The Philadelphia PD Report

Newcomers to law enforcement sometimes wonder why all the paperwork is necessary. With time and experience, though, a bigger picture emerges. Officers begin to see that what might look like routine recordkeeping can take on much larger significance.

A new statistical study coming out of Philadelphia is a good example. The study – compiled by the ACLU and released on May 23 – examines the racial implications of police actions in the second half of 2016. (You can read a summary here, and you can read the entire report here). The Philadelphia Police Department is compiling its own statistical study, and the results are expected soon.

Whether you’re a recent recruit or a long-time officer, the report is worth reading and discussing. Here are some issues raised by the study that have implications for the kinds of reports that officers write every day:

  • How would you define the terms “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause”?
  • What documentation is needed in a police report?
  • What legal issues come to mind when an officer makes a “reasonable suspicion” stop and search? A “probable cause” stop and search?
  • What agency policies apply to these terms?

Supervisors might want to consider an additional issue: About 25% of the reports included in the study failed to provide a legal reason for the stops.

  • What are some possible reasons for those omissions?
  • Should the Philadelphia PD be concerned about that statistic?
  • Do officers need additional training and support?
  • Are there implications for other agencies?

Often it takes time for new officers to fully grasp the role of police reports in the overall functioning of an agency. Supervisors, instructors, and FTO’s can fill in some of the gaps and help these new officers write reports that are professional and complete.

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 Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from Amazon.com for the low price of $17.95. For a free preview, click on the link or the picture below.

Available from www.Amazon.com

“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 $17.95 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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Quiz: Writing Sentences for Police Reports

Here’s a quiz for you! Modern police reports require sentences that are objective, concise, straightforward, free of jargon, and written in active voice. Do your reports meet these standards? 

Instructions: Read the sentences below. Mark each effective sentence with a √, and each ineffective sentence with an X. Scroll down for the answers.

  1. The suspect was transported to the county jail.
  2. I was suspicious of what Barton told me and decided to look for signs of forced entry.
  3. The car turned into the Circle K parking lot, and upon observing this, I activated my flashers and siren and followed it.
  4. I asked Novak how she knew that it was 2:19 AM when she heard the banging noise, and she responded that she’d looked at the clock in her bedroom.
  5. Upon observing Filton’s aggressive body language, I advised him to place his hands on the hood of the car.

ANSWERS

  1. X  This sentence omits an essential piece of information: the name of the officer who transported the suspect. Always use active voice. BETTER: I [or the name of the officer who did the driving] transported the suspect to the county jail. 
  2. X This sentence doesn’t contain any useful information and needs rewriting. First, the statement that you were “suspicious” about Barton lacks objectivity. Second, it’s a waste of time explaining what you’re planning to do and why. Instead you should write about you did and what you found. BETTER: I looked for signs of forced entry and found none. OR I found splintered wood and a hole approximately four inches in diameter near the lock on the rear door.
  3. X Omit “upon observing this” – it’s empty filler and inefficient. Better: The car turned into the Circle K parking lot. I activated my flashers and siren and followed the car.
  4. X Omit your questions and just record what suspects, victims, and witnesses tell you. BETTER: Novak said she’d looked at the clock in her bedroom and knew it was 2:19 AM.
  5. X This sentence has two problems. First, “Filton’s aggressive body language” lacks objectivity. What seems aggressive to you might look like normal behavior to someone else. You need to describe Filton’s behavior: “I saw Filton’s balled fists….” Second, advised is a poor word choice because it can mean “counseled” or “suggested.” If Filton refused to obey you, his attorney could say that you were only making a suggestion about his hands. BETTER: I saw Filton’s balled fists and told him to place his hands on the hood of the car.

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Sign up for our FREE Police Writer e-Newsletter and receive a free copy of “10 Days to Better Police Reports,” ready to download! Your privacy is protected: We NEVER share emails with third parties.

 
 
 
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 Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from Amazon.com for the low price of $17.95. For a free preview, click on the link or the picture below. 

 

“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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When Is a Report Necessary?

Not every call or traffic stop results in an arrest or citation. You might settle a neighborhood dispute without arresting anyone or decide to warn a motorist about a violation. Sometimes officers are called to deal with situations that don’t warrant a police response – a child who speaks disrespectfully to a parent, for example.

Is documentation required in those situations? Opinions vary. Some officers belong to the “write it down, just in case something happens later” school of thought. Others say that just-in-case record keeping doesn’t qualify as a law enforcement concern.

A police chief in La Crescent, Minnesota recently weighed in on this issue. His department provides a weekly police blotter to the local newspaper, and Chief Doug Stavenau decided to include warnings to motorists even though no citation was issued. (Not surprisingly, some of those motorists wondered why their names were printed in the newspaper!)

Chief Stavenau issued a statement (which you can read at this link) explaining the department’s policy about the police blotter. He noted that each warning is a “teachable moment” that’s relevant to the department’s mission, which includes educating citizens about public safety.

Another factor is the department’s acquisition of what Chief Stavenau called “a more technologically advanced software system.” Every contact with the public automatically generates a report that eventually goes into the police blotter.

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Sign up for our FREE Police Writer e-Newsletter and receive a free copy of “10 Days to Better Police Reports,” ready to download! Your privacy is protected: We NEVER share emails with third parties. 

 
 
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
 

You can purchase Criminal Justice Report Writing for only $17.95 by clicking the link or the picture. 

Available from www.Amazon.com

“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.

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

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A Misplaced Modifier

On July 10, 2016, a 27-year-old man named Seth Conrad Rich,was fatally shot in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Rich was an employee of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

On May 15 of this year, a private investigator named Rod Wheeler told Fox News that Rich’s death may have been politically motivated. Wheeler has since said there is no evidence for that claim, but conspiracy theories have been swirling nevertheless.

The police report (which you can read here) contains a sentence that has some grammatical interest for us. Here’s the sentence: can you spot the problem?

Upon arriving to the scene the decedent was laying in the Southwest corner of the intersection of W St. and Flagler Pl. NW.

Here’s the problem: the sentence sounds as if the deceased man arrived at the scene – which couldn’t have happened because, sadly, he was already dead. The person who arrived was the officer.

This mistake is called a dangling or misplaced modifier. You can fix it easily by making sure you state who was arriving at the scene:

Upon my arrival at the scene, the decedent was laying in the Southwest corner of the intersection of W St. and Flagler Pl. NW.  BETTER

 

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The Aaron Hernandez Police Report

On April 19, former NFL star Aaron Hernandez hanged himself in a prison cell in Massachusetts. This is a sad story for Hernandez, his family, and his friends. Hernandez, who used to be a tight end for the New England Patriots, was serving a life sentence in the 2013 murder of a man who had been dating his fiancee’s sister.

You can read more at this link: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/aaron-hernandez-suicide-state-police-report. The investigative report is posted here: https://cbsboston.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/state-police-report-aaron-hernandez.pdf.

Anyone who’s planning on a criminal justice career could benefit from reading this investigative report: some day you may find yourself having to complete a task like this one. The report is painful to read, of course, but it is a professional document – objective and factual.

I have only one question. I wonder why the trooper who wrote the report kept calling himself “the undersigned” instead of simply using “I.” Is that a Massachusetts policy? If so, what is the reason?

Overall the report is excellent. Most of the writing uses plain, everyday language. Well done.

     Aaron Hernandez

 

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The Vincent Viola Incident Report

Because my husband is a huge hockey fan, Vincent Viola’s name is very familiar to us. Viola owns the Florida Panthers, an NHL team that won the Stanley Cup in 1996.

Recently President Trump nominated Viola to serve as Secretary to the Army. But Viola subsequently withdrew his name when questions arose about his business dealings. You can read more here: http://wapo.st/2l7nmCT?tid=ss_tw-bottom

Media interest in Viola led to the discovery of an incident report related to a punching incident at a Saratoga Springs racetrack. You can read the actual report here: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/18/us/politics/document-Vincent-Viola-Police-Report.html

(I hope you will click on the link and evaluate the report before you read my comments below. Putting yourself into the role of a supervisor like this is great preparation for future career challenges – and an effective way to sharpen your own writing skills.)

My reaction: This is a professional report. I particularly noticed one detail that suggested the writer had been to college: The victim “sustained a bloody, swollen lip as a result of the alleged punch.” Most writers don’t bother with that comma between bloody and swollen. Well done!

But I would recommend some changes.

If I were this officer’s supervisor, I would ask that future reports be written more efficiently. Here’s an example of inefficient writing:

I initially spoke with Vincent Viola and requested he come down to the first floor because it was loud upstairs and very difficult to hear. Vincent advised that prior to the incident occurring, he was notified by his wife, Theresa that a man who worked for the food service at the horse sales had pushed her after she tried to get some water from the kitchen area for a woman who had just fainted in the building.

These sophisticated sentences are more evidence that this officer may have been to college. But I would have preferred a more straightforward version. You don’t need “initially” or “prior to the incident occurring.” They don’t add any information. Nor do you need “spoke with Vincent Viola and requested.” Doesn’t requesting automatically involve speaking?

Here’s a better version:

I asked Viola to come down to the first floor because it was loud upstairs.  BETTER

Now I’d like you to read the sentences below (taken from the report) and see if you notice anything:

The subject advised that there was a verbal dispute in progress between two male subjects on the second floor inside the pavilion. 

X was advised by Mazzone Catering Security Supervisor Chris Cole to go home for the rest of his shift.

Here’s what I noticed: In the first sentence, advised clearly means “told.” But in the second sentence you can’t be sure what advised means. Did the supervisor suggest that X go home – or order him to leave?

Advised is a confusing word that does not belong in police reports. If I were the supervisor, I would advise this writer to break his “advised” habit.

On second thought, no. I would tell him to stop using this word.

                 Vincent Viola

 

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DeKalb County Sheriff Arrested for Indecency and Obstruction

On May 6, DeKalb County Sheriff Jeff Mann was arrested in Georgia for indecency and obstruction. You can read more about the arrest at this link: http://www.mdjonline.com/neighbor_newspapers/details-emerge-from-police-report-on-dekalb-sheriff-s-arrest/article_28feff06-33f7-11e7-b8e2-6bba06e88f2f.html

You can read the police report at the same link. Overall it is an excellent report – thorough and objective.

I have a few recommendations:

  •  The officer used “told” and “stated” in the report – but much of the time“advised” keeps appearing in the report…and in one sentence, that ugly “advised” causes a potential problem:

I advised the male to get on the ground and to put his hands behind his back while on the ground.

Notice that the officer seems to be counseling or suggesting that the man lie on the ground. That sentence could cause a problem in a court hearing, with a defense attorney arguing that the officer didn’t really tell a suspect what to do.

The report should say “I TOLD the man to get on the ground….” or “I ORDERED the man to get on the ground.”

  • I was pleased to read this sentence:

“He then started to walk towards me at some point.”

But sometimes the report is wordy. The officer kept writing “the male,” “the male,” “the male,” “the male,” and so on. There’s nothing wrong with the words he and him!

  • The report mentions “following my verbal commands.” The word needed here is oral. Verbal means “using words” and can also refer to writing.
  • Overall the sentences are strong and concise. But there’s one section that could have been more efficient:

The male told me to call my supervisor, Major Peek. I advised the male that Major Peek was not my supervisor. I then asked if he would like to speak to a supervisor. The male stated “Yes”. I then advised the dispatcher of the male’s request.

Here’s a recommended rewrite:

The male told me to call my supervisor, Major Peek. I said Major Peek was not my supervisor. I asked if he would like to speak to a supervisor. The male said “Yes,” and I told the dispatcher about the request.

And here’s an even shorter version. (Some agencies require a great deal of detail in police reports; other agencies want efficient reports with only essential facts.)

The male said he would like to speak to a supervisor. I told the dispatcher about the request.

Overall, though, this is a professional and effective report.

 

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A Missing Incident Report

Suppose you interview a victim of a crime who decides not to press charges. Should you file a report?

YES. You can file an incident report even if there’s no arrest – and you should.

A recent story about a victim of sexual harassment is a good illustration of the importance of documenting everything – and saving those reports in case they’re needed later.

In November 2015, Jodi Grunvold – a principal in Reeds Spring, Connecticut – called the Stone County Sheriff’s Department to report suggestive behavior from Superintendent Michael Mason.

She did not press charges, but she wanted the report on file in case she pursued legal remedies later. There’s a good reason why: Sometimes victims of sexual harassment or sexual assault are asked why they didn’t tell anyone about the problem at the time it happened. Having an official record of a talk with a police officer can make a huge difference for the victim later on.

Eventually Grunvold did file a lawsuit, and the Title IX coordinator learned that other employees had made similar charges. The case was eventually settled, and Grunvold received $500,000. Nevertheless the school district denied any wrongdoing, and Mason’s contract was renewed. Grunvold herself was required to resign. You can read more about the case at this link: http://sgfnow.co/2pv2Uio

Here’s where it gets complicated. The Springfield News-Leader decided to investigate the story and was able to get a copy of the incident report. But the official word from the agency is that no report was filed. Sheriff Doug Rader said that he had interviewed Grunvold – but no report was taken.

Eventually a report was found, but the reporting deputy was identified as an “Officer Smith,” not Doug Rader. The handwriting does not match Sheriff Rader’s handwriting.

Confusingly, the sheriff’s office continues to deny that any report was ever taken. Meanwhile, a petition against Superintendent Michael Mason is circulating in Reeds Spring.

Bottom line: Document everything you do. You never know when something that seems routine will turn into a news story. Careful record keeping will mean that your agency is always prepared if questions arise.

 

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Another Look at the Friendly Skies

On April 14 I discussed a letter written by the United Airlines CEO, and I said it has a useful lesson for law enforcement officers: Make sure your reports are thoroughly objective. I listed some of the subjective words and expressions that CEO Munoz used in his letter, such as “belligerent” and “disruptive.”

(To refresh your memory: United Airlines needed extra seats for UA employees who showed up at the last minute. A passenger was told to give up his seat, but he insisted on staying on the plane. The passenger – Dr. David Dao – was removed and suffered a broken nose.)

Now – thanks to the Internet – we can look at a thoroughly objective account of what happened on that UA flight. It was written by…(drum roll!)…a police officer. Click the link below to read it:

READ: David Dao United Airlines Chicago Police Reports

The officer patiently explains, step-by-step, what happened on that plane. At no time does the officer state an opinion. It’s all observable facts, and for each one there’s a source. The officer explains where each piece of information came from (such as “a passenger in Seat 16B” or from Dr. Dao himself). (For comparison, you can read the CEO’s  letter here. You’ll see immediately that it’s full of generalizations with few objective facts.)

The quality of the writing in this report is excellent. There’s no jargon. For example, the report uses the everyday word “told” instead of the jargonish “advised.” Everything is written in active voice.

Although the report is handwritten (so that no spellchecker was available), every word is spelled correctly – even received, a word even I sometimes struggle with. Sentences are sophisticated but clear.

The incident on that United Airlines flight was a huge embarrassment for the airline. But the police officer who wrote that report has reason to be proud – and so does the agency.

 

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Update about Caleb Brantley

Recently I discussed a police report about Caleb Brantley, a football player who was involved in a controversial incident in Gainesville, Florida. (You can read my original post at this link.). Brantley was allegedly struck in the jaw by a woman who admitted she had hit him. Brantley decided not to press charges.

Now Brantley is claiming that the original police report was falsified. A new police report alleges that Brantley was the attacker. Very likely there will be a legal hearing to straighten out the confusion. Which report is correct – the first or the second?

From our vantage point, of course there’s no way to know who’s telling the truth. But if you read the second police report, you’ll notice immediately that it lacks objectivity. There are no sources for the details in the report. If this case goes to court, the officer at the scene may be subjected to tough questioning by the defense attorney: Who made these allegations?

Here are two examples:

The DEF responded by striking the VIC in the face knocking her unconscious. [Who saw this happen? The officer? Probably not – he arrived later. A witness? But the first report says there were multiple witnesses. The victim? Why not say so?]

Additionally, the intensity of the DEF’s force far exceeded what was reasonable or necessary. [This is an opinion, not a fact. What looks violent to one person may seem normal to another. Facts are needed: Was there redness? Bleeding? Did the victim fall to the ground? Did the suspect use an open hand or a closed fist? And so on.]

The confusion around the Brantley incident illustrates once again the importance of carefully following guidelines for writing police reports. Suggestion: Use the links to read both reports, and ask yourself how you would have handled this writing task.

 

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