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Professional Report Writing

False Police Reports

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I just came across an excellent article written by Paul Grattan Jr.:  Fact or Fiction: Common Reasons for False Reports. Highly recommended!

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The Myths of Report Writing

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Jean’s latest article, “The Myths of Report Writing,” has just been published in Law and Order magazine. Read it here.

L and O

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Incident Report

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The state Judicial Branch in Connecticut is investigating Judge Thelma Santos for an incident involving a parking space. The problem was documented in an incident report that’s an excellent example of both report writing and professionalism.

On January 23, Officer James Prignano mistakenly parked his patrol car in a spot reserved for judges. Judge Santos told him to move the car, and Prigano agreed. Before moving the car, he retrieved his service weapon from a locker. The judge told him to move the car immediately, and she said she might use the weapon on him.

Prignano recorded everything that happened in a thorough incident report that’s posted at this link. It’s clear, complete, and written in plain English. (It’s refreshing to read a report that correctly uses “stated” instead of the jargonish “advised” that infests so many reports.)

The report also raises an interesting question about objectivity that I’ll discuss in a moment.

First, though, I want to note that there’s one usage problem with the report: Too many ideas are crammed into one long sentence.

I was retrieving my duty weapon from the lock box and she stated “you don’t have time for goodbyes, come move the vehicle now,” at which point one of the State Marshalls who was standing in the lobby stated to Santos that I was getting my weapon from the lock box, and Santos replied to him “I might use it on him,” while Santos appeared to be very upset she appeared to say that comment in jest.

At the very least there needs to be a period after “I might use it on him.” “While Santos appeared….” is the beginning of a new sentence.

It’s a good idea to avoid stringing ideas together with and. I’d also suggest avoiding expressions like “at which point.” Just start a new sentence. Short sentences are more readable – a bonus when an officer is in a hurry – and help prevent the usage mistakes that are common in long, complicated sentences.

Here’s a suggested fix for the problem sentence:

I was retrieving my duty weapon fro the lock box when she stated, “You don’t have time for goodbyes. Come move the vehicle now.” One of the State Marshals who was standing in the lobby told Santos that I was getting my weapon from the lock box. Santos replied, “I might use it on him.” While Santos appeared to be very upset, she appeared to say that comment in jest.

The report raises an interesting question: Should the officer have stated his reactions to Judge Santos’s comments? Police reports are supposed to be objective, and some criminal justice experts might challenge these two statements:

…while Santos appeared to be very upset she appeared to say that comment in jest.

Santos appeared to calm down…

Determining when someone is joking can be a huge problem. Sometimes there are legal ramifications. In this case, an apparent joke triggered an investigation, and Judge Santos has temporarily been reassigned.

It’s certainly useful to know that the officer interpreted the statement as a joke – but technically, at least, that information does not belong in a report. Words like “seem” and “appeared” are risky when you’re trying to write an objective report.

Here’s an example (right from the same report) of a more effective way for an officer to include his or her thinking process in a report: State what you’re thinking aloud, and then you can document it:

I stated to Ingraham that I felt Santos’s behavior was inappropriate but did not feel threatened by her comments.

Incidentally, did you notice Santos’s behavior? The extra “s” at the end is optional – and elegant. This is an officer with excellent writing skills.

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Do Police Reports Matter?

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Yes, they do! Two recent news stories testify to their importance.

On January 14 an Arizona police officer shot an accused car thief named Manuel Longoria, who later died. The circumstances are confusing. A supervisor at the scene had ordered her deputies to use “less lethal” bean bag rounds at the scene. Police thought Longoria was armed, but no weapon was ever found. The video cam in the deputy’s car is inconclusive. A bystander’s cell phone video seems to show that Longoria was putting his hands up just before a deputy fired two rounds.

Here’s where the police report becomes important: According to sources who have read it, there’s no documentation about exactly what Longoria was doing right before the shooting. Did his actions make the deputies think he was reaching for a weapon? The report is inconclusive.

Both the Pinal County Sheriff’s Department and the FBI are investigating the shooting.

You can read more about the case at http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/ariz-reports-don-suspect-killed-hands-article-1.1611742#ixzz2tbCnM1Y9.

A second story about a problematic police report comes out of New York City. Last May a Guatemalan immigrant named Deisy Garcia filed a police report in Spanish warning that her husband was going to kill her. The NYPD failed to translate her report. There was another domestic violence report in November – again in Spanish, and again not translated. The NYPD did not investigate, and no arrest was made.

In January the husband, Miguel Mejia-Ramos, killed both Garcia and her two daughters. (The reason? He didn’t have car seats for them.) You can read more about this sad story at this link: http://nyp.st/1gKGQWR

It’s important to note that both stories are incomplete, and further developments may bring dramatic changes in our understanding of what happened to Manuel Longoria and Deisy Garcia. The point is not to judge the agencies or officers that handled this cases.

Here’s what we know for certain: Any police report can come to national attention. You can never predict when a report you’ve written may find its way into the public spotlight. Yes, police reports matter.

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Exculpatory Evidence

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Criminal justice professional Gordon Graham has a free online service – a brief weekly videotaped tip for anyone who works in law enforcement. (You can subscribe, free, at www.Lexipol.com).

Last week’s tip concerned exculpatory evidence. Graham made an important point about something you probably heard again and again in your training program: Reports have to be thorough.

That sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? No need to belabor the point. But Graham brought up a problem you may have faced a number of times in your career: What if there’s a piece of evidence that doesn’t support an arrest? Do you include it?

He gave the example of four witnesses who place a suspect in a black van – and one who says the van was blue. You arrest someone driving a black van. Do you omit that fifth witness?

Graham urged officers to include that “blue van” statement even though it didn’t support the arrest. Fairness is vital to effective law enforcement, and your reports should include both the reasons for the arrest AND evidence that might free the suspect.

It’s a terrific point! report

 

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Pet Peeves

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My favorite tips come from men and women who have been writing and reading police reports for  a long time. Yesterday Mark Gallo, a traffic accident reconstructionist in Michigan, told me about two problems he’s seen in numerous reports.

I’d call the first “writing on automatic pilot” – repeating the same wording other officers use over and over. Mark says, “Many years ago I concluded that there must be a key on police typewriters (I said it was many years ago) that entered the entire description of a drunk driver: “the above-named subject had bloodshot watery eyes an odor of alcohol coming from his head area his clothes were in disarray….” Everybody wrote it exactly the same way, almost like they were reciting the Miranda warning.”

You might wonder what’s so bad about doing this. If the wording works for other officers, why not use it yourself?

Here’s why: You sound as if you weren’t paying attention. There’s nothing there that YOU observed. Not to mention that “odor of alcohol” might get you in trouble in court because alcohol is odorless. (Better wording: “Odor of an alcoholic beverage.”) And why “above-named subject”? Just use “he” or “she” – or the person’s name. And clothes “in disarray”? I’ve seen some very tidy people who were under the influence of alcohol. If you do notice disheveled clothing, be specific: stained jacket, torn sleeve.

Mark Gallo’s second complaint concerns the word “head area.” What, he asks (and I have the same question) is the difference between a “head” and a “head area”?

So many of these verbal patterns are the result of OJT – on-the-job-training – learning how to write reports by imitating what other officers have been doing. That’s a great practice if those officers are great writers. It’s not so smart if you could do better by adopting some different writing patterns.

Good food for thought. (Incidentally, my book Criminal Justice Report Writing has a useful chapter on OJT.)

Mistake

 

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Kellen Winslow II Misbehaves

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If you’re a football fan, you’ve probably heard of Kellen Winslow Sr., one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history.

Winslow’s son, Kellen Winslow II, is a tight end for the New York Jets. He’s also known for some problems with law enforcement. On November 19 last year he was arrested for possession of synthetic marijuana. But police arrived at his car for a different reason: A woman reported that she had seen him masturbating.

What does an officer do in such a potentially embarrassing situation? The answer is simple: Use your professional skills.

In the Winslow case, the officer wrote a thorough, objective report that you can read online.

There are places where the report could have been more straightforward:

  • Use “I” instead of “this detective”
  • Use “I talked with” instead of “contact was made”
  • Use “told me” instead of “advised”
  • Omit “at this time”

There’s a dangling modifier: “When speaking to Winslow,  he stated….” It sounds as if the officer made the statement, rather than Winslow. It would be more clear to say, simply, “Winslow said….”

Bullet style would save time and make Winslow’s statements easier to read:

Winslow stated that:

  • he smokes the “legal” synthetic marijuana to help him relax.
  • he purchases it via the Internet and at local gas stations
  • the NFL does not test for synthetic marijuana

Overall, though, it’s a professional report about a complicated situation. Ultimately Winslow was charged with possession of synthetic marijuana, and the lewdness issue was dropped.

Kellen Winslow II

Kellen Winslow II

 

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Justin Bieber

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Once again pop singer Justin Bieber is in legal trouble. On January 23 a Miami police officer arrested Bieber on a DUI charge. According to the police report, Bieber and a friend were drag racing on a Miami street. Bieber, the report claims, had consumed a dangerous combination of anti-depressants, beer, and marijuana before climbing behind the wheel of his yellow Lamborghini.

Bieber is challenging the DUI charge. Although he reportedly failed several sobriety tests, his blood alcohol level was only .014 – well below the legal limit. But a home surveillance video confirms that he was driving over the speed limit (at least 55 in a 30 mph zone), and the police report also noted that he was driving with an expired license. Stories are circulating that Scooter Braun, Bieber’s manager, has been pushing him to enter rehab.

Regrettable as the incident is, it gives us an opportunity to examine yet another police report. Suggestion: Go to the link, read the report yourself, and do your own evaluation before going on to the comments below.

Evaluation

Overall, this is an excellent police report: Professional, thorough, objective. It employs active voice and everyday language. The details about Bieber’s words and actions are convincingly presented. One impressive detail: The officer did not hesitate to record Bieber’s crude language.

There are a few mistakes. Lamborghini is misspelled (probably because the officer was writing in the middle of a shift and did not have the luxury of double-checking the spelling).

Two sentences in the middle of the report have a number of problems:

1.  “I immediately smelled an odor of alcohol eminating from the drivers breath and bloodshot eyes.”

  • A defense attorney might challenge the DUI charge by noting that alcohol is odorless. The officer should have written “an odor of an alcoholic beverage….”
  • The apostrophe is missing in driver’s breath
  • Emanating is misspelled
  • The first sentence is awkwardly worded: It sounds as if the odor was coming from both the driver’s breath and his eyes – or the officer was saying that he smelled the bloodshot eyes.

There’s a simple solution to most of the problems: Use simple language (coming instead of emanating), and write a separate sentence about each fact:

“I immediately smelled an odor of alcoholic beverage coming from his breath. I saw bloodshot eyes.”

2.  “The driver had slow deliberate movements and a stuper look on his face.”

This sentence might create some problems  if the officer has to testify in front of a jury. “Slow, deliberate movements” aren’t necessarily a sign of substance abuse. And what movements did the officer see? If there’s a trial six months later, the officer might have trouble remembering what he saw. It might be better to write exactly what Bieber was having so much difficulty doing:

“He fumbled when he tried to open the glove box to get his registration.”

The word stuper creates more problems. First, it’s misspelled: The officer probably intended to write stupor. And what if the attorney asked the officer to describe a stupor look? It’s an awkward and confusing expression. Since the alcoholic beverage and bloodshot eyes already establish probable cause, it might be better not to try to describe Bieber’s face and movements.

In general, though, the officers handled this incident competently and professionally.

JustinBieber

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Missing Persons Report

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Police in Socastee, South Carolina, are searching for a 20-year-old woman named Heather Elvis. On December 18 her father reported her missing. Heather had been out with a date the night before (he has been questioned and is not a suspect). You can read (and learn from) the report at this link. It’s thorough and professional – worth reading. The officer gathered an impressive amount of information about Heather’s activities and contacts, and he organized the information well.

Some comments:

1. The sophisticated writing style suggests that the officer has been to college. It’s an impressive report – but the officer could have saved time by writing more simply and directly. For example, the sentence below could be split into two shorter sentences:

I responded to entity 1′s address (father of the victim), who stated that it was his car and that his daughter drives the vehicle all the time. 

Here’s a suggested revision:

I went to her father’s address. He said it was his car and his daughter drives it all the time.

2. It’s puzzling that the officer used the terms “Entity 1″ (Heather’s father, Terry Lee Elvis) and “Entity 2″ (her date (Steve Shiraldi). The real names are published elsewhere in the report. Using the real names would make the report easier to write and to read – a real advantage later on if the officer needs to refer to the report again.

3.  Bullet style would also make the report easier to write and to read. Take a look at this rather complicated sentence:

Entity 2 stated that they went to dinner, went looking at Christmas lights, and then to the parking lot of Inlet Square Mall, to teach her to drive a manual drive vehicle. Entity 2 stated that he then took the victim back to her residence at approximately 0200-0230 hours, and that she went inside the apartment and that her vehicle was in the driveway.

Here’s how it could be rewritten:

Shiraldi told me:

  • they went to dinner
  • they looked at Christmas lights
  • they went to the parking lot of Inlet Square Mall, to teach her to drive a manual drive car
  • he took her back to her apartment at approx. 0200-0230 hours
  • she went inside the apartment
  • her car was in the driveway

There’s an “advised” that should have been “told,” and substituting specific language (“car” instead of “vehicle,” “apartment” instead of “residence”) would make this report more up-to-date.

Overall, though, this is an excellent report.

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Clarity

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I just came across a well-written police report about a domestic violence call. A 77-year-old woman became angry because her 76-year-old husband was surfing a dating site. She slapped him, he pushed her to the ground, and she called 911.

There’s a lot to like about this report. It’s thorough, objective, and professional. The officer used first names (Edward, Sylvia). It’s written in plain English and employs active voice. Well done!

I’d  recommend a few changes. There’s a wordy section explaining how the officer identified the assailant: “I met with a male suspect identifying himself as….” The report goes on to explain that the suspect showed his driver’s license. That lengthy explanation would be helpful in a situation when someone might be trying to conceal his identity (a robbery, for example). It’s not necessary here.

There’s a slip-up when Mr. Aronson is referred to as “she”: “She freely admitted to pushing his wife…” (Even professional writers occasionally make minor errors like that one.)

“Advised” should be replaced with “told”: “Nurse Leisen who advised me….” Officers who get promotions that involve writing for the general public find they have to break that “advised” habit: civilians don’t understand it.

A few minor changes would give the report greater clarity. Of course the officer knows exactly what happened. But that small measure of extra clarity would be helpful to outsiders (reporters, attorneys). And the officer himself might need to go back over it in six months or so if there’s a court hearing.

Here’s what the officer wrote (I’ve changed “she” to “he”):

I spoke to Edward. He freely admitted to pushing his wife down on the ground after arguing with her. He did admit to being slapped by his wife. Sylvia stated that after 33 years of marriage I can not believe it.

“He did admit to being slapped by his wife” is puzzling. “Admit” implies wrongdoing – and Edward was the victim at that point, not the wrongdoer.

Here’s how the information could be rewritten for more clarity:

I spoke to Edward. He freely admitted to pushing his wife down on the ground after arguing with her. He said his wife, Sylvia, slapped him.

I spoke to Sylvia. She said, “After 33 years of marriage I can not believe it.”

(Notice that the period goes inside the quotation marks. You can learn more about quotation marks at this link.)

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