago’s inspector general recommended firing the officers after reviewing video footage that contradicts the reports.

Superintendent Johnson noted that the officers violated Rule 14, which prohibits “making a false report, written or oral.”

You can read more by clicking here. Bottom line: Make sure you get every detail right when you write a report.

Chicago_Police_Star

 

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Respective

Here’s some advice for professionals who want to improve their writing: Drop the word respective from your vocabulary. It’s a meaningless word, and all it does is clog a perfectly good sentence.

Yesterday I came across an annoying example in an Associated Press article. Chicago Police Chief Eddie Johnson has decided not to fire one of the officers involved in the Laquan McDonald case. Johnson stated there was “insufficient evidence to prove those respective allegations.”

Does the word “respective” tell you anything useful? No.

Sometimes writers use “respective” because they’re hoping to sound serious. It doesn’t work! You just end up sounding old-fashioned and pompous.

(I will concede that respectively can serve a purpose as a sorting word: “John and Jane work at IBM and GE respectively.” But I would just put it like this: “John works at IBM, and Jane works at GE.”)

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Pokémon Go

A police report I just read about a Pokémon Go game (of all things!) is a good opportunity to review a couple of important principles about police reports.

On August 8, an Iowa man was charged with child endangerment after he went off to play Pokémon Go with his older son, leaving his sleeping six-year-old son home alone. A concerned neighbor called the police. You can read about the incident and view the police report here.

Here are the first two sentences from the report. What would you say about them if you were a supervisor or academy instructor?

Officers were called to the above location on above date and time for a six year old unattended male. The child woke up from a nap and found his father had left home. The child exited the house and went outside to find an adult.

My reactions:

It’s inefficient to write “the above location on above date and time.” It’s true that police officers used to start every report with the date and location. But today’s computers provide spaces for that information. Some die-hard officers are continuing the old practice – but that simply doesn’t make sense. 

The narration beginning “The child woke up from a nap” needs an attribution. How could the officer know this? Police don’t have a crystal ball or time machine that allows them to visit the past. The report should state the source of the information – presumably an interview with the neighbor who called police or the little boy himself.

Overall, though, this is a thorough and objective report.

Pokémon_Go_-_screenshot_of_map

 

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Third Person or First Person?

Should you use the first-person pronouns “I” and “me” in a police report? For many years the answer was no. Third person was required by most police agencies. In recent years, however, many officers have been using “I” and “me.” Is that a favorable trend – or a practice that should be deplored?

The answer is that the change is a good thing. The old-fashioned rule that officers should never use “I” and “me” was…quite simply…a mistake. It was based on wishful thinking that has no place in a law enforcement agency.

Here’s what I mean. Criminal justice professionals used to believe (wrongly) that “I” and “me” were subjective words. Officers who wrote “I heard a scream” might be lying. But if they wrote, “A scream was heard by this officer,” they were certain to be telling the truth.

That is absolute nonsense. Honesty and objectivity are character traits, not verbal tricks. You can’t turn a dishonest person into an honest one just by banishing the words “I” and “me” from their vocabulary.

And here’s something else to think about. If you were testifying in court, you would use the words “I” and “me” repeatedly to describe what you saw, heard, and did. “I” and “me” are perfectly good words.

There’s one more point: The verbal gymnastics needed to avoid saying “I” and “me” waste time and lead to tangled sentences. Try spending a day without saying “I” and “me” and you’ll see exactly what I mean. “This person would like a cup of coffee, please.” “No, coffee is taken black by the person who ordered it.” Good grief!

Magic Wand Pixabay ok

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Solving Common Mistakes

If it’s been a while since you last enrolled in an English course, you might be rusty on some usage points. Here’s a quick refresher about some common mistakes.

  1. Many writers wonder when to write everyday as one word, and when to write it as two. Here are some points to remember:

Every day (two words) is an adverb: 

Joe packs his own lunch every day to save money. CORRECT

(Think: Joe packs his own lunch each day to save money.)

Everyday (one word) is an adjective:

I’m packing just my everyday clothing for the trip. 

(Think: I’m packing just my ordinary clothing for the trip.)

You can easily learn the difference between everyday and every day even if you’re unfamiliar with grammatical terminology. Memorize this box (or copy it and carry it with you):

everyday

Need more help? Here’s a trick that has helped many writers: “ordinary” (everyday) is one word; “each day” (every day) is two.

2. There’s a controversy about what to do with used to when it’s combined with didn’t. Many authorities say that both used to and use to are correct:

I didn’t used to like Chinese food.  CORRECT

I didn’t use to like Chinese food.  CORRECT

Some people, however, have a strong preference for didn’t use to. I’m one of them, and I’m happy to report that the prestigious Cambridge Dictionary agrees with me. Click here to read more.

3. When you use either…or in a sentence, skip the first part and go straight to or. That part of the sentence will determine your verb. (You can download a free subject-verb agreement handout at www.Scribd.com. It’s posted under my name: Jean Rafenski Reynolds.)

Either the aides or the supervisor has the key to the storage room. CORRECT

Compare this version, which switches the words around:

Either the supervisor or the aides have the key to the storage room. CORRECT

4.  It’s easy to make mistakes with subject-verb agreement. Try this sentence: Is have the correct verb – or should it be has?

Overuse of prescription painkillers have/has become a huge problem.

There are two ways to think about this sentence, and both will get you to the correct answer. “Of prescription painkillers” is a prepositional phrase, so you should skip over it when you think about the subject and verb:

Overuse of prescription painkillers has become a huge problem.

Overuse of prescription painkillers has become a huge problem. CORRECT

Here’s another way to do it: The beginning of the sentence is the most important part, so you should focus on the word overuse. (Click here to learn more about the beginnings of sentences.)

Overuse of prescription painkillers has become a huge problem. CORRECT

A+ grade ok

 

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Handling Official Police Correspondence

If you’re planning a long career in law enforcement, you need to know how to handle many types of professional writing tasks. One of the most important is official police correspondence. Today we’re going to look at a response to a request from a media representative.

Early in July, Neo-Nazis and protesters clashed at the Capitol in Sacramento, California. A week later Drew Bollea from CBS 13 filed an official request for Highway Patrol records related to the incident. You can read the story at this link: http://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2016/07/14/only-1-police-report-filed-after-bloody-capitol-melee/

Here’s how the Highway Patrol responded to Bollea’s request. The letter is courteous and professional:

Records Request

But the letter could have been written more efficiently. The first two paragraphs tell Bollea what he already knew – that he filed his request on July 7.

That information – the type of request and date – already appears in the subject line. Why waste time repeating it?

Records Request

Both the writer and Bollea could have saved time if the letter got to the point immediately:

Dear Mr. Bollea:

We were happy to assist with your July 7 request. Despite a diligent search and reasonable inquiry, the Department did not identify any records that are relevant. If you have further questions, please call me at 555-555-1212.

Sincerely,

Sacramento_Capitol

 

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Jenelle Evans Police Report

Jenelle Evans is a star in Teen Mom 2, a reality TV series. She was a passenger in a car that was rear-ended on July 6. The police report indicates that she was at least ten weeks pregnant.

The report is objective, jargon-free, and well written. In a moment I’m going to make two suggestions for changes. Before you read my comments, I suggest that you read the report yourself and see if you notice anything:

  1. Driver #1 stated that he was approaching the traffic light leading from Martin Luther King Jr Pky north bound toward N 3RD St and rear ended driver #2 while same was stopped at the traffic light near the Isabel Holmes Bridge on ramp.
  2. Driver #1 stated that he thought driver #2 was going to “continue through the yellow traffic light” and not come to a complete stop. Driver #1 rear ended driver #2 as a result causing major front distributed damage to vehicle #1, and minor rear distributed damage to vehicle #2.
  3. The passenger in vehicle #1 stated that she is at least (10) weeks pregnant and complained of abdominal pain. She was transported for treatment to NERMC by EMS #33. No other injuries or property damage was reported at this time.
  4. Driver #1 was issued a citation for Failure to Reduce Speed.
  5. End of report.

My comments:

  • Did you notice something odd in this sentence? The passenger in vehicle #1 stated that she is at least (10) weeks pregnant and complained of abdominal pain.
    Why is 10 in parentheses? The answer is that military documents used to write numerals twice: ten (10) weeks pregnant. Nobody knows why they started doing it that way. It didn’t make sense then, and it certainly doesn’t make sense now. Write it this way: at least 10 weeks pregnant.
  • This report – like so many that I read – lapsed into passive voice near the end: was transported…was issued a citation. The sentences should be written in active voice: EMS #33 transported her for treatment to NERMC. I issued Driver #1 a citation for Failure to Reduce Speed.

Overall, though, this is an effective report.

Teen_Mom_2_Card

 

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