Rape Report Withheld

Many police reports are quickly filed away and forgotten. But sometimes a police report can trigger a court case long after the alleged crime took place. Soon the Circuit Court in St. Louis, Missouri, will be considering a thorny question: is an alleged rape victim entitled to read her own police report?

The unnamed victim says she was raped by a St. Louis police officer in April 2008. He was never charged and remains on the force.

Now the woman wants to see the report – but the police department says witnesses could be endangered if the report is released. The victim’s attorney counters that the report could be released safely if the witnesses’ names are redacted.

You can read about the case at this link: https://www.riverfronttimes.com/newsblog/2018/05/11/st-louis-police-fight-to-withhold-report-from-rape-victim-who-filed-it

The #MeToo movement is raising awareness of sexual assault – and more and more victims are demanding justice. Agencies can expect to see more requests for police reports about rape cases. It’s important to have policies and practices in place before a particular case goes to court.

___________________________________________________________

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.

Share

A DWI Police Report

On April 28, State Rep. Rene Oliveira of Brownsville, Texas was charged with drunk driving after he left the scene of a car crash. You can read more at this link: http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/news/local/police-reveal-dwi-report-documents-detail-officers-encounter-with-oliveira/article_342efd2e-52d5-11e8-ae60-13c4d28fa39c.html

The news story includes several excerpts from the police report (reproduced below in green). You’ll see that this is sophisticated writing – factual, objective, and professional. But it could be intimidating to an officer who isn’t used to packing so much information into each sentence.

My suggestion would be to write short, crisp sentences that focus on only one fact. If there’s a series of facts, I recommend a timesaving list. I’ve put my suggested rewrites in blue.

1.  She [the driver of the other car] stated that she observed the defendant stumble out of his vehicle and approach her. She stated that after checking if she was okay, he told her that he would take care of everything, and for her to contact his insurance, giving her his business card with only his name and business address.

She [the driver of the other car] told me that the defendant did the following:

  • stumbled out of his vehicle and approached her
  • checked to see if she was okay
  • told her that he would take care of everything
  • told her to contact his insurance
  • gave her his business card with only his name and business address.

2.  I asked the defendant if he could describe the circumstances under which the accident took place, to which he stated that he was driving did not see the cars stopped in front of him causing him to strike one.

The defendant told me that he struck a car because he didn’t see the cars stopped in front of him, causing him to strike one.

3. She [the driver of the other car] stated that the vehicle did not appear to be slowing down and that she was expecting to be struck.

She [the driver of the other car] stated that the vehicle did not appear to be slowing down. She expected to be struck.

4.  I asked the defendant if he could recall how the Cadillac had been damaged on both the right side wheels and tires, to which he stated that he could not recall.

The defendant told me he couldn’t recall how the Cadillac had been damaged on both the right side wheels and tires.

____________________________________________________________________________________

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.

Share

A Use of Force Report

Chief Ramon Batista from the Mesa Police Department in Arizona has released body cam videos and a report related to a violent arrest that he called a “mistake.”

On May 23, Mesa resident Robert Johnson, Jr. was arrested and taken into custody. A group of white officers punched Johnson repeatedly (he is black). You can read more and watch the video at http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/mesa-police-release-report-body-cam-videos-arrest-black-man-10494818. An investigation is under way.

You can read the report at this link:  http://images.phoenixnewtimes.com/media/pdf/johnson_arrest_partial_report.pdf 

The report is lengthy, and it repeatedly tries to justify the use of force against Johnson. But specific graphic details are missing. Here’s how the report describes Johnson’s behavior:

“Johnson appeared to be confrontational and verbally defiant.”

“Robert continued to be completely belligerent towards us yelling and cursing.”

“continuous aggressive demeanor”

“Due to his aggressive behavior and refusal to calm down….”

“constant threats towards officers”

What did Johnson actually do that made the use of force necessary? The report doesn’t say.

What’s really regrettable is that much of this report is excellent. The writing is detailed, grammatical, and well-organized. Often the style is sophisticated and professional. Overall, it is an example of excellent police writing – with one huge exception: the lack of specifics.

Supervisors and administrators often bemoan the poorly written reports that come across their desks. It’s important to remember that there’s more to police writing than grammar and sentence structure: The facts have to be there, spelled out in detail.

 

Share

Semicolons!

Officers who are moving into administrative positions in criminal justice often ask how they can make their writing more sophisticated. Semicolons are one answer. They are wonderful punctuation marks that writers should use more often, for two reasons:

1.  They’re impressive.

2.  They’re easy.

Maybe you’re doubting me about #2. Semicolons look fancy, so they have to be difficult, right?

Wrong. Semicolons are just like periods. That’s it!

Take a look at these examples:

Patterson walked back to his car. The hood was up, and his battery was gone. CORRECT

Patterson walked back to his car; the hood was up, and his battery was gone. CORRECT

We continued the count. Bradley’s cell was empty. CORRECT

We continued the count; Bradley’s cell was empty. CORRECT

By now you’ve probably figured out how to use semicolons. Just change the period to a semicolon, and lower-case the next letter (unless it’s a word that’s supposed to be capitalized, like Bradley or September).

Semicolons allow you to sound sophisticated while you’re writing short sentences. Many officers already use them; they add a professional touch to reports. (Did you notice the semicolon?)

Try them yourself! And here’s a good rule of thumb: One semicolon per paragraph. If you’re writing something very short, stick to one semicolon per page.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

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.

 

Share

The Reuben Foster Police Report

On February 11, 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster was arrested and charged with felony domestic violence. You can read more here. Elissa Ennis, the alleged victim, later said Foster never hit her, but the DA is still prosecuting Foster for domestic violence and other charges.

Below is a paragraph from a police report released by the Los Gatos-Monte Sereno Police Department. Today I’m going to ask you three questions about this paragraph.

 1. What is your opinion of this paragraph?

Upon arriving at the scene, police took photos of Ennis’ injuries, which included a swollen right lower lip, scratches and a cut on the back of her neck and a scrape on her left knee. She also complained of ringing and poor hearing in her left ear, which subsequently was diagnosed as a ruptured ear drum.

My answer: I’m impressed. This is sophisticated writing! The vocabulary (subsequently) and complex sentences (two which clauses and an embedded list) suggest that it was written by an officer who’s taken some college writing courses.

2. Could you write the same information without the elaborate sentences?

My answer: yes, of course. Here’s my version:

Police arrived at the scene and took photos of Ennis’ injuries. They included a swollen right lower lip, scratches and a cut on the back of her neck and a scrape on her left knee. Ennis also complained of ringing and poor hearing in her left ear. Later doctors said she had a ruptured ear drum.

3.  Which version is better: the first – with complex sentences – or the second – with simple sentences?

My answer: this is a trick question. Both versions are fine. Your goal is to record what happened at the scene and what you learned from your investigation. If you like to write sophisticated sentences, that’s great – as long as they’re clear and correct.

It’s also fine to write short, straightforward sentences…and there are important advantages to writing simply. You’re less likely to make mistakes, and your report will probably be easier to read.

I always tell officers to go for plain-and-straightforward writing. After a long and tiring shift, there’s no need to make your report sound like a bestselling novel! Just get the facts down.

Share

Indefinite Pronouns

I’ve often said that the words most likely to cause problems are the little, everyday ones. Today we’re going to take a close look at the pronouns it, this, that, these, and those (often called “indefinite pronouns”).

Here’s a paragraph containing several sentences with problems. See if you can figure out what’s wrong.

Davis told me about his argument with Carol. She came home late from work and said her boss had given her a last-minute job to do. It did not make sense to him, and he accused her of lying. She refused to talk any further and left the room. That enraged him, and he grabbed a lamp and threw it against the wall.

The problem words are “it” and “that.” These are fine words that good writers use all the time…but carefully and thoughtfully.

Let’s look at it first:

She came home late from work and said her boss had given her a last-minute job to do. It did not make sense to him, and he accused her of lying.

“It” didn’t make sense to him. What was “it”? Was it coming home late or saying her boss had given her a last-minute job to do?

Here’s a more precise version:

She came home late from work and said her boss had given her a last-minute job to do. Her explanation did not make sense to him, and he accused her of lying. BETTER

Now let’s look at that:

She refused to talk any further and left the room. That enraged him, and he grabbed a lamp and threw it against the wall.

What enraged him – her refusal to talk, or seeing her leave the room?

Here’s a better version:

She refused to talk any further and left the room. Her silence enraged him, and he grabbed a lamp and threw it against the wall. BETTER

Incidentally, the technical name for this problem is indefinite pronoun reference. But there’s no need to remember that terminology as long as you resolve to be precise with pronouns. (Hmmm…precise with pronouns. There’s a nice ring to it…or, more precisely, that phrase has a nice ring to it!)

Takeaways for You

Why should you bother with this pronoun issue? Two reasons. If you’re writing an account of something that happened, you need to be precise. There’s a big difference between “it enraged her” and “his angry words enraged her.”

Second, you might be hoping to climb the career ladder – and promotions always involve more and more writing. Now is the time to learn as much as you can about professional writing (today’s pronoun issue, for example!). When that wonderful new position opens up, you’ll be ready for the challenges that lie ahead.

 

Share

An Incident Report about Travis Reinking

On April 23, Travis Jeffrey Reinking was captured after a 34-hour manhunt. Reinking, who is 29 years old, is the suspect in a mass shooting at a Waffle House restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee. Four victims were killed and four others were injured. You can read more at this link.

Nearly two years earlier, in June 2017, police were called to a public swimming pool in Tremont, Illinois when a 27-year-old Travis Reinking jumped into the water wearing a pink woman’s housecoat. He then exposed himself to the lifeguards, who called police. Shortly afterwards, Reinking brought an assault weapon to a nearby business. Again the police were notified. No charges were filed.

If you’re working on your report writing skills – or you teach or supervise officers who are learning to write reports – I have a challenge for you. Read and evaluate the report (posted at this link) about the swimming pool incident.

* * * * * * * 

My comments:

This is a concise and professional report. The officer wrote straightforward sentences and used everyday language.

I have a few suggestions:

  • Omit “on the above date and time
  • Use active voice consistently. Here’s an example of a sentence in passive voice:

After this incident at the pool I was contacted by an employee of J&J Crane Co on Baer Road.  PASSIVE VOICE

After this incident at the pool, an employee of J&J Crane Co on Baer Road contacted me.  ACTIVE VOICE

  • Passive voice presents a potential problem in one of the sentences in the report: “Travis was searched since he had a weapon earlier in the day.” Who searched him? Better wording would be, “I searched Travis since he had a weapon earlier in the day.”
  • Use “of,” not “have,” as a helping verb:

This would of have been right before the pool incident.

  • I noticed a jargon problem in the report: the word advised, which appears four times. Better choices are told, said, and stated. (The report does use told and stated multiple times.)

Overall, though, this is an excellent report.

Share

Write Plainly

As a criminal justice professional, you should strive to write plainly, efficiently, and clearly. You’ll save time, and so will your readers.  Here are some words and expressions that can (and should!) be simplified:

Avoid

Use Instead

utilize

use

single-click

click

for the purpose of

to

in the event that

if

if or when

if

the month of November

November

blue in color

blue

large in size

large

pull-down menu

menu

scream and yell

scream

brand-new

new

lower down

lower

PIN number

PIN

preplan

plan

preregister

register

For more suggestions about clarity and efficiency, go to www.PlainLanguage.gov.

Share

One Idea Per Sentence

Are long sentences bad – or good? It’s a question many officers wonder about, especially if they mistakenly believe that a long sentence is a good sentence.

That’s not true!

If you’re aiming to become a topnotch criminal justice writer, you would be wise to adopt a rule that many professional writers follow: One idea per sentence.

Shorter sentences bestow several advantages. First, they’re easier to read–a huge advantage when you’re busy preparing for a court or disciplinary hearing. Second, they have greater clarity than longer sentences, which can be confusing.

Most important, shorter sentences have fewer errors. As sentences get longer, the likelihood of subject/verb errors, parallelism mistakes, and dangling modifiers increases.

Short sentences don’t have to be choppy and juvenile. You can always join two short sentences with a semicolon (be sure to skip the second capital letter).

I searched the suspect. He had five hundred-dollar bills in his right pocket.

I searched the suspect; he had five hundred-dollar bills in his right pocket.

You can also use who or which to join sentences.

I searched the suspect. He had five hundred-dollar bills in his right pocket.

I searched the suspect, who had five hundred-dollar bills in his right pocket.

And if you know your comma rules (they’re not difficult!) you can choose from a variety of sentence patterns.

One of the best ways to write a sophisticated report without sacrificing clarity is to employ bullet style whenever you have a list of information. (Don’t try to write an entire report in bullets!) Here’s a paragraph in conventional sentence style:

I searched Dickert’s locker. I found three $20 bills between the pages of a Sports Illustrated magazine. There was a pair of dice in the pocket of a uniform shirt. I found five $10 bills between the pages of his Bible. I found three unopened decks of cards at the bottom of a laundry bag.

And here’s the same information in bullet style. (Each item begins with a “bullet”).

I searched Dickert’s locker and found:

  • three $20 bills between the pages of a Sports Illustrated magazine
  • a pair of dice in the pocket of a uniform shirt
  • five $10 bills between the pages of his Bible
  • three unopened decks of cards at the bottom of a laundry bag

Much better, isn’t it? (To listen to a podcast about bullet style, click here.)

Share

Comparisons Are Easy

“Better than,” “as good as,” “rather than”: These kinds of comparisons often appear in police and corrections reports. The good news is that they’re useful expressions, easy to write and understand.

The bad news is…well, maybe it’s not really bad news. But there are some pitfalls to watch for when you’re making comparisons.

You need to remember that our English language is often concerned with the numbers two and three:

Use -er comparisons (better, faster, older, and similar words) when you’re comparing two people or things. (The word worse and phrases beginning with more also fall into this category.)

Use -est words when you’re comparing three or more people or things. (The word best and phrases beginning with most also fall into this category.)

Sound complicated? It really isn’t. Take a look at these examples:

Officer Kaplan has been with the agency longer than Officer Brown. CORRECT  (comparing two people)

Officer Morgan is the most experienced officer on the force. CORRECT  (comparing three or more people)

If you’d spent some time riding with Larry and Tom, you’d know that Larry is the better driver.  CORRECT  (comparing two people)

Let’s use an everyday example that might make the rule more clear. You can’t be the worst child in your family unless your parents had at least three children.

If there are only two children, you’re the worse child. (Or, hopefully, the better one!) Best, worst, most, and so on require three or more people or things.

The second pointer is that you should use than (not then) in comparisons.

I’d rather work on Saturday than Sunday. CORRECT

Alan is usually more thorough than she is. CORRECT

One last point (and it’s an important one): When you’re writing a comparison sentence, be extra-careful with pronouns (he, she, I, we, and so on).

Take a look at the last example. Many people would (incorrectly) write it this way:

Alan is usually more thorough than her. INCORRECT

If you add one more word (“is,” in this sentence), you’ll get the sentence right every time:

Alan is usually more thorough than she is. CORRECT

Try this one:

Officer Langan writes as well as (I, me).

Add the extra word (“do”), and it’s easy to finish the sentence:

Officer Langan writes as well as I do.

Not difficult at all!

 

Share