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:


Use Instead





for the purpose of


in the event that


if or when


the month of November


blue in color


large in size


pull-down menu


scream and yell




lower down


PIN number






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


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.


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.)


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!



Quiz Yourself on Passive Voice

Professional criminal justice reports avoid passive voice because it does not answer an important question: Who performed the action?

If you’re testifying in court, trying to remember what happened six months ago, a passive-voice sentence in your report can be confusing:

A blood-stained t-shirt was found under a rosebush in the back yard. PASSIVE VOICE

Who found the t-shirt?

Here’s an active-voice version of this sentence that clearly states the facts:

I found a blood-stained t-shirt under a rosebush in the back yard. ACTIVE VOICE

(To learn how to identify passive voice, click here.)

Here’s a short quiz to see if you can identify passive-voice sentences. The answers are stated below.

  1. The roof was replaced two years ago.
  2. John and Mike replaced the roof.
  3. We were wondering if you’d like to spend a weekend at our beach house.
  4. The key can be found under a rock to the left of the front door.
  5. Taxis will be waiting at the bus station.
  6. Louis is interested in a career in the medical field.
  7. Registered nurses are being paid top salaries right now.
  8. Nurses are eagerly sought by hospitals everywhere.
  9. Louis was working in a low-paying service job.
  10. He was told there’s not much of a future for him there.

Here are the answers:

  1. The roof was replaced two years ago.  PASSIVE  [Who replaced it?]
  2. John and Mike replaced the roof.  ACTIVE
  3. We were wondering if you’d like to spend a weekend at our beach house.  ACTIVE
  4. The key can be found under a rock to the left of the front door.  PASSIVE  [Who will find it?]
  5. Taxis will be waiting at the bus station.  ACTIVE
  6. Louis is interested in a career in the medical field.  ACTIVE
  7. Registered nurses are being paid top salaries right now.  PASSIVE  [Who pays them?]
  8. Nurses are eagerly sought by hospitals everywhere.  PASSIVE  [Who seeks them?]
  9. Louis was working in a low-paying service job.  ACTIVE
  10. He was told there’s not much of a future for him there.  PASSIVE  [Who told him this?]

And here are active-voice rewrites of the passive-voice sentences:

1.  The landlord replaced the roof two years ago.

4.  You can find the key under a rock to the left of the front door.

7.  Hospitals are paying registered nurses top salaries right now.

8.  Hospitals everywhere are eagerly seeking nurses.

10.  His supervisor told him there’s not much of a future for him there.




The Vince McMahon Police Report

A 2006 police report has come to light accusing Vince McMahon (WWE CEO and chairman) of forcing himself on a woman in a tanning salon. The Florida prosecutor decided not to press charges. You can read the report at this link: http://www.totalprosports.com/2018/01/27/police-report-leaked-of-vince-mcmahon-showing-his-nudes-and-trying-to-force-himself-on-woman-in-tanning-salon/

It’s an excellent report – thorough and objective. Here’s a sentence that impressed me: 

She pushed him away using her hands on his chest.

Why do I like that sentence? The officer recorded what he saw. Detailed reporting can help build a case in court.

One change I would recommend is more attention to brevity. Several sentences could be written more efficiently:

Prior to using the bed, he asked if she would take a picture of him with his camera phone to send to his girlfriend in New York.

McMahon used bed 113 for the allotted time. Upon completion of the tanning session, McMahon started talking to X again.

She picked up the cleaning solution and proceeded to walk walked down the hallway to clean the bed. 

I have one more comment. I always hope that I’ll read an entire report without encountering any passive voice. This report (as so often happens!) disappointed me. Here’s the last sentence in the report:

A sworn written and taped statement was completed and submitted into evidence.  PASSIVE VOICE

Who wrote and taped the statement? Who submitted it? There’s no name. If there are questions in court about the statement, there’s no record of which officer performed those actions. Not professional.


Understanding Semicolons

A semicolon is like a period, but it’s not followed by a capital letter. The good news is that semicolons can add professionalism to your police and corrections reports. The better news is that semicolons are even more useful when you’re promoted and start tackling a wider variety of writing tasks.

The best news is that semicolons are easy to use because they’re so similar to periods.

Here’s how to do it:

1.  Find two sentences that go together in some way.

2.  Change the period between them to a semicolon.

3.  Change the capital letter to lower case (unless it’s a name or other word that needs to be capitalized).

You’re done!

Please note that what you don’t do is pick out a long sentence, find the midpoint, and stick a semicolon there.

Here are some examples.

Clare was worried about John. He had stopped spending time with his old friends. CORRECT

Clare was worried about John; he had stopped spending time with his old friends. CORRECT – SEMICOLON

Mark tried hiding the car keys. Judy found them anyway and took his car. CORRECT

Mark tried hiding the car keys; Judy found them anyway and took his car. CORRECT – SEMICOLON

Don’t spend too much time worrying about the requirement about two sentences that relate to each other. In most writing tasks, one sentence logically follows another. Most officers find it easy to select two sentences that can be joined with a semicolon.

Here are some guidelines for using semicolons:

  • Use a semicolon occasionally to add a professional touch to your writing.
  • Don’t overdo it. One semicolon per paragraph or report is a good rule of thumb.
  • Remember this principle: Periods are followed by capital letters. Semicolons are followed by lower-case letters.

That’s it. Happy semicolons! (They really do impress people. Start using them!)



Syntax Problems

I often hear from academy instructors and agency officials who worry about the poorly written reports that come across their desks. What is to be done with a cadet or officer who writes a sentence like this one?

Four CDs were recovered from the defendant, which he had conceal those items by stuffing them inside his jacket.

This sentence (it’s real, by the way) is disastrously wrong.  It’s hard to believe this person is capable of ever writing a competent report. So: what advice would you give the person who wrote it – and the concerned instructor or supervisor who read it?

Here’s my advice. First – and this may surprise you – there’s no need to panic. Very likely the writer was trying too hard to sound smart and sophisticated.

Second, there’s a cure: Write short, straightforward sentences. I have never – in all my years of experience – met a cadet or officer who couldn’t meet that requirement. Forget about trying to impress others with complicated syntax. Make each fact a separate sentence, like this:

I recovered four CDs from the defendant. He had stuffed them inside his jacket.  CORRECT


I found four CDs stuffed inside the defendant’s jacket.  CORRECT

So here’s my recommendation to anyone who’s nervous about report writing: Write shorter sentences. Start each one with a person, place, or thing. (In a police report, it’s usually best to start with a person.)



The Deondre Francois Police Report

On January 24, Tallahassee police were called to an alleged domestic violence incident involving FSU Quarterback Deondre Francois. After an investigation, police decided not to charge Francois. 

You can read more here, and you can read the incident report here. It is well written, objective, and thorough. (To download a more readable version, click here. My thanks to Thomas Hagle!)

But I would recommend against two writing practices in the report. Take a look at the  excerpt below. (“White” is FSU running back Zaquandre White, who was at the apartment with Francois and Lindsey.)

I made contact with White, who advised the following: White and Francois were hanging out in the residence when Lindsey came home and began arguing with Francois. Lindsey was upset and began throwing glasses everywhere and broke a vase. Lindsey then locked herself in Francois’ room and tried to break a television.

Sentences are crisp and efficient. The vocabulary is plain and direct (though I would have used “the home” instead of “the residence”).

But there are two problems: “I made contact” is vague. Did the officer phone White? Talk to him in person? Send texts back and forth?

And “advised” is the wrong word. White did not “advise” (“counsel”) the investigating officer. He told the officer the facts.

Overall, though, this is an excellent report.


                          Deondre Francois


The Robby Anderson Police Report

On January 19, Jets wide receiver Robby Anderson was arrested in Florida for driving violations. It was Anderson’s second arrest in Florida. You can read the story here. Last May he was arrested at a music festival for pushing a police officer. 

The entire report is posted here. It’s worth reading: concise, objective, thorough.

Here’s an excerpt:

The vehicle then slowed down to approximate 45mph at the red light for SR 84 Westbound before proceeding to run the red light. He then got into the left turn lane under the 595 overpass to go East on WR 84 which was also a red light. Once again he ran the light before continuing Eastbound on SR 84. Once eastbound the driver started to slow to a crawl, but then accelerated again to nearly 45mph.

I have a few quibbles. “Eastbound” should be lower case – it’s a direction, not the name of a specific place. There should be a space between 45 and mph. And passive voice found its way into the end of the report, as often happens: “Robert was arrested” (who arrested him?). “He was transported to BSO Jail” (who drove him there?). 

But there is much to admire here. Almost every sentence starts with a person (“He”) or thing (“The vehicle”), so it’s usually clear who did what. The attention to detail is impressive. When an officer can describe an offense so accurately, a defense attorney may be reluctant to challenge the arrest.

Well done!



What’s a Hate Crime?

Police reports can play an essential role in prosecuting hate crimes.

In recent years, most jurisdictions have established a separate hate crime category. These are criminal acts such as murder, arson, vandalism, and other crimes against people and property that are partly or wholly motivated by bias. Demonstrating hatred towards minorities, gays, Jews, or other groups is not sufficient: The bias must be the motivation for the crime.

Prosecuting a hate crime can be difficult: Hate in itself is not a crime, and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects free speech even when it is offensive.

Another problem is that some alleged hate crimes are actually hoaxes. In 2009, for example, McCain supporter Ashley Todd falsely claimed that she’d been robbed by a Barack Obama supporter who cut a B on her right cheek. Investigators noted that the cuts were superficial, Todd refused medical attention, and – most telling – the “B” was backward, as if it had been done in front of a mirror.

If you suspect a hate crime, be sure to record details in your report that will be helpful to the prosecutor. Here are some possibilities:

  • Relevant information about the offender’s and victim’s race, religion, ethnic/national origin, sexual orientation, or disability
  • Suspect’s oral statements indicating bias
  • Bias-related drawings, markings, symbols, or graffiti
  • Objects (like white sheets with hoods or a burning cross) indicating bias
  • Membership in a significant group (such as the NAACP or a white supremacy organization)

Remember too that the term “hate crime” includes minority attacks on mainstream groups.

The officer at the scene will not be the person who decides how to prosecute the crime. But your observations and detailed reporting can be the deciding factors in a successful prosecution.