Bernard Tomic Goes to Jail

Yesterday I offered two reasons for not using passive-voice sentences: They often omit useful information (who arrested the suspect and drove him or her to jail), and writers often forget that they have to use a past participle.

Almost immediately a police report with both errors turned up online.

On July 15, Bernard Tomic was arrested for refusing to turn down the music in a Miami hotel room. Tomic, 22, is a tennis star from Australia.

After two hours in jail, Tomic was released on $2,000 bail. He has apologized for his actions. You can read the story and see the police report at this link.

Here’s the first problematic passive-voice sentence in the Tomic police report:

Defendant was advise several times that if he did not pack his belongings and leave the premises he would be arrested for trespassing.

I see three problems here: First, the sentence should read “was advised” (the -ed ending is missing). Next, the sentence doesn’t tell which officer talked to Tomic – or whether both did the talking Finally, advise, which means counseled, is the wrong word. Since Tomic was about to be arrested, the report should use something stronger: told or warned.

Here’s the second problematic sentence:

Defendant was arrested and transported TGK.

In this sentence the report uses the -ed endings correctly (arrested and transported). But which officer performed those actions? That could be vital information if problems with the arrest or transport process show up later. (Remember the suspect who died in a Baltimore police van?)

Incidentally, TGK is the Turner Guildford Knight Correctional Centre.

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Why Passive Voice is a Problem

Many experts (including me) wish that passive voice in police reports would just go away.

Passive voice is a grammatical construction that omits the “who” from a sentence. Here’s a sentence written in active voice (which is better for police reports):

I transported Sanders to the county jail.  ACTIVE VOICE

Here’s the passive voice version:

Sanders was transported to the county jail.  PASSIVE VOICE

One obvious problem is with this sentence is that you don’t know who did the driving – and that’s why I’m always astonished when I see passive voice in a police report. Shouldn’t supervisors be concerned?

And yet many reports feature passive voice. It’s especially likely to creep in near the end of a report, when an officer is writing about arresting the suspect or handling evidence.

There’s another problem with passive voice that’s often overlooked – a grammatical one. Passive voice requires a construction called a past participle. It’s a specialized verb form (brought, gone, and done are examples). Many past participles end with -ed, which is easy to forget when you’re in a hurry. The result is that many writers flub these past participles.

I saw an example just this week in the July 16, 2015 issue of Smithsonian Daily:Passive 2

I’m going to focus on the first sentence:

Whether its call a drinking fountain, water fountain or bubbler, public sources of clean water have long been a part of urban life.  INCORRECT

There’s a lot wrong with this sentence. (Apparently there’s no copy editor on the staff of Smithsonian Daily.) It should be changed to they (“Public sources of clean water” is plural), and its needs an apostrophe (to mean it is).

But today we’re interested in call, which is a past participle that needs an -ed ending. Here’s the sentence with the –ed added:

Whether it’s called a drinking fountain, water fountain or bubbler, public sources of clean water have long been a part of urban life.  CORRECT

Active voice is easier because it don’t require past participles. Here’s how the sentence could have been written. (I’ve also corrected the singular/plural problem.)

Whether people call them drinking fountains, water fountains or bubblers, public sources of clean water have long been a part of urban life.  CORRECT

Why do officers keep writing in passive voice? It’s a tradition dating back to the days when criminal justice was wary of the word “I.” Trainers and supervisors believed that if you used “I” in a report, you might lie. Omit “I,” and you would be sure to tell the truth.

That’s absolute nonsense, and academies no longer train recruits that way. But passive voice lives on…and on…and on.

How about promising yourself that you’re never going to write another passive voice sentence in a report? Start today!

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Hope Solo

United States soccer fans are hoping that the US team will win the Women’s World Cup final against Japan this Sunday. All eyes will be on Hope Solo, the goalie who deserves much of the credit for the team’s success.

After the game is over, women’s soccer will drop out of the news until the next soccer season begins – but we’ll continue to hear about Hope Solo because of a domestic violence charge she is fighting. (You can read the story at this link: http://es.pn/1Ju8FBG.)

On June 21, 2014, police were called to the home of Teresa Obert (Solo’s half sister) because of a fight between Solo, Obert, and Obert’s son. (Because he was 17 at the time, his name has not been released.) Obert said that she and Solo had been drinking wine. An argument began between Solo and Obert’s son, and soon it became physical.

According to Obert’s statement, she became involved in the fight, and Solo assaulted her. Obert’s son hit Solo with a wooden broom, which broke. When the fighting continued, Obert’s son grabbed an aluminum mop. Police arrived, and Obert did not use the mop on Solo.

Obert asked the police not to charge Solo, but she was arrested anyway and taken to jail. The officer on duty there reported that she used abusive language against the officers at the jail.

Solo claimed that she suffered a concussion but refused to have her head photographed. Obert and her son agreed to be photographed. The police report says that Obert had a swollen left cheekbone and purplish discoloration in her cheekbone area.

The case against Solo was dismissed by a judge on procedural grounds. There were inconsistencies in the alleged victims’ stories, and the Oberts refused to answer some of the questions about the son’s injuries, citing medical privacy concerns.

Prosecutors have filed an appeal. They will file their argument before July 13. Oral arguments are scheduled for September 11.

The lengthy police report from June 21 will figure importantly in the case. (You can read it at this link: http://ti.me/1KVTt2h.)

The report is an excellent example of professional police writing. It is objective, thorough, and free of police jargon. There is almost no passive voice: Every sentence clearly states who did what. Here’s an example:

After obtaining a statement, I took photographs of and his injuries. ACTIVE VOICE

The detail in the report is especially impressive. For example, instead of saying that Obert’s son seemed to be hurt, the report lists the injuries and the son’s comments:

I observed that X nose and left jawbone area were red. His t-shirt was torn on the left side from underarm area to the bottom seam. He had a bleeding cut on the bottom of his left ear, just above the earlobe. His arms were bright red and had scratch marks on it. He was crying and stated that “we just let her back into our lives.” He further explained that she “always does this.”

This report is an effective model of good police reporting. And the story makes an important point: You never know who will read your reports. The Solo report was obtained and posted by the ESPN sports news network.

Hope Solo

                           Hope Solo

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The Scoop on Poop

Here’s a press release about a police report. Can you find the jargon problem? Scroll down to see how the report could be written more effectively.

The officer took a report by phone from a male caller regarding a littering complaint. He advised that since moving into his residence… in December, he has had several instances of the neighbor’s dog defecating in his driveway. He advised that he has not elected to report it until today. He advised the neighbor was out walking her dog and noticed after they were away from his residence that there was a pile of feces in the driveway. He advised he confronted her and asked her to keep her dogs out of his yard. (He) advised he wanted this incident to be on record for possible future use.

Did you spot the problem? It’s the repeated use of advised for told. “Advise” should be saved for “counsel” or “give advice”:

He told me that he left work at 5:05. CORRECT

I advised him to see a doctor. CORRECT

Inefficiency is another problem  – there’s a lot of repetition. And the repeated use of “he” is confusing: Is “he” the caller…or the dog? Here’s a more professional rewrite:

The officer took a littering complaint by phone from a male caller . The caller said that since moving into his home… in December, the neighbor’s dog had been defecating in his driveway. The caller finally decided to report it today.

The caller said:

  • he saw his neighbor  was out walking her dog 
  • after they walked away from his residence there was a pile of feces in the driveway
  • he confronted her and asked her to keep her dog out of his yard
  • he wanted this incident to be on record for possible future use

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A Police Report about Dylann Roof

We’ve been watching the sad coverage of the shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Details are beginning to emerge about alleged shooter Dylann Roof’s previous brushes with the law.

On February 28, Roof was arrested at the Columbiana Mall in Columbia, South Carolina, and charged with drug possession. The report has been published at this link, and it’s worth reading for two reasons. First, it’s a reminder that even a routine police report can become national news later on. At the time, Roof seemed to be just another juvenile involved with an illegal substance.

Second, the report can serve as a learning tool. Evaluating reports written by other officers can help you sharpen your writing skills. What do you admire about the report? What could be done differently?

Here are some points I noticed when I read this report:

  • It’s a thorough, well-written report that’s largely free of jargon. The officer calls himself “I” and uses everyday words in clear, straightforward sentences. It’s a pleasure to come across “stated” in a report rather than the annoying “advised” (which should be saved for actual advice):

I then asked Mr. Dylann what the orange strips were and he stated they were Listerine strips.  CLEAR, SIMPLE WRITING

  • I’m pleased that the officer used active voice instead of lapsing into passive voice, as many officers do at the end of a report:

I then placed Mr. Dylann under arrest for possession of Schedule III.  ACTIVE VOICE

I had all evidence tagged into the property room.  ACTIVE VOICE

  • Some parts of the report are wordy and inefficient. Here’s a sample:

Mall Security then pointed out the subject at which time I made consentual contact with him. Upon making contact with the subject I confirmed that his name was Dylann S. Roof, DOB XX/XX/XXXX. Upon talking with Mr. Dylann I asked him why he was asking the employees of the business those questions. WORDY

This version is better because it eliminates unnecessary words:

Mall Security then pointed out Mr. Dylann, who agreed to talk to me. I confirmed that his name was Dylann S. Roof, DOB XX/XX/XXXX. I asked him why he was asking the employees of the business those questions. BETTER

  • In a few places the report became subjective. Here’s an example:

Mr Dylann then began speaking very nervously.  OPINION

“Nervous” is an opinion that defense attorney could attack in court. It would be better to list the nervous behaviors that the officer saw: trembling, looking from side to side, moistening his lips repeatedly, whispering, speaking hesitantly.

  • Overall, though, this report is a good example of  a professional report.

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The Eric Garner Police Report

Once again, a police report is front-page news. An investigation by the New York Times newspaper shows that the initial five-page police report about Garner’s death last year did not mention that an officer had placed his hands around Garner’s neck. You can read the Times story about the investigation by clicking here.

Garner died in Staten Island, a borough of New York City, on July 14, 2014, after an NYPD police officer placed him in a chokehold during a confrontation about selling untaxed cigarettes. A cellphone video taken by a friend, Ramsey Orto, shows that the chokehold lasted for 15 seconds, and Garner is heard saying, “I can’t breathe” multiple times. (NYPD policy prohibits use of the chokehold restraint.) You can view the cellphone video by clicking here.

In December 2014, a grand jury voted not to charge NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo with Garner’s death. Departmental and federal investigations are ongoing, however.

Taisha Allen, a witness who testified before the grand jury, said she was misquoted in the original police report. She said that she saw a chokehold, but the report quotes her only as saying that “two officers each took Mr. Garner by the arms and put him on the ground.”

Medical examiners who performed the autopsy said they were not told about the chokehold, and they found no noticeable marks around Garner’s neck. But internal examination found two signs of choking: strap muscle hemorrhages in Garner’s neck and petechial hemorrhages in his eyes. No drugs or alcohol were found in his system.

 

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Officer Cedric Greer

It’s both a disheartening story and a courageous one. On April 26, an Albuquerque Police Department officer named Cedric Greer was accused of using excessive force in an encounter with a homeless man. 

A cadet who was riding with Greer and his partner came forward with the story. Both officers are now on paid leave, the FBI is investigating, and Greer has been charged with misdemeanor aggravated battery.  You can read what happened here – and this link will also take you to the report.

The report is well written and professional. It would benefit from a few changes, however:

  • “making contact” – This could be more specific. Did the officer talk to the suspect? Telephone him? You could also ask whether this information is this even necessary. If the suspect told you who he was, it’s obvious you’d made contact with him.
  • “also appeared to be highly intoxicated” – Police reports need to be objective. This is an opinion that would probably be challenged in court. List the signs of intoxication that you saw (unsteady, slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, odor of an alcoholic beverage)
  • “was escorted downstairs and told to sit” – This is a passive voice sentence that omits essential information: Who escorted the man and told him to sit? This information could be important if there’s a legal challenge. 
  • “responded in obvious pain” – Another opinion. What signs of pain did you see? List them. Objectivity is essential in a police report.
  • “[The suspect] was then moved to a standing position and placed against a police unit” – This is another passive voice sentence that omits essential information: Who moved him? 
  • “Officers Greer and Rauch were courteous to X during the time their cameras were running” – Another opinion: Examples of courteous behaviors should be listed in the report.

Overall, however, this is an unusually effective report.

Albuquerque PD 8.26.13 PM

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A Hit-and-Run Accident

Jon “Bones” Jones is widely regarded as the best mixed martial arts fighter in the world and one of the greatest fighters of all time. On April 26, he was involved in a three-car accident that involved a pregnant woman whose injuries included a broken arm. Police say Jon Jones fled the scene, and they confirmed that they found marijuana inside his car.

Witnesses said they saw an African-American man leave his car, return to grab a handful of cash, run away again and hop a fence. An off-duty police officer recognized the man as Jon Jones. A felony arrest warrant was issued, and Jones surrendered to authorities. He is now out on bail. You can read recent developments here.

MMAmania has obtained the police report, which you can read here. It is worth reading: objective, thorough, and jargon-free. (What a pleasure to read a report that consistently uses “stated” instead of the jargonish “advised”!)

But the report would be more efficient if some of the information was listed instead of written out in repetitious sentences. Here’s a paragraph that could have been written in bullet style: 

The driver of vehicle 3 got out and left running. Witnesses stated the driver of vehicle 3 exited after hitting the Honda and was identified as a black male, wearing a white button up shirt with dark pants, and ran onto a hill just east of the accident. Witnesses stated he slouched over and ran back to the vehicle grabbing a large handful of cash. Witnesses stated he shoved the cash into his pants and ran north jumping the fence in Terracita.

Here’s the same information in bullet style:

Witnesses and drivers from both vehicles stated that the driver of vehicle 3:

   -was a black male wearing a white button-up shirt and dark pants

   -left his car after hitting the Honda

   -ran onto a hill just east of the accident

   -slouched over and ran back to his car

   -grabbed a large handful of cash and shoved it into his pants

   -ran north and jumped a fence in Terracita

Overall, however, this is an excellent report. (You can watch a short video about using  bullet style in police reports here).

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Who (or Whom) Is Carrying a Gun?

My friend Joseph E. Badger recently raised an interesting question about a persistent usage issue: Is it who or whom? (Joe is an internationally known accident deconstructionist and a topnotch writer who has had over 100 articles published in Law and Order magazine, Accident Reconstruction Journal, Accident Investigation Quarterly, and others.)

The sentence is about a video you’ve probably seen recently: Police officer Michael Rapiejko used his cruiser to run over suspect Mario Valencia in Marana, Arizona. According to police chief Terry Rozema, that decision probably saved the suspect’s life.  (You can see the video below.)

Here’s the sentence that Joe asked about:

In this video there is a pedestrian who I believe is carrying a gun (or at least I hope so).  

Joe’s question: Should it be “who I believe” or “whom I believe”?

My answer: The correct choice is who.

If you read the sentence aloud, you’ll notice that “I believe” is sort of an aside. (Some English teachers would call it an “interrupter.”) So we could add a couple of commas, like this:

In this video there is a pedestrian who, I believe, is carrying a gun (or at least I hope so). CORRECT

Now it’s much easier to choose the correct word. A trick I use is to plug in he and him. If he sounds right, use who. If him sounds right, use whom.

So: he is carrying a gun…who is carrying a gun.

One more comment: “Whom” is disappearing from the English language. If you’re one of the people who still use it, you run the risk of sounding artificial or affected. (Hmmmm – I used it just yesterday!)

In a few years, whom will probably be gone for good, and we’ll all be able to stop worrying about whether to use who or whom. I’m one person who thinks that’s good news.

My thanks to Joe for providing a provocative issue for this post!

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