Writing a Narrative

For many officers, telling the story of what happened at a call (the narrative) is the most difficult part of writing a report. Often the story began before you got there.

Instead of getting the story in one big chunk, like a TV show, you might get bits and pieces from several people. And they may start by telling you about events that happened in the middle of the story or even near the end.

So how do you put all this together into a narrative?

The answer is to use groupings. Remember, you’re not writing a Hollywood script. It’s perfectly OK (even recommended) to have a separate paragraph for each person’s part of the story.

So let’s say that a juvenile stole some valuable items from his parents and put them up for sale on eBay. Drug use is suspected. You might get bits of the story from the mother, the father, a sister, and a grandmother. Use a separate paragraph for each one. (Lists are great for this! They save time.)

Mark Grant, Jason’s father, told me:

  • Jason had frequently been in trouble lately.
  • Jason often withdrew into his room for hours at a time.
  • Jason kept complaining that he didn’t have enough money.

Karen Grant, Jason’s mother, told me:

  • She had noticed odd smells when she went into Jason’s room to get his dirty laundry.
  • She noticed a valuable ring was missing from her jewelry box at about seven o’clock this morning.
  • She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen the ring.

And so on.

Thinking about the type of report you’re writing (Type 1, 2, 3, or 4) can also be a huge help. You’ll have a model to work from rather than having to invent one yourself.

Once you’ve developed and practiced a strategy for organizing your reports, writing tasks become much easier.

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“It will definitely help you with your writing skills.” – Joseph E. Badger, California Association of Accident Reconstructionists Newsletter

Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview.

You can purchase your copy for $17.95 at this link: http://amzn.com/1470164450Criminal Justice Report Writing is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.

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What’s a Hate Crime?

Police reports can play an essential role in prosecuting a hate crime.

In recent years, many jurisdictions have established a separate hate crime category, and the federal government also can investigate and prosecute hate crimes. These are criminal acts such as murder, arson, vandalism, and other crimes against people and property that are partly or wholly motivated by bias.

You should know that demonstrating hatred towards minorities, gays, Jews, persons with disabilities, or other groups is not sufficient: The bias must be shown beyond a reasonable doubt to be the motivation behind 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 sometimes an alleged hate crime is actually a hoax. 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 a white supremacy organization)

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.

You can learn more about hate crimes by reading this article from the FBI website: https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2015/november/latest-hate-crime-statistics-available/latest-hate-crime-statistics-available.

 

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Available from www.Amazon.com

 

Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds

“It will definitely help you with your writing skills.” – Joseph E. Badger, California Association of Accident Reconstructionists Newsletter

Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview.

You can purchase your copy for $17.95 at this link: http://amzn.com/1470164450Criminal Justice Report Writing is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.

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What to Omit from a Police Report

There’s an intriguing topic! Officers often worry (and rightly so) about leaving something important out of a report. But it’s also true that some things don’t belong in a report. Here are some examples:

  • Opinions (Because of Mrs. Brown’s age, I knew she might not have heard the noise outside)
  • Thoughts (I decided the suspect had probably exited through the bedroom window)
  • Generalizations (Foster seemed confused)
  • Hunches (Officer Collins agreed with me that the witness was probably lying)
  • Passive voice unless you’re describing an action by an unknown person
    Clark was questioned by me (unnecessary passive – avoid)
    I questioned Clark (better)
    A wallet and a diamond ring were taken (acceptable passive – you don’t know who took them)
  • Jargon (Mirandized,” “Baker acted,” “this officer,” “I processed the area”)
    Better:  I took him into custody and began Baker Act proceedings
    Better: I read him his rights from my Miranda card
    Better: I examined the front and back doors. I found pry marks by the outside door handle on the back door.
  • Unnecessary repetition
    You don’t need to write down everything you said when you’re questioning a witness or a suspect. Omit “Then I asked him,” “I followed up with,” “My next question was.”
    Compare these two versions:


    I asked what time she got home from work. She said 5:20 p.m. I asked what happened. She said she noticed the open window and got worried. I asked if she was sure it had been closed when she left that morning. She said yes, she was sure it had been closed. REPETITIOUS

    I asked what happened. She said she got home from work at 5:20 p.m. She saw the open window and got worried. She was sure it had been closed when she left that morning. BETTER

A concise and objective report saves time and shows off your professionalism. Make it your goal to write an excellent report every time.

 

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Two Sentences from Police Reports

Here’s a challenge for you (a quick one, for a change!). Pretend you’re a supervisor, and read these sentences from actual police reports. What would you say to the officers who wrote them? (My comments appear below.)

The first sentence is from a report about a victim of domestic violence:

While waiting for rescue, I asked what had happened, if there were any witnesses and how long ago had it occurred.

The second sentence is from a report about an attempt to serve a warrant:

We continued to ask her where Quincy was, and she stated he was not home.

My comments:

  • I would tell the officer who wrote #1 that this sentence should never have been written at all – and I would have done some counseling about efficiency. Police officers are busy men and women. Get your paperwork done and go on to the next task! In this report, writing down your questions adds nothing useful.
  • Excerpt #2 impressed me, and I would have congratulated the officer on a professional report. (Of course I’m assuming the rest of the report was just as good!). It’s clear, efficient, and written in active voice. There’s no need to write your repeated questions: We asked her where Quincy was, and she stated he was not home. We asked her again where Quincy was, and she again stated he was not home. We asked her another time where Quincy was, and she once again stated he was not home.

And there’s something else I would have been happy about: that word stated. It’s wonderful to read a police report written in normal English! (Too many officers are still using advised when they mean said or stated. Weird!)

How did you do?

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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.

 
 
 
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Available from www.Amazon.com

Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds

“It will definitely help you with your writing skills.” – Joseph E. Badger, California Association of Accident Reconstructionists Newsletter

Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview.

You can purchase your copy for $17.95 at this link: http://amzn.com/1470164450Criminal Justice Report Writing is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.

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I Advise You to Read This

Ralph Shortey is a member of the Oklahoma Senate. On March 9 he was found in a motel room with an underage boy, and Shortey has been charged with engaging in child prostitution. You can read the police report online.

Overall it is a well-written report. Sentences are clear and objective. It is largely free of jargon and written in active voice – even at the end, where many officers fall into passive voice. The officer found a Kindle that may be useful in the investigation. Here’s what the report says:

I later logged the Kindle into property as evidence.  ACTIVE VOICE

But the report also features two common writing habits that need to disappear from police reports.

  1. Inefficiency. In most reports, you don’t need to record your questions. Just write what the victim, suspect, or witness said.

You can see the difference for yourself. Here’s an excerpt from the police report (46 words):

I asked X why he was there in the hotel room and he advised he was just there to hang out with his friend. I asked him what his friend’s name was and he advised his name was Brian, but did not provide a last name.

And here’s the same information, written more efficiently (29 words):

X told me he was just hanging out with his friend in the hotel room. He said his friend’s name was Brian. He did not provide a last name.

2. The other practice is a persistent problem with police reports: Using advised instead of said. It is an annoying habit – and one that can cause problems in official documents.

Said is a proper word that professional men and women use all the time. But for some reason, many police officers think they have to use advised instead. (Advise should be reserved for situations when you give advice, suggest, or counsel someone.)

Would you go to a restaurant and “advise” the server that you wanted a steak? Of course not. But many police officers – too many – write that way.

Here’s one reason why advise is a bad choice. If you climb the career ladder, you’re going to be sending written communications to people who don’t work in law enforcement. They’re going to wonder why you never figured out what advise means. 

And consider this. Serious problems could arise if you write advised instead of told in a disciplinary situation. Suppose someone on your staff has a problem with punctuality. Would you advise her to be on time – or would you tell her?

Do you really want her to argue in a hearing later on that you only suggested that she be on time? You’re going to have difficulty making your case if your written report says that you advised her to be punctual instead of telling her.

Words matter. If you’re an instructor or an administrator, part of your job is to make sure that everyone uses words precisely. Loosey-goosey language habits have no place in a professional workplace. A good starting point is to make sure everyone knows what advise means – and uses it correctly.

 

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Comma Rule 1

Today’s your chance to master a comma rule that you’ll use again and again. (It’s easy!) Picture this situation:

A mayor emails the police chief to ask if she needs to follow up on a rumor about a recent scandal in local government. The police chief sends this response:

No investigation was done.

Would it make a difference if the note included a comma, like this?

No, investigation was done.

Answer: Of course it would. Although the words are exactly the same, the two sentences have completely different meanings. That comma (or lack of it) makes a big difference.

Let’s go a little deeper. How would you explain why the comma is used in the second example? Many people would say it signifies a pause between “no” and “investigation.”

Not helpful! In fact this is a “rule” you’d do well to erase from your memory, for a very good reason: People pause in different places. Serious writers need rules they can rely on 100% of the time. Guesswork is no help.

Here’s the real reason that comma is there: It signifies that “No” is an extra idea. You could also call it an introduction.

And here’s the rule: Use a comma when a sentence begins with an extra idea. (I call this Comma Rule 1. You can learn more at this link, which also explains two other important comma rules.)

Extra ideas are in green:

Jane, your office is on the list for repainting.

Yes, we’re planning to paint your office next week.

However, we can wait for the following week.

If you’re allergic to the smell of paint, you can use another office.

When we’re finished, I’ll text you.

This handy rule covers most of the commas you’ll use in your lifetime – honest! And, as an added bonus, it will keep you from writing fragments, comma splices, and run-on sentences.

Let’s take a quick look at an example. (The extra idea is in green.)

While I was questioning Mrs. Volder, Officer Brown was looking for broken glass.   CORRECT.  “While I was questioning Mrs. Volder” is an extra idea. Use a comma.

Now look at this version:

I questioned Mrs. Volder, Officer Brown looked for broken glass.  WRONG

 “I questioned Mrs. Volder” is a sentence. Use a period, like this:

I questioned Mrs. Volder. Officer Brown looked for broken glass. CORRECT

The time you spend studying, thinking about, and practicing this rule will pay off more dividends than almost anything you can do for your writing. That would be time well spent, wouldn’t it?

 

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The Louis Tomlinson Police Report

Louis Tomlinson is an English singer-songwriter and actor. On March 3 he was arrested on suspicion of battery over allegations that he attacked a paparazzi photographer and his girlfriend. You can read about the incident, view video coverage, and examine the police report at this link: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4302160/Louis-Tomlinson-s-airport-brawl-revealed-police-report.html#ixzz4b2lgRK7K

The report, written by an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, is exceptionally well written – and worth reading. (There are a few typos, probably due to the time pressure and the length of the report.) Three features especially impressed me:

1.  The officer used active voice throughout the report. (Most officers lapse into passive voice at the end of a police report.)

I then placed Tomlinson under arrest for 243(a)PC.  ACTIVE VOICE

Officer Chen (ID#15054) took several digital photos of the victim’s injury.  ACTIVE VOICE

If questions come up in a court hearing, it will be easy to determine who made the arrest and who took the photos. Many reports omit this useful information. They state only that the suspect “was arrested” (who made the arrest?) and “photos were taken” (by whom?).

2.  The report uses however correctly. Many people mistakenly think that two sentences can be joined with a comma and the word however. Not true! You need a period or a semicolon. 

A portion of incident was recorded by American Airline Security Camera; however, we were unable to review it because it was not located at 400 World Way.  CORRECT

3.  I’m especially impressed by the efficient way the interviews were recorded. Here’s a sample. Notice there’s no unnecessary repetition of “she stated,” “she stated,” “she stated”:

I interviewed W-2 (LYONS, ARLETT) who said the substantial following. She was working as cashier for Starbuck’s. She saw LARSEN takes pictures of TOMLINSON and CALDER. TOMLINSON had his hand out in front of his face to block the camera. Ho then grabbed LARSEN’s leg and throw LARSEN to the ground. At the same time, CALDER tried to walk out from the terminal. However, suddenly CALDER came over and attacked BECERRA HERRERA, ANA (who was sitting on the chair). LYONS believed BECERRA HERRERA was trying to film CALDER. LYONS saw CALDER punched BECERRA HERRERA.

Would I recommend some changes? Yes, even though this is such a superior report.

  1.  There’s no need to write the names in reverse order: Tomlinson, Louis and Calder, Eleanor. The only time you need to reverse names is when you’re making a list in alphabetical order.
  2. I wondered why the witnesses and victims were labeled (W-1, W-2, Vict-1, Vict-2). In my experience, these labels are needed only when real names are redacted from a police report.
  3. The phrase “substantial following” that introduces each interview is awkward and confusing:

I interviewed W-2 (LYONS, ARLETT) who said the substantial following:  AWKWARD

This sentence is more straightforward:

I interviewed witness ARLETT LYONS, who said:   BETTER

Overall, however, this is an impressive police report.

              Louis Tomlinson

 

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Quiz: What Belongs in a Report?

Do you know what kinds of statements belong in a report – and what kinds don’t? Try this report writing quiz, and then scroll down to check your answers.

Instructions: Put an X in front of each statement that doesn’t belong in a report.

___ 1.  The house looked empty.

___2.  All the windows were dark.

___3.  Mrs. Brown was uncooperative.

___4.  Mrs. Brown left the room while I was talking to her.

___5.  Joseph Chang shook his fist at me.

___6.  Joseph Chang defied me.

___7.  I realized what was about to happen.

___8.  I grabbed his left wrist as his left hand moved toward the bat.

___9.  The clerk obviously had no intention of  asking Susan for her ID.

___10.  The clerk did not ask Susan for her ID when she handed him the money for the beer.

ANSWERS
Items marked X are not observable facts and do not belong in a report.

X 1.  The house looked empty. (An opinion, not an observable fact.)

2.  All the windows were dark.

X 3.  Mrs. Brown was uncooperative. (An opinion. Perhaps she didn’t answer your questions because she was afraid, or couldn’t hear you, or she was taking her time thinking about her answers.)

4.  Mrs. Brown left the room while I was talking to her.

5.  Joseph Chang shook his fist at me.

X 6.  Joseph Chang defied me. (An opinion. He might argue in court that he wanted to cooperate with you but couldn’t hear you or understand you.)

X 7.  I realized what was about to happen.  (An opinion. You can’t insert your thinking processes into a report.)

8.  I grabbed his left wrist as his left hand moved toward the bat.

X 9.  The clerk obviously had no intention of  asking Susan for her ID.  (An opinion. You can’t put your thoughts into a report.)

10.  The clerk did not ask Susan for her ID when she handed him the money for the beer.

 

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How Useful is OJT?

OJT (on-the-job training) is how many professionals in many fields learn their jobs, and criminal justice is no exception. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes not. It can mean that professionals are still stuck in The Way We’ve Always Done It instead of updating procedures and policies in light of new research and technology.

Police writing is a case in point. Laptops can make report writing much more efficient because officers can enter some of the information into boxes instead of writing out whole sentences. But a sergeant or lieutenant trained The Old Way may not see the benefits of adapting.

The introductory sentence in a narrative is one example. In bygone days, when police reports were written on blank pieces of paper, it made sense to cram as much information as possible into the first sentence: At 0842 hours on 8/07/10 I, Officer Carole Lynch, #547, was dispatched to a burglary at 1512 Carmen Boulevard.

But what if your laptop provides spaces for the time, date, type of call, address, and your official ID? No need to re-enter them. But the tradition lives on in many agencies.

Three features of good report writing are especially prone to be forgotten by officers who learned report writing through OJT:

  • ACTIVE VOICE
    There are still people who believe that officers automatically become more ethical and objective when they write in passive voice (The door was checked for pry marks) instead of active voice (I checked the door for pry marks). If only it were that easy to turn a mediocre officer into a top-notch professional! Sorry. It doesn’t work that way.
  • PERSONAL PRONOUNS
    The same mistaken belief hangs on about words like “I” and “me”: An officer automatically rises to a higher plane when he or she writes “This officer” instead. Think about it for a moment. Can you get rid of bias just by changing a couple of words in a sentence? Again the answer is no.
  • LISTS
    Progressive agencies encourage officers to include lists – rather than sentences – in their reports. Lists are useful any time you have a series of related facts. Instead of writing a paragraph of complete sentences, put the facts (such as stolen items) into a list.
    Lists (sometimes called “bullet style”) are easier to write and more efficient than complete sentences. Other benefits are that lists more compact, easier to organize, and quicker to read–a great benefit when you’re getting ready to testify in court. But there are still agencies that insist that officers write a complete (and time-wasting) sentence for every fact.
    Click here to learn more about lists in reports – and remember that you’re not asked to write the entire report in list format! Lists are only for a series of facts – such as a list of stolen items or facts about a suspect.

If you’re new to law enforcement, of course you should stick to the policies your supervisor or your agency prefers. But at the same time, you should make a resolution to be on the lookout for new and better ways to write reports. When the time comes for you to be promoted, you’ll be ready to show genuine leadership in the area of report writing.

 

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Tom Brady’s Jersey

Today a crime is going to help us discuss apostrophes.

After this year’s Super Bowl, Tom Brady realized that his game jersey was missing from his locker in the NRG Stadium in Houston. The theft made news because Brady told police that the jersey was worth half a million dollars. (You can download the police report here: https://htv-prod-media.s3.amazonaws.com/files/brady-jersey-stolen-1487693415.pdf)

What interests us today, however, are the apostrophes. Here’s the summary from the police report:

On 2/05/17, the City of Houston hosted Super Bowl LI In the NRG Stadium. Shortly after winning the game, New England Patriot’s quarterback Tom Brady noticed his game jersey missing from his locker in the Patriot’s designated locker room.

Would you say that Brady was the Patriot’s quarterback – or the Patriots‘ quarterback? The answer is easy if you ask yourself whether you’re talking about the Patriots – or the Patriot.

The team is the Patriots, right? (Not the Patriot!) So it’s the Patriots’ quarterback and the Patriots’ designated locker room. The apostrophes in the report need to be corrected:

Shortly after winning the game, New England Patriots‘ quarterback Tom Brady noticed his game jersey missing from his locker in the Patriots‘ designated locker room.

Although apostrophes befuddle many writers, they’re not difficult at all. Just write the word or name, and put an apostrophe after the last letter.

Tom Brady is the quarterback of the Patriots.

Patriots

Patriots’

the Patriots’ quarterback

Let’s try another one: the victory of Tom Brady.

Tom Brady

Brady’s

Tom Brady’s victory

Here’s one more: Cyrus Jones is the cornerback for the Patriots. Let’s try the uniform of Cyrus Jones.

Cyrus Jones

Cyrus Jones’

Cyrus Jones’ uniform

Looking for the last letter of the word or name will help you place the apostrophe correctly every time.

For more practice with apostrophes, click here.

          Tom Brady

 

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