Who’s the Boss?

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 mistakes 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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 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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It Happened at McDonald’s

On July 1, a Florida man threw packets of sweet-and-sour sauce at a woman in a Tampa McDonald’s. You can read about the incident and view the police report at this link: http://thesmokinggun.com/documents/stupid/arrested-for-mcdonalds-condiment-battery-719052

The report is thorough and objective. The officer recorded exactly what happened in detail.

But up-to-date writing methods would make the report more efficient and professional. Here’s a portion for you to read. What changes would you make?

At the above location I made contact with the Victim who advised they were involved in a physical altercation with the Defendant/father of their child. The Victim advised the Defendant became angry with them when they bought the wrong food from McDonalds. The Victim advised a verbal argument ensued in which the Defendant began striking them with sweet and sour sauce packets in the head and face area.

Here are my comments:

  • “At the above location” is inefficient and doesn’t add anything useful
  • Don’t use “advised” when you mean told or said. Here’s one reason why: when you read “The Victim advised the Defendant….” it sounds as if she was counseling him. But what she’s really doing is telling her story. It would be better to write “She told me that Ferrer….”
  • Use names, not Victim and Defendant
  • Use plain words: “argument” (not verbal argument) and “fight” (not “physical fight”)
  • A list would be more efficient. Writing “The Defendant advised” over and over just wastes time without adding anything useful.

Here’s my version.

I met with the victim. She told me:

  • Jesus Oscar Ferrer is the father of her child
  • She bought the wrong food from McDonald’s
  • Ferrer struck her head and face with sweet-and-sour sauce packets
  • She grabbed his beard
  • Ferrer pinned her to the ground, placed his palm on her face, and pressed her head into the ground
  • She ripped off a chunk of his beard
  • He let her go and fled

I saw bruises and scratches on her face and head.

The original police report uses 152 words to record this information. But the list requires only 82 words – a great saving of time and energy for a busy police officer. (If you do the math, my version is 46% shorter.)

Many police agencies are making efficient police reports a priority. Is your agency encouraging officers to make every word count when they write a 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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Reporting a Sexual Assault

The #MeToo movement has made many people aware of the problem of sexual assault. Rape charges are always complicated to investigate and prosecute – and the police report is an important part of the process.

I just went into my files and found an excellent example of a police report from a 2015 accusation. You can read it at this link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BzdI8i7OzDP8UnFpZVVPVXV6Ym4wNWo3X25fUUNZTGZFNmFr/view

The officer had to deal with several challenges during this investigation. One problem is that the alleged rapist couldn’t be located at the time, but there were five other interviews: the alleged victim and four other students.

Rather than trying to sort through all five accounts, the officer wrote a separate paragraph for each one. That organizational system insures that each account is complete and easy to understand (qualities appreciated by anyone who needs to refer to it later – a judge, reporter, or attorney.

The news story (which you can read at this link) can also be a useful starting point for a discussion of the challenges that can arise during a rape investigation.

I have only one suggestion: the report often uses “advised” instead of told or said. Police jargon is never a good idea when you know that many people outside of law enforcement may be reading what you’ve written.

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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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A Comma Won’t Always Save the Day

Here’s a sentence (slightly disguised) that I read in a recent report:

Wilson is accused of killing Johnson, his girlfriend and a teammate.

How many people? It could have been two: a girlfriend named Johnson and a teammate. Or perhaps it was three: Johnson, a girlfriend, and a teammate. Or it could even have been one: a girlfriend and teammate whose name was Johnson.

But if you add another comma, it’s still confusing:

Wilson is accused of killing Johnson, his girlfriend, and a teammate.

There could still have been two victims – a girlfriend named Johnson and a teammate. Or there could have been three: Johnson, along with his girlfriend and another person who was a teammate.

And notice that his girlfriend could refer to either Wilson or Johnson.

This sentence illustrates why it’s so important to teach officers to think rather than simply have them memorize rules and complete workbook exercises.

Here are two suggested revisions that clearly state how many victims there were:

Wilson is accused of killing both Johnson’s girlfriend and a teammate.  BETTER

Wilson is accused of killing three people: Johnson, Johnson’s girlfriend, and a teammate.  BETTER

Bottom line: Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can solve any sentence problem with a punctuation mark. Sometimes you’ll need to cross out a sentence and rewrite it. Often I find that I need to break one long sentence into two shorter ones – there’s no other way to make my point clear.

Here’s a final tip: always reread your report before you submit it. If possible, ask another person to read it as well. Something that’s perfectly clear to you might be confusing to someone else who wasn’t there when the event happened. Language can be slippery!

clarrity

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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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More about Passive Voice

In my previous post, I discussed a recurring problem with the police reports I read: They almost always lapse into passive voice near the end. Examples include “Smith was read his Miranda rights” and “The suspect was patted down.”

Active voice (better) sentences would be “I read Smith his Miranda rights” and “Officer Colm patted down the suspect.” You should always explain who performed an action during a call.

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 came across an example in the July 16, 2015 issue of Smithsonian Daily:

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.

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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 $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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Passive Voice

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? What if there’s a question later on about that drive to jail?

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.

Here’s a challenge for you. Take a look at three of your recent police reports. I can just about guarantee that there’s at least one passive voice sentence in each of those reports, and I can even tell you where you’ll find it.

Go to the bottom of the report – often called the “disposition” – where you tie up all threads: where the evidence went, what happened to the suspect, and so on.

I can just about guarantee that you wrote a sentence like one of these:

  • The evidence was logged into the evidence room (instead of “Officer Canby logged the evidence into the evidence room“).
  • Smith was read his Miranda rights (instead of “I read Smith his Miranda rights“).
  • Fallon was treated for her injuries (instead of “Paramedics treated Fallon for her injuries”).
  • No further action was taken (instead of “I did not take any further action“).

How do I know you probably wrote one of those passive voice sentences? It’s not some magical powers I possess. The answer is that I almost never read a police report without passive voice. (Mind you, I read lots of reports from some fine police writers. But most have passive voice sentences near the end.)

Here’s what’s especially interesting. When I ask officers why they wrote those sentences, they look at me blankly. They can’t give a reason. It’s just something they did without thinking about it.

So here’s a question for you: Do you think there’s any effective writer in the world who makes writing choices for no reason, without thinking about them? (Hint: the answer is no.)

Did you notice anything those passive-voice sentences had in common? Here it is: The sentence never named the person who performed the action. It’s as if there was a ghost who read those Miranda rights or logged that evidence or treated those injuries.

I’ll discuss another problem with passive voice in my next post.

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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 $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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If You’re Preparing for a Promotion

Most of the time I use this blog to deal with police reports. Today, though, I’d like to venture into another type of police writing: Administrative paperwork.

Below I’ve posted the first paragraph of a cover letter that accompanies a report written by Peter Zimroth, a federal monitor who’s been examining NYPD stop-and-frisk practices. (You can read the entire report here: nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/09/nyregion/document-changes-to-new-york-police-practices-and-policies.html.)

Question: Do you notice anything unusual about the first sentence of this letter?

Zimroth 2

Here’s what I noticed: It’s human. Instead of the usual “This is in regards to…,” Zimroth wrote, “I am pleased to submit.”

Workplace writing has changed so that it’s no longer necessary to sound as if you’re an impersonal machine. 

If you have a leadership position in an agency (or you’re hoping for one some day), it might be a good idea to start thinking now about ways to update your writing habits.

320px-NYPD 2

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How a Defense Attorney Thinks

Val Van Brocklin is a prosecutor who has written some excellent articles for PoliceOne.com. I enjoy her articles because they give police officers a fresh perspective on report writing. 

Click here to read “Five Ways Defense Attorneys Try to Trip up Cops…and How to Beat Them.”

Van Brocklin says, “Cops are frustrated to learn that defense attorneys have no obligation to the truth in defense of their clients. But take solace in the fact that it frustrates an attorney when they’re unable to rattle you.”

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The Courtney Irby Police Report

On June 20, Courtney Irby was arrested in a Florida police station. She had gone into her husband’s home, removed two weapons, and taken them to the police department. She told the officer that her husband had been abusing her. A judge had said that her husband could not own any weapons. Because the police hadn’t removed the weapons, Courtney decided to turn them in herself.

There is a huge controversy about whether she should have been charged with a crime. After five days in jail, she was released on bail. You can read more here: https://www.theledger.com/news/20190624/state-attorney-urged-to-drop-case-against-courtney-irby-lakeland-woman-arrested-for-giving-estranged-husbands-guns-to-police

You can read the police report here: https://heavy.com/news/2019/06/courtney-irby/

Below is a sample. I think it could have been written more efficiently (a boon to both the writer and anyone who needs to read it). There’s no need to write the date, time, and address – they already were typed into the form. Courtney’s statement could be written as a timesaving list. You can scroll down to read my version.

On the above date and time, I responded to 450 south Broadway (Bartow Police Department) in reference to a domestic aggravated battery. The victim (Courtney Irby) advised the following: She and the defendant (Joseph Irby) are married with two children in common and have resident together as a family unit in the past. She and the defendant were attending court today in reference to going through a divorce. After court the victim and defendant engaged in a verbal altercation. The victim arrived to her vehicle and attempted to leave the courthouse. The defendant followed behind her in his vehicle and began ramming his vehicle front bumper into the back of the victim’s rear bumper. He then began screaming and yelling at her. The victim told me that the defendant ran her off the roadway a few times, while she was making contact with the Bartow Police Department Dispatch via telephone. Affiant observed scratches on the victim’s rear bumper. The victim was uncontrollable crying and advised that she was in fear for her life. She also stated that she has had serval restraining orders on the defendant in the past. 

Here’s my version:

I responded to a domestic aggravated battery. The victim (Courtney Irby) told me:

-she and the defendant (Joseph Irby) are married

-they have two children in common

-they have been living as a family unit

-they were in court today about their divorce

-they argued after the court hearing

-Courtney tried to drive away from the courthouse

-Joseph followed in his car

-he rammed his car’s front bumper into her rear bumper

-he screamed at her

-he ran her off the road a few times while she was phoning the Bartow Police Department

-she was afraid Joseph might kill her

-in the past she had several restraining orders against him

I saw scratches on Courtney’s rear bumper and heard her crying uncontrollably.

          Courtney Irby

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