English Usage

On April 6, Dedham Middle School principal Debra Gately was arrested in Waltham, Massachusetts for driving under the influence. You can read the story and police report here.

It’s an exceptionally well written report – thorough, professional, jargon-free. One really impressive feature is that the officer used active voice not once but twice during the disposition section of the report. (This is where passive voice almost always creeps in.)

At that time, I placed Ms. Gately under arrest for OUI liquor (90/24).  ACTIVE VOICE

I transported Ms. Gately back to the station.  ACTIVE VOICE

But – not surprising in a lengthy report – there are four usage mistakes. Can you find them?

  1. The calling party, Mr. Cory Amarante identified himself with his Massachusetts I.D. and also with his Waltham Police Department (Patrolman) I.D.
  2. The tests were conducted in the parking lot of “The Learning Zone”.
  3. Furthermore, she stated that she did not have any medical issues nor any recent operations.
  4. Lastly, it should be noted that Officer Kozowyk was present during the field sobriety tests and also inventoried the vehicle prior to it’s removal by Waltham Auto and Tow.

Here are the answers:

1. Read the sentence aloud, and you’ll hear your voice drop for Mr. Cory Amarante. This construction is called an interrupter, and it needs two commas. (You can download a free comma handout at this link.)

Here’s the corrected sentence:

The calling party, Mr. Cory Amarante, identified himself with his Massachusetts I.D. and also with his Waltham Police Department (Patrolman) I.D.

2.  In the US, commas and periods always go inside quotation marks. There are no exceptions. Here is the corrected sentence:

The tests were conducted in the parking lot of “The Learning Zone.”

3.  The correct word in this sentence is or, not nor.

Furthermore, she stated that she did not have any medical issues or any recent operations.

4.  It’s means it is. The possessive form of it has no apostrophe: its. (Think of his, another possessive pronoun without an apostrophe.) Here’s the corrected sentence:

Lastly, it should be noted that Officer Kozowyk was present during the field sobriety tests and also inventoried the vehicle prior to its removal by Waltham Auto and Tow.

You can download a free handout about pronouns at this link.

One more suggestion: Parts of the report could have been written more efficiently as a bullet list. Remember that you never write an entire report as a list – but bullet style is a great timesaver for parts of a report.

Take a look at this paragraph, and imagine how you could rewrite it as a bullet list:

I asked Debra if she was a diabetic and she stated that she was not. Furthermore, she stated that she did not have any medical issues nor any recent operations. She also stated that she did not have any issues with her feet, hips knees, or legs.

Notice how much time you would save by writing it as a bullet list.

Debra told me that she:

– was not a diabetic
– did not have any medical issues or any recent operations
– did not have any issues with her feet, hips knees, or legs

Overall, though, this is an impressive report.

wine Pixabay

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A Police Report from Arizona

On January 18, a man in a Mesa, Arizona hotel was fatally shot by a police officer. The man had been showing friends a pellet gun and pointed it out an open window. The officer has been charged with second-degree murder. You can read the entire story at this link.

The incident report has been released, and you can read it by clicking here

It’s well written: Thorough, objective, and professional. There are only a few writing problems – remarkable in such a lengthy report.

Since this blog is about tips for better writing, I want to look at one paragraph and suggest some changes. First, read it yourself and see if you would recommend any revisions:

Myself and fellow detectives called to the scene for the investigation were advised Mesa Police had received a “Subject with a Gun” call at 2114 hours at the La Quinta Inn. Officers arrived on scene at 2121 hours. Call comments stated a male subject(s) had been pointing a rifle out of a fifth floor window. The call was dispatched as a Priority E (Emergency) call due to the allegation of someone displaying a firearm from room #502.

Here are my suggestions:

  • Change “Myself and fellow detectives” to “Fellow detectives and I” (Never use myself this way).
  • “were advised” is jargon. Advise means “counsel” or “recommend.” Use told.
  • There’s repetition in the last sentence: “due to the allegation of someone displaying a firearm from room #502.” The reason for dispatching police is already clear from the previous sentence. Strive to write reports as efficiently as possible.

Every officer should develop the habit of reading of reading police reports written by other officers (they’re often posted online). You’ll develop an eye for good writing and the ability to find and correct mistakes.

These skills are especially useful if you’re hoping for a promotion. The time to develop good writing and thinking habits is now – so that you’re prepared when an opportunity for advancement comes your way.

310px-Air_gun_pellet

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Probable Cause vs. Reasonable Suspicion

A news story in this morning’s newspaper started me thinking about an important issue for police writers: The difference between “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause.” Officer Aaron Smith of Montgomery, Alabama is charged with murder in the February 25 death of Greg Gunn, a 58-year-old male who lived in a high-crime neighborhood.

Gunn, who was black, was walking home from a card game at 3 AM. When Smith (who is white) stopped Gunn and began a body search, Gunn ran. Smith used his stun gun and a metal baton to subdue Gunn, who died a few yards from his front door. Smith initially said that Gunn had attacked him but has backed off from that claim. You can read the entire story at this link: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2016/03/03/alabama-police-officer-charged-in-shooting-death-58-year-old-man.html.

This case underlines the difference between “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause.” Smith’s attorney, Mickey McDermott, said Gunn’s presence in the neighborhood at 3 AM was reason enough for Officer Smith to stop and question him.

“He’s a suspect of being in a high-crime area,” the attorney said. “He’s in a high-crime area, at three o’clock in the morning, dressed in all black. Can you not draw those conclusions?”

But is “reasonable suspicion” sufficient justification for the use of deadly force? State Bureau of Investigation Agent Jason DiNunzio doesn’t think so.

This case points to the necessity for understanding the difference between “reasonable suspicion” (which allows questioning and a limited search) and “probable cause” (which permits a more thorough search and possible detention). Officers need to be thoroughly familiar with the definitions, laws, and policies for their jurisdiction.

police tape Flickr

 

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An Excellent Police Report

I often hear from readers – especially officers new to law enforcement – who are desperate to improve their report writing skills. Sometimes it seems that they’re looking for a magical fix to their writing problems.

Alas, there’s no magic! If you want to become a better writer, you need to work at it – daily. In this blog I often share actual reports so that readers can sharpen their skills.

Today I’m happy to tell you about an excellent report from Captain Lance Schutjer of the St. Ansgar Police Department in Iowa. If you’re working on your writing skills, this report is worth reading. It’s thorough, objective, and written in normal English. There’s no police jargon.

The report comes from the Globe Gazette and concerns a September 2015 incident alleging a violent attack between five high schoolers and a fellow student. The report is posted at this link: http://globegazette.com/news/local/police-report-details-st-ansgar-school-allegations/article_550933ed-ae5a-55f5-ab89-bf99fdd0c0c7.html

It’s a great learning opportunity! Be sure to read it.

A+ grade ok

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Would a List Be More Efficient?

Picture this situation: You’re a police chief in a small city. The mayor sends you a proposal for dealing with homelessness and asks for feedback. You study the proposal, jot down some notes, and write a letter with changes and additional ideas. You include a list of community leaders who might be interested in forming a task force.

Question: Does your entire letter to the mayor have to be written in list format?

Of course not. After you write your response to the proposals, your list of task force members becomes a separate paragraph.

It’s common sense: There’s no need to waste  time writing a separate sentence for each person you’re recommending. Father John Sullivan from St. Michael’s Church would be an asset to the task force. Captain Toni Lever from the Salvation Army would be an asset to the task force. Paula Cohen, principal of Tracy High School, would be an asset to the task force. 

A list is much more efficient:

Recommendations for the task force include:

-Father John Sullivan from St. Michael’s Church
-Captain Toni Lever from the Salvation Army
-Paula Cohen, principal of Tracy High School

But time and again, when I’ve urged police officers to incorporate lists into their reports, their panicked response is “I can’t write my whole report as a list!” Nobody is asking you to do that.

Write your report the way you normally would. When you come to a series of related facts (such as stolen items), write a list. Then go back to writing your narrative as usual.

A recent news story from Fort Wayne, Indiana, about a local politician named Paul Ensley demonstrates how a simple list could save time. Police responded to a disturbance in Ensley’s home and found that Ensley had been struggling with a girlfriend who’d had too much to drink.

Ensley refused to give his name and threatened to have the police officer fired. (Ensley disputes this and says he has a recording to back him up.) You can read the entire report at this link.

Let’s look at one section of the report. In the first version, there’s a sentence for every detail:

ON Monday, 7-MARCH-2016 AT APPROXIMATELY 07:31 HOURS OFFICERS WERE DISPATCHED TO ST JOE CENTER RD AND ARLINGTON PKWY N CONCERNING A DOMESTIC. COMPLAINANT ( ###### ####### ) WHO WAS NOT ON THE SCENE CALLED DISPATCH. COMPLAINANT TOLD DISPATCH THERE WAS A 2 STORY OLDER FARM HOUSE WITH A CAMPER IN FRONT. COMPLAINANT TOLD DISPATCH THE HOUSE WAS JUST EAST OF ARLINGTON PARK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. THE COMPLAINANT TOLD DISPATCH THE HOUSE SITS ON THE SOUTH SIDE OF THE ROAD. COMPLAINANT TOLD DISPATCH THERE WAS A FEMALE WHITE WITH LONG BLACK HAIR. THE FEMALE WAS APPROXIMATELY 30 YEARS OLD. THE FEMALE WAS WEARING A ORANGE SWEATSHIRT AND BLACK SWEATPANTS. THE FEMALE RAN DOWN THE DRIVEWAY YELLING FOR HELP. THE FEMALE SAID SOMETHING ABOUT HER BOYFRIEND HAD HER KEYS. THE FEMALE WAS CRYING AND UPSET. THE COMPLAINANT OFFERED TO STAND BY WITH HER. THE FEMALE ASKED THE COMPLAINANT TO LEAVE AND CALL THE POLICE FOR HER.

The version below is more efficient. Notice that the report begins with a typical narrative. A list follows, and then the report goes back to the usual narrative format.

On Monday, 7-MARCH-2016 AT APPROXIMATELY 07:31 HOURS OFFICERS WERE DISPATCHED TO ST JOE CENTER RD AND ARLINGTON PKWY N CONCERNING A DOMESTIC.  [narrative]

COMPLAINANT ( ###### ####### ), WHO WAS NOT ON THE SCENE, CALLED DISPATCH. COMPLAINANT TOLD DISPATCH:  [introducing a list]

– THERE WAS A 2 STORY OLDER FARM HOUSE WITH A CAMPER IN FRONT
– THE HOUSE WAS JUST EAST OF ARLINGTON PARK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL ON THE SOUTH SIDE OF THE ROAD
– THERE WAS A FEMALE, WHITE WITH LONG BLACK HAIR, APPROXIMATELY 30 YEARS OLD, WEARING AN ORANGE SWEATSHIRT AND BLACK SWEATPANTS
-SHE RAN DOWN THE DRIVEWAY YELLING FOR HELP
-SHE WAS CRYING AND SAID SOMETHING ABOUT HER BOYFRIEND HAD HER KEYS  [list]

THE COMPLAINANT OFFERED TO STAND BY WITH HER. THE FEMALE ASKED THE COMPLAINANT TO LEAVE AND CALL THE POLICE FOR HER.  [narrative]

Lists are great timesavers for police reports! Do you look for places to employ lists in your reports? You should. List 2

 

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Objectivity

On March 5, St. Louis Rams running back Tre Mason was arrested for resisting an officer, reckless driving, failure to register a motor vehicle, and possession of marijuana in an amount less than 20 grams. During an encounter with a Hollywood, Florida police officer, Mason was stunned twice with a TASER. You can read about the incident here. The police report is posted at this link:  https://www.scribd.com/doc/302933522/Mason-Arrest-PC-1-1

The report is thorough and generally well written, but some objectivity issues crept in. Take a look at this excerpt. Can you find the problem?

THE DEFENDANT HAD A GREEN LIGHT FOR NORTHBOUND TRAFFIC BUT APPARENTLY DID NOT SEE ANOTHER VEHICLE IN HIS LANE TRAVELING NEAR THE POSTED SPEED LIMIT OF 35 MPH. AT THE LOCATION OF 4001 SOUTH OCEAN DR, THE DEFENDANT ABRUPTLY APPLIED THE BRAKES TO AVOID COLLISION AND SWERVED AT A SPEED GREATER THAN OTHER TRAFFIC AND APPARENTLY ABOVE THE POSTED SPEED LIMIT.

I have concerns with “apparently did not see another vehicle,” “to avoid collision,” and “apparently above the posted speed limit.” Those are subjective statements that do not belong in a police report.

Police reports have to be objective – “Just the facts, Ma’am,” as Joe Friday used to say in the old Dragnet TV show. “Apparently” is a guess. It’s not an observable fact. “To avoid collision” is mind reading. There’s no way to know what Mason was thinking as he braked the car.

Your reports should stick to objective facts that can’t be challenged in court. If you record a hunch or hypothesis, you’re opening the door to a challenge from a defense attorney. You can watch a PowerPoint about objectivity at this link.

Tre Mason

 

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How Do You Use “Although” Correctly?

I hear more usage questions about “although” than any other word. So today I’m going to give you a quick refresher.

Let’s look at this excerpt from 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 with our example:

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.

Did you notice anything about that last sentence? I didn’t write this: Although, like and which can be tricky.

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.

Man holding a pen

 

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Take This Quiz!

I often hear from officers who tell me they have concerns about English usage. So – I’m going to start offering quick quizzes and instant answers.

Here’s today’s quiz! Scroll down for the answers.

1.  Mayor Santos asked Captain Floyd and (I, me) to serve on the crime prevention committee.

2.  Joan showed me the vaccination records for her (family’s, families’) cats and dogs.

3.  Which version is more appropriate for a police report?

a)  The car swerved across the center line three times in less than a minute, whereupon I activated my flashers and siren. At that point the car proceeded to stop, prompting me to approach and interact with the driver. I made a request to see her vehicle registration and driver’s license, which she showed me.

b)   The car swerved across the center line three times in less than a minute.I activated my flashers and siren, and the car stopped. The driver showed me her vehicle registration and driver’s license.

ANSWERS

1.  Mayor Santos asked Captain Floyd and (I, me) to serve on the crime prevention committee.

It’s easy to get these pronouns (I, me, he, him, etc.) right if you make the sentence shorter: Mayor Santos asked me to serve on the crime prevention committee. You can hear that “me” is the correct word. (To learn more about pronouns, click here.)

2.  Joan showed me the vaccination records for her (family’s, families’) cats and dogs.

Joan is talking about her family! (Families is plural.) 

3.  Which version is more appropriate for a police report?

Version a) has unnecessary words. Police officers are busy! Version b) is more efficient. 

a)  The car swerved across the center line three times in less than a minute, whereupon I activated my flashers and siren. At that point the car proceeded to stop, prompting me to approach and interact with the driver. I made a request to see her vehicle registration and driver’s license, which she showed me.

b)   The car swerved across the center line three times in less than a minute.I activated my flashers and siren, and the car stopped. The driver showed me her vehicle registration and driver’s license.

How did you do?

A+ grade ok

 

 

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Active Voice at Last!

I‘ve been toying with the idea of offering a cash prize to anyone who could find a police report that used active voice in the disposition (the part of the report near the end that explains what happened to the suspect and the evidence). I can’t afford much, but maybe a $5 bill would inspire an officer to write the disposition correctly, for once – using active voice.

I read lots of reports, and – count on it – no matter how good the writer is, I know I’m going to read a @#$%! sentence like this near the end:

The evidence was logged in to the Evidence Room.  PASSIVE VOICE

The suspect was transported to the County Jail.  PASSIVE VOICE

An ambulance was called to take the suspect to to Meadowbrook Hospital.
PASSIVE VOICE

It seems that hardly anyone ever bothers to mention who logged in the evidence, drove the patrol car with the suspect inside, or called for the ambulance.

Passive voice is…dumb. Why on earth would a police report omit the identity of the person who performed an important action? But officers do it every day.

I’m happy to announce, however, that I’ve won my own cash prize. A couple of minutes ago I came across this sentence in a report (an excellent one, by the way) about NFL free agent Montee Ball, who’s been arrested for battery in a domestic abuse case. Eureka: It tells you who drove Ball to jail!

I transported Ball in the rear of my patrol car to the Dane County Jail.  ACTIVE VOICE

I’m putting a $5 bill into my wallet.

NFL Running Back Montee Ball

NFL Running Back Montee Ball

 

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Another Police Report about Johnny Manziel

Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel has a history of troubling behavior. Problems erupted again last weekend, when he allegedly struck his girlfriend, Colleen Crowley and claimed that he was going to kill himself. Crowley said she jumped out of his car because she was afraid for her life. No charges were filed, but the NFL is investigating.

If you want to write better police reports, you need to read the official account of what happened between Manziel and Crowley. This is an exceptionally well-written report. It is efficient, factual and – best of all – free of police jargon. The style is confident and professional.

There are a few places where the report could be more concise and objective. For example:

As our investigation continued, Colleen seemed increasingly uncooperative, stating that she did not want to answer any more questions, did not want to fill out a statement or make a report, and did not want officers to photograph her or any of her injuries.

The details here are excellent, painting a clear picture of what Colleen was doing. If I were the officer’s supervisor, I would recommend deleting “Colleen seemed increasingly uncooperative.” It’s a judgment call – and it doesn’t add anything useful to the report. Anyone reading about Colleen’s actions (refusing to fill out a statement or make a report, and insisting that officers not photograph her injuries) could see that Colleen was not cooperating.

Another problem is that Manziel’s name (Jonathan) is misspelled in the report.

On the whole, though, this is an excellent example of modern police writing.

Johnny Manziel

Johnny Manziel

Update: A a judge has signed a protective order instructing Manziel to stay away from Crowley for two years and to pay her legal fees worth $12,000. Click here to read the story.  

 

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