A Look Back at Antonio Brown

Antonio Brown is a wide receiver who was recently signed to the New England Patriots. But there are problems. Although Brown is involved in a sexual assault lawsuit, he didn’t tell the Patriots about it before they signed him. (Brown is not involved in a criminal case.) You can read more here: https://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/antonio-browns-camp-knew-lawsuit-was-coming-but-heres-the-reported-reason-why-they-didnt-tell-the-patriots/

This is a good opportunity to look back at a police report involving Brown. On January 18, 2019, 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. The officer is acting as a pair of eyes and ears: no thoughts, conclusions, or reasoning.

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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 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.

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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An Excellent Police Report

Last week an academy instructor made a useful suggestion about my blog. He told me that I do a good job when I’m explaining some of the mistakes that can appear in a police report. But he wished I would give more examples of excellence so that new police officers have models to learn from.

I think that’s a great suggestion! I went into my files and found a very professional repot about a 2013 arrest. Actress Reese Witherspoon was charged with disorderly conduct after her husband, James Joseph Toth, was pulled over for a DUI.

You can read the story and the police report online. The report is worth a careful look because it exemplifies many of the qualities that supervisors look for: accuracy, objectivity, clarity, and professionalism. I didn’t see a single example of police jargon. There’s no passive voice. The events are chronicled in clear, simple English, and the officer used “I” when he reported his actions. Well done!

But I’m going to follow up on my previous post about efficiency. I thought the officer took a long time to recount what he saw and heard. (I’m always encouraging officers to get their paperwork done efficiently.)

Listing some of the information – instead of writing a sentence for each fact – would save a great deal of time. (Because there’s usually a little “tick” or “bullet” in front of each item, this type of list is called a “bullet list.”)

For example, here’s how the officer could have recorded what he saw Toth’s Fusion doing:

I saw a silver Ford Fusion fail to maintain its lane while it traveled in the left lane. It:

-traveled on the white dashed line

-traveled from left to right

-traveled on the double yellow line

-blinked its left turn signal

-traveled on the double yellow line again

-straddled the solid white line

-crossed the double yellow line again

And here’s how he could have recorded Toth’s statements:

Mr. Toth told me he:

-was 42 years old

-had one drink in a restaurant

-agreed to perform field sobriety testing

-had a problem with his left leg

-would continue with the testing despite the leg problem

-was chewing a mint

A list is an efficient and effective way to list information in a report. I encourage you to use lists in your own reports.

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Handling Official Correspondence Efficiently

If you’re planning a long career in law enforcement, you’ll 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.

Suppose a reporter asked made a public records request for a police report. Here’s one way (the wrong way!) to respond:

Dear Mr. Calfin:
The Department of New York Highway Patrol received your New York Public Records Act (NYPA) request of August 19, 2019, which you submitted to this office in person. Please accept this notification of the Department’s response regarding your request.
In your request, you asked for copies of police reports filed by any individuals between July 7, 2019 and July 11, 2019 pertaining to a series of incidents on Powell Street in Homeville.
With respect to your request, we are enclosing copies of the reports in question.
Sincerely, 

What impression will Mr. Calfin have of you and your agency? That you’re hopelessly old-fashioned and inefficient. The first 71 letters of your letter tell him what he already knows: he asked your agency for copies of some reports.

What’s the point of telling him that “We received your request?” Why else would you have written to him? It would be like answering the phone by saying, “Hello. I picked up the phone because I heard it ringing.” (Once I really did work in an office that programmed the phones to say, “You have a caller” when an employee answered the phone. Crazy!)

Here’s a revision that creates a much better impression (and saves you time):

Dear Mr. Calfin:
Here are the police reports you requested about a series of incidents on Powell Street, Homeville, between July 7 and 11, 2019. We’re happy to fulfill your request.
Sincerely,

Of course there are situations where you need to go into much more detail. Use your critical thinking skills and experience to decide when you need to put details in writing. That’s a way to showcase both your agency and your own professionalism.

Efficiency is important in today’s busy world. Long-winded correspondence is exasperating to read. “Business as usual” writing practices need to be replaced when they’re no longer useful.

Efficiency

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Recommended Reading

I just came across an article from PoliceOne.com that I think you’ll enjoy: “Five Keys to Great Report Writing.”

The author, Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D., says that “Patrol officers’ reports are the foundation of the successful investigation and prosecution of a crime, so make sure you’re giving your report the attention it requires.”

Here’s a link where you can read Chief Shults’ article:  https://www.policeone.com/investigations/articles/6049898-5-keys-to-great-report-writing/

Keyboard with computer skills written on one key

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First Person or Third Person?

Should you use the first-person pronouns “I” and “me” in a police report? For many years the answer was no. Third person (he, she) was required by most police agencies. You couldn’t say “I talked to the driver.” You had to say, “This officer talked to the driver.”

In recent years, however, many agencies have told their officers that’s it’s okay to use  “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 magical thinking, not fact – inappropriate 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!

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A Pink Balloon

On July 21, Chicago police were called to Lake Michigan because someone in a boat complained that he’d been hit in the chest by a pink water balloon. The man who’d been hit was transferred to a medical center for treatment.

You can read the police report at this link. It’s thorough and objective – but it’s also written according to outdated report writing principles.

One immediate problem is that there are only seven periods in a report that’s 191 words long. That means each sentence averages 27 words – far too long.

Here’s one of those overlong sentences. It’s 39 words long:

UPON ARRIVAL R/OS SPOKE WITH LISTED VICTIM WHO STATED HE WAS HIT WITH A WATER BALLOON BY AN OCCUPANT ON A VESSEL CALLED [REDACTED] VICTIM COULD NOT POSITIVELY IDENTIFY WHO EXACTLY LAUNCHED THE BALLOON THAT STUCK HIM IN THE CHEST.

Another issue is that unwanted words and awkward expressions crept in. (I’ll discuss some of them in a moment.)

Part of the problem is that busy police officers don’t have time for elegant, carefully crafted sentences. But with practice, any writer can start making gradual improvements that – over time – add up.

Let’s try it with the example I gave you.

  • Delete “upon arrival.”
  • Don’t say that you spoke with the victim. If he told you something, obviously you were there, and the two of you were talking. (That’s what cops do!)
  • Just call him a victim. “Listed victim” doesn’t add anything useful.
  • The report says the victim couldn’t positively identify “who exactly launched the balloon.” There’s no difference between “launched the balloon” and “exactly launched the balloon.” Getting rid of unnecessary words makes your writing more efficient and professional. It’s an important habit to develop, especially if you’re hoping for a promotion later on.
  • Call it a boat, not a vessel. Be as specific as you can.
  • The balloon struck (not stuck) the victim.
  • And – of course – you need periods.

Here’s an improved version of the sentence:

THE VICTIM SAID HE WAS HIT WITH A WATER BALLOON BY AN OCCUPANT ON A BOAT CALLED [REDACTED]. THE VICTIM COULD NOT POSITIVELY IDENTIFY WHO LAUNCHED THE BALLOON THAT STUCK HIM IN THE CHEST.

But let’s make it really professional. Here’s my preferred version:

THE VICTIM SAID SOMEONE IN A BOAT CALLED [REDACTED] HIT HIM IN THE CHEST WITH A WATER BALLOON.  THE VICTIM COULDN’T IDENTIFY THE PERSON WHO LAUNCHED THE BALLOON.

The new version is 30 words long – and has every bit of information that was in the 38-word version. It’s almost 30% shorter.

Think about all the reports you write in a year. Suppose you could make each report 30% shorter – without losing any information. Think of the time you’d save! And your reports would sound more professional.

Then consider the time you’d save your supervisor, the district attorney, the defense attorney, and everyone else who might read a report.

Many officers dislike report writing. It’s one of the downsides of an exciting and rewarding career. But there’s an upside as well. You get more writing practice than most professionals in other fields. That means every shift gives you an opportunity to improve your writing skills.

You don’t have to try to be an Ernest Hemingway. (But what a crisp, efficient writer he was!) Start slowly. Make one improvement in each report. Eliminate one piece of jargon. Change one sentence to active voice.

Over time, the improvement in your writing will astonish you. And – trust me – the people who read your reports will notice too…and be impressed.

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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.

 
 
 
____________________________________________________________

 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.

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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Using “However” Correctly in a Police Affidavit

On August 12, a Florida woman threw an Amazon Fire TV Cube at her husband. Police charged her with domestic battery. You can read the story and the probable cause affidavit by clicking the link.

I’m going to play detective here and make some guesses about the officer who wrote the affidavit. It’s someone who’s been to college, or had a superb English teacher in high school – or maybe it’s someone who’s done a lot of reading and has been thinking about becoming a professional writer.

In other words, this officer is a skilled writer. How do I know that? This sentence gives it away:

Some of the items just broke or spilled throughout the apartment; however, two of the objects, solid hard plastic cube (Alexa cube) approximately 2.5 inches all the way around and the other was a large metal Tervis cup (possibly 26 oz) struck Matthew on his face/head.

Excellent writing! Very few people use however correctly. Most people (not just officers) try to string sentences together with however and a comma. Here’s an example:

Jane assured me nothing was wrong, however I could see her hands shaking.  WRONG

You need a period or a semicolon:

Jane assured me nothing was wrong. However, I could see her hands shaking.  CORRECT

Jane assured me nothing was wrong; however, I could see her hands shaking.  CORRECT

But here’s what I also noted about the report. There are several errors. “Todays date” should be “today’s date” – and shouldn’t be mentioned at all (it’s already stated elsewhere on the affidavit).

There’s a passive voice sentence at the end: No marks were seen on her. Who was looking for them? Probably the officer. Own your observations and actions: “I didn’t see any marks on her.”

And take a look at this sentence:

Matthew had a cut on his right side of his face on the chin area, a large knot on the left side of his head and a cut on his Matthew went to towards her and hit her on the left side of the face/eye.

I suspect the officer was rushed and didn’t go back to fix this one. “A cut on his” runs into the next sentence. “To towards her” has an extra word.

If he had a cut on the left side of his eye, of course it was on his face. And what’s the difference between a chin and a chin area?

Saying what you mean is a great timesaver:

He had a cut on his chin. He had a cut on the left side of his eye.

Many officers are excellent writers. But no matter how good you are, errors can creep in. (I’m a professional writer myself, and my own mistakes sometimes surprise and embarrass me.)

Reread your report before you submit it. If it’s a complicated report – or you don’t always feel confident about your writing – compose it on a PC or Mac first. Use the spellchecker and grammar checker. Then – and only then – you’re ready to paste it into your laptop, read it one more time, and click submit.

Here’s an additional suggestion: ask a friend or fellow officer to read your report before you submit it. People often form an opinion of you based on your writing skills. Why not take an extra few minutes to ensure you’ve done an excellent report?

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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.

 
 
 
____________________________________________________________

 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.

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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How Good is “Good Enough?”

I’m always looking for police reports to discuss on this blog. Here’s one I came across in my files. What’s your opinion? (My comments appear below.)

On the above t/d/l, def did have a large knife in his hand and was threatening to kill himself and officers with that knife also stated had a gun but no gun was recovered def did refuse to drop the knife and did start coming towards officers in an aggressive manner. SWAT was called out.

I found this report odd. One feature that immediately caught my eye was the unnecessary “did”: “def did have a large knife….” “def did refuse to drop the knife and did start coming….”

I was also puzzled by the lack of periods and capital letters. The repeated “def” (short for “defendant”) suggested that the officer was in a hurry to submit the report.

My biggest concern is about this wording: “coming towards officers in an aggressive manner.” That’s too vague for a police report, and it opens the door to a challenge from a defense attorney. One person’s “aggressive manner’ could be another person’s normal behavior. (I’m from New York, so my threshold for “aggressive” may be different from someone else’s.

I wish I knew the backstory here. Perhaps the officer was unusually busy and didn’t have time to use professional practices. The unnecessary “did” may be a leftover from school days and an old-fashioned teacher.

Here are some questions for you to think about:

  • If you were a supervisor, would you insist on a rewrite – or let this one go? Or would you fix it yourself?
  • Does your agency have consistent policies about the minimum standards for a report?
  • Who makes those decisions?
  • If follow-ups are needed, who deals with them?

The time to make these decisions is before a problematic report is submitted. Every officer should know beforehand what the standards are – and where to go if there are questions or problems.

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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.

 
 
 
____________________________________________________________

 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.

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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Using Although in a Police Report

I hear more usage questions about although than any other word. Officers are especially concerned about when to use commas and where the commas go. So today I’m going to give you a quick refresher.

Here’s how one officer used although a police report. What do you think? Is it written correctly?

Bates told me that he liked Lindt and trusted her. Although, he had caught her in lies several times over the years.

If you found two problems, you’re right. First, you can never put a comma after although. Second, any sentence that starts with although is an extra idea and can’t stand alone. It has to be attached to another sentence.

It’s easy to solve both problems, and there are two ways to do it:

Bates told me that he liked Lindt and trusted her although he had caught her in lies several times over the years.  CORRECT

Although he had caught Lindt in lies several times over the years, Bates told me that he liked her and trusted her.  CORRECT

Here’s one more question I sometimes hear: Can you start a sentence with although? Yes, of course. You can use any word in the English language to start a sentence.

Like and which can be tricky, however. I’d avoid starting sentences with them. But you can start sentences with but, and, because, although, and just about any other word.

I’m a professional writer, and I have to be careful with English usage. And because you write in connection with your career, you’re a professional writer too.

On the job training OJT

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How the Pros Investigate and Document Sexual Assaults

Kathy Dobie is a writer who spent several months watching a highly professional sex crimes unit at work. Her in-depth article for the New York Times Magazine covers the challenges the unit has to deal with (legal limitations, budget problems, uncooperative victims, outdated beliefs about what constitutes rape, and more).

Most interesting are the specialized strategies the unit has developed. Officers in the unit say that “he said/she said” cases don’t have to be a dead end. Solid evidence can be found if police are taught what to look for. Gaps in a victim or suspect’s story can be filled in if officers use specialized interview techniques.

Many points would be useful in preparing an effective police report. I highly recommend this article.

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