The Police Report about Michael Brown

The Ferguson Police Department in Missouri has released its police report recounting an alleged strong-arm robbery by Michael Brown on August 9.

If you’ve been following the news, you know that shortly after the robbery, Brown was stopped for jaywalking. He and a companion – also allegedly involved in the robbery – ran from the police officer, who pursued them and fatally shot Brown. The story is still developing. You can learn more about the story at this link.

One interesting development concerns the police report of the robbery. It’s been released to the public, and it’s an excellent example of professional police writing. You can read it at this link. It’s written in first person, with a minimum of jargon (except that advised crept in several times when told or said would have been better). There’s a however sentence that needs a comma:

An apparent struggle or confrontation seems to take place with Brown, however it is obscured by a display case on the counter.

Here’s the improved sentence:

An apparent struggle or confrontation seems to take place with Brown. However, it is obscured by a display case on the counter.

Overall, though, this is an impressive report. Sophisticated sentence patterns throughout the report suggest a high level of writing skill. Here’s an example from the step-by-step description of what is happening in the surveillance video from the convenience store (the name of the clerk was redacted):

[The clerk], no longer between Brown and the door, stops and watches Brown as he walks toward the exit door.

Far more important than the fine points of writing, however, is the question of the public’s right to know. Are police reports internal documents – or does the public have the right to read them? And…who decides?

Just last month, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled against mandatory release of police documents. (You can read the decision here.) Another recent case, still undecided, concerns a university police force in Ohio that does not want to release arrest documents. The Ohio Supreme Court has not yet issued its ruling. (You can read about that case here.)

In Ferguson, Missouri, the unanswered questions center on the report of the shooting of Michael Brown. Did Officer Darren Wilson know that Brown and his companion were suspects in a robbery? That police report has not been released. Does the public have a right to read it? Or is a press release sufficient?

Who will make that decision? We can expect the debate to continue.

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Challenge Yourself!

Earlier this month, two Pennsylvania golfers assaulted each other during a dispute over the rules governing puddles of water on a golf course. You can read about the incident here.

The affidavit has been published online, and it’s reproduced below. Here’s your challenge: List the changes that would be needed to transform it into a modern police report. (Scroll down for some suggestions.)

Affidavit of Probable Cause

On 08/03/14 at approx. 1300 hours the following incident took place a the Springdale Golf Course, located in South Union Township, Fayette County. A group of 5, which included the Defendant and the Victim, started playing a round of golf. At some point, early on, it rained, interrupting play. Rain stopped, and play resumed. There was a conversation and somewhat heated debate regarding e rules involving “casual water” on the 5th green, which was resolved. Play on the 6th hole continued without incident. All 5 teed off on the 7th. The Defendant and the Victim ended up about even on opposite sides of the fairway. The rule debate reignited when the Victim stated they are “rolling the ball on the fairway”. The Defendant took odds with that. Words were exchanged. This went back and forth. The Victim was saying things back to the Defendant and pointing his finger at him. The Defendant walks across the fairway, still saying things and pointing his club at the Victim. At this point the Defendant is right up to the Victim, with his club in the Victims face. The Victim put his hand up and said “get that club out of my face”. At this point the Defendant, who had his club in his hand – gripping it up ear the head, swung the club, striking the Victim in the left forearm and top of the head. The Victim had put his hand up to deflect the blow, which resulted in the strike to his forearm. The Victim goes down from the blow on all fours. The Victim got up and a scuffle ensued, resulting in both of them being on the ground. During the scuffle, the Defendant was struck in the left side of his face and his lower lip by the Victims fist. The fight was broken up, both men were treated in Uniontown Hospital ER for injuries sustained during this incident. The Victim sustained swelling and redness to the top of his head, a mild concussion, and swelling and redness to his left forearm.

Suggestions:

  • You can omit many of the details that happened before the assault. Begin your report at the 7th green:

On 08/03/14 at approx. 1300 hours the following incident took place a the Springdale Golf Course, located in South Union Township, Fayette County. A group of 5, which included the Defendant and the Victim, started playing a round of golf. At some point, early on, it rained, interrupting play. Rain stopped, and play resumed. There was a conversation and somewhat heated debate regarding e rules involving “casual water” on the 5th green, which was resolved. Play on the 6th hole continued without incident. All 5 teed off on the 7th. The Defendant and the Victim ended up about even on opposite sides of the fairway.

  • Use names rather than “Defendant” and “Victim”
  • Use simple, straightforward sentences to recount what happened. As a busy police officer, you should try to avoid fillers like “The rule debate reignited” and “This went back and forth.”
  • Clarify where your information came from. Have one heading for Bryan Bandes and another for Robert Lee Harris. Organizing your report this way enhances your objectivity and credibility. You’re not taking sides; you’re reporting what each person told you.
  • Stick to past tense. “The Victim goes down from the blow on all fours” should be rewritten as “Bandes went down on all fours.”
  • Avoid wordiness: “The Victim got up and a scuffle ensued, resulting in both of them being on the ground. During the scuffle, the Defendant was struck in the left side of his face and his lower lip by the Victims fist.”
    It would be more efficient to write, “Bandes got up and fought with Harris. Both fell to the ground. Harris used his fist to strike Bandes on the left side of his face and on his lower lip.”
  • Stick to active voice. “The fight was broken up” omits important  information: Who broke it up? How? Did you take a statement from that person? That testimony might be important if the case goes to court.
  • Use an apostrophe in “Victim’s face,” “Victim’s injuries,” and similar phrases.

(Here’s one more piece of information: The rulebook for golf covers what to do when a ball lands in a mud puddle! The golfer is allowed to move the ball to a green as long as it isn’t placed closer to the hole.)

Golf

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A Crime in Southampton

If you’re a fan of reality TV, you might be looking forward to next month’s broadcast of Kourtney and Khloe Take the Hamptons.

And if you’re trying to improve your police reports, you might want to read about a crime reported by Scott Disick, Kourtney Kardashian’s lover and the father of her two children. (They’re expecting a third child later this year.) Evaluating actual police reports is a great way to sharpen your own report-writing skills.

On July 8 Disick discovered that $4,000 in cash was missing from an attache case stored in a bedroom at his summer home in Southampton on Long Island. Here’s the report:

complainant reports at unknown time and date between 7/1/14 and 7/4/14 unknown person did unlawfully remove US Currency from an attaché case in that was stored in a bedroom within the residence at the above noted place of occurrence.

This report has two excellent features: It’s concise and objective. But the writing still suffers from some old-fashioned jargon:

  • it would be simpler to write “Disick” rather than “complainant”
  • “at unknown time and date between” could be simplified to “sometime between”
  • “did unlawfully remove” sounds awkward: “unlawfully removed” sounds better
  • “the above noted place of occurrence” is unnecessary, since the address is noted on the report

You might also have noted some details are missing that you might expect from a police report. Did the officer search for a point of entry? When was the currency last seen? Did anyone in the house see or hear anything unusual? 

There may be a good reason for withholding these details: Because this report was released to the public, it’s possible that some of facts were omitted because of privacy concerns. If you’re a new officer who’s just learning how to write reports, however, you should be aware that these facts are expected in a complete police report.

Meanwhile, Kardashian fans are wondering whether Disick will get his money back. It’s still too soon to tell.

Kourtney Kardashian

Kourtney Kardashian

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Which Type of Report?

Many officers find it helpful to think about four types of reports when they sit down to write. (You can view a simple chart explaining the four types at this link.)

Here’s a situation to evaluate. What kind of report is this – 1, 2, 3, or 4?

Some background: Ed FitzGerald is the Democratic candidate for governor of Ohio, running against Republican John Kasich. (You can read the full story here.)

At 4:30 a.m. on October 13, 2012, someone spotted FitzGerald and a woman in a nearly vacant parking lot. Police were called to investigate, found nothing wrong, and left. The story came out last week and has raised questions about FitzGerald’s character (he’s married to another woman).

FitzGerald says the Republican party is adopting “sleazy” tactics to discredit him in the upcoming election.

Our focus here is on the police report. Which type is it – and why? After you’ve read the report, scroll down for the answer.

Here’s the FitzGerald report:

car report

 Answer: This is a Type 1 report – the simplest kind. The officer simply recorded the facts. No arrest or intervention was needed.

Note also that this is an effective report. It’s brief, objective, and complete. (Of course it would be better to have spelled out “reports”!) There’s no jargon.

Well done!

Man holding a pen

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Mike Pouncey from the NFL

On July 15, a popular figure on social media who goes by the name “Ricky Vasquez” was allegedly assaulted inside the Cameo Nightclub in Miami. “Vasquez,” whose real name is  James Riquan, was allegedly attacked by NFL player Mike Pouncey. The woman who accompanied Riquan that evening – Niya Pickett – tried to break up the fight and was allegedly assaulted as well.

You can read the story at this link.

And you can read the report below:

V01 (Pickett) /and V02 (Ricuan) advised me that while inside Cameo Night Club (1445 Washington Ave) between the listed times, an unknown male was trying to leave the cub when he pushed V01 and V02 out of the way. Victims state that S01 then proceeded to punch V01 in the head/The V02 in the head causing a large welt/bruising to both V01 and V02. S01 then left the area.

The report is concise and objective. But wouldn’t it have been better to write the whole thing in normal English?

For example, why write advised (which means counseled) when you’re trying to say that Pickett and Ricuan told you about the attack?

And why use V01 and V02 when it would be much simpler to write “Picket” and “Ricuan”?

Here’s another problem. Notice how awkward this sentence is:

Victims state that S01 then proceeded to punch V01 in the head/The V02 in the head causing a large welt/bruising to both V01 and V02.  AWKWARD

The confusion evaporates in this version, written in normal English:

The suspect then punched Rickett and Ricuan in the head, causing large welts and bruising.  BETTER 

Here’s one more thing that’s puzzling. Wouldn’t the officer have seen the welts and bruising, if the attack really did happen? Why not say so? If this case goes to court, the defense attorney is probably going to ask if you saw the injuries. Wouldn’t it make sense to put that information right in your report?

Let’s go back to what’s wrong with terminology like V01 and V02. Picture yourself preparing for a court hearing. You’re reviewing the report you wrote weeks or even months ago to make sure you’ve got all the details straight and you’re ready to testify. And you keep getting mixed up about which victim was 01 and which was 02.

V01, V02, and S01 are useful if you’re redacting names when releasing a report to the public. But that practice only creates confusion when you’re writing a report for your agency. Avoid it!

Mike Pouncey

Mike Pouncey

PHOTO BY Chris J. Nelson

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For Correctional Officers

I taught in a prison school for almost four years and wrote my share of disciplinary reports and incident reports. This article by Ryan Shanks has some excellent suggestions for correctional officers.

I’d like to add two suggestions about Shanks’ model sentence: “During a targeted pat search due to the inmate’s suspicious behavior, I did discover a lock tied inside of a sock, which is commonly used as an impact weapon.”

a)  Instead of “I did discover,” I’d write “I discovered.” 

b)  It would be helpful (especially if there’s a disciplinary hearing) to document what constituted “the inmate’s suspicious behavior.”

Still – this is an excellent article! Prison cell with bed inside Alcatraz main building san francisco california

photo by:

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Gregg Jarrett

Gregg Jarrett is a news anchor for Fox News – or he was until he had a bad experience in an airport lounge in May. He’s on indefinite leave, presumably to deal with his substance abuse issues. You can read more about Jarrett here.

The police report was posted online, and it demonstrates that the officer dealt appropriately with a man who was clearly having a bad reaction to the alcohol and medication in his system. You can read the report at this link.

Because police reports are often written under time pressure,they could benefit from some changes. That’s true of this report as well. Take a look at this excerpt and see what you think:

In my interaction with Jarrett he was very unsteady while sitting at the bar, swaying back and forth while sitting, having to use the bar to support him from falling over.  WORDY

This is a useful and objective description of what the officer saw – but it’s wordy. My suggestion is to record the information more simply. “In my interaction” isn’t necessary: You simply need to indicate that you were there, watching Jarrett:

I saw Jarrett sitting at the bar. He was swaying back and forth while holding on to the bar.  MORE EFFICIENT

The next statement could be rewritten to be more objective: 

Jarrett appeared to be in a “fog” and had difficulty answering questions with more than one word; and when asked questions that required a longer answer, he would just turn away.  SUBJECTIVE

“Appeared to be in a ‘fog’” is a subjective description – so is “had difficulty answering questions with more than one word.” A defense attorney could give the officer a hard time in court over these statements. It might be more useful to record some of the questions and Jarrett’s responses: Exactly what he said, and how he said it.

These are small points, it’s true – but attention to these details can add up to better report writing if you practice them consistently.

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Gregg Jarrett

 

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NHL Star Darren Sharper

If you’re a football fan, you’ve heard of Darren Mallory Sharper.  He spent 14 years in the National Football League playing for the Green Bay Packers, the Minnesota Vikings, and the New Orleans Saints.

Less impressive is Sharper’s history of sexual assault arrests in California, Louisiana, and Arizona. (He was also accused of rape in Florida but will not face charges there.)

If you’re a police officer – or you aspire to become one – you should spend some time reading the March 2014 General Offense Report about Darren Sharper from the Tempe Police Department. It’s an excellent example of how to investigate and document an alleged sexual assault. The report is thorough, professional, and written in straightforward language, with very few of the problems found in so many police reports.

Not surprisingly, a few sentences could be cleaned up – this is, after all,  a lengthy report authored by many officers.

1.  Passive-voice sentences don’t explain who did what:

X was initially interviewed at Tempe Saint Luke’s Hospital and then transported to the Mesa SANE Clinic location for a SANE exam. PASSIVE – CONFUSING

[Officer's name] initially interviewed X at Tempe Saint Luke’s Hospital. [Officer's name] then transported her to the Mesa SANE Clinic location for a SANE exam.  ACTIVE – BETTER

During the investigation it was  X stated that X’s roommate, X, also believed she was drugged but had locked her bedroom door when she went to bed and was not sexually assaulted.  PASSIVE – CONFUSING

During the investigation, X stated that X’s roommate, X, also believed she was drugged but had locked her bedroom door when she went to bed and was not sexually assaulted.   ACTIVE – BETTER

2.  Avoid repetition by using bullets:

REPETITIOUS: The caller stated that she had suspect information. The victim stated she did not have an exact apartment number but knew that it was X complex located at [address] Tempe. The caller stated that there was another female present and both victim’s were currently seeking treatment at Tempe Saint Luke’s Hospital located at 1500 S Mill Ave, Tempe, Room #1. The caller was listed as being an Emergency Room nurse, Renee Little.  

BETTER:  The caller, Emergency Room nurse Renee Little, stated:

  • she had suspect information
  • she did not have an exact apartment number but knew that it was X complex located at [address] Tempe
  • there was another female present
  • both victims were seeking treatment at Tempe Saint Luke’s Hospital located at 1500 S Mill Ave, Tempe, Room #1 

3.  Don’t use “advised” when you mean “told”:

X advised me that they arrived at The Mint at approximately 2330 hours to meet four of Sharper’s friends.

X told me that they arrived at The Mint at approximately 2330 hours to meet four of Sharper’s friends.  BETTER

Note how confusing the next two sentences are. “Advised” means “counseled” or “suggested.” Is that really what Sgt. Kepler did? No! He TOLD the officer to respond. In the second sentence, “advised” again is the wrong word – and the end of the sentence is confusing.

On 11/21/13 at 1700 hours Sgt. Kepler contacted me and advised I needed to respond to [address]. Sgt. Kepler advised me one of the victims of a sexual assault had clothing she had been wearing at the time of the incident that was at her residence.  AWKWARD

On 11/21/13 at 1700 hours Sgt. Kepler contacted me and told me I needed to respond to [address]. Sgt. Kepler told me one of the victims of a sexual assault had clothing at her home she had been wearing at the time of the incident.  BETTER

4.  Be careful with pronouns:

Both her and Sharper were covered in a grey comforter and X could not tell if Sharper was clothed or not.

Both she and Sharper were covered in a grey comforter, and X could not tell if Sharper was clothed or not.

Overall, though, this is an excellent report!

Darren Sharper

picture by RyguyMN at the English language Wikipedia

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Credibility

Let’s say you recently took a supervisory job for a law enforcement agency several states away. You’re just getting to know the officers you’ll be supervising.

You go into your office, sit down, and start reading recent police reports. You come across these sentences:

Bruising was observed on the alleged victim’s right cheek. Scratches were observed on her throat. Spots of blood were seen on the front of her blouse.

You pick up another report and read these sentences:

I saw a broken plate, three pieces of fried chicken, and a baked potato on the floor near the kitchen table. I noticed a kitchen chair was lying on its side.

You glance at the names and see that the reports were written by different officers. What impressions would you form?

Years ago, supervisors would have trusted the first officer (“bruising was observed…”) and mistrusted the second (“I saw a broken plate…”). The word “I” immediately raised the possibility that an officer was biased and unprofessional. To ensure objectivity and accuracy, officers had to write in passive voice (“was observed,” “were seen”).

Do you still fall into the passive-voice habit? Many police writers do.

Here’s the truth – and it’s either good news or bad news, depending on how up-to-date your training has been.

Objectivity and accuracy are character traits, not verbal tricks. Because police officers are human beings, it’s possible that bias will find its way into a report, or an officer might omit necessary information. Fatigue, time pressure, and human frailty can lead to errors.

You can’t guarantee honesty and professionalism by writing in passive voice and avoiding “I.” Sorry!

Let’s go back to those two officers. Are they telling the truth? Are they unbiased observers? Do they have a passion for thoroughness and accuracy? 

To find the answers to those questions, you’ll have to get to know them. You can’t just dismiss Officer #2 as unprofessional because he used “I” – and you can’t accept everything Officer #1 says as absolute truth because she used passive voice.

Here’s one conclusion you can safely draw, however: Officer #1, who writes almost every sentence in passive voice, may benefit from a refresher course in report writing.

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