Football Players at Baylor University

I often remind officers that a routine report can become newsworthy months – even years – after the incident happens. An ESPN news story about Baylor University is a perfect example of the longevity of police reporting.

Baylor – a Baptist University  in Waco, Texas – was widely criticized some years ago for its dismissive attitude towards misbehavior by Baylor’s football players. According to ESPN, Baylor still has not taken the necessary steps to address the problem.

ESPN’s Outside the Lines obtained a police database of assault cases and matched them against Baylor football rosters from 2011 to 2015.  Although a number of Baylor football players were accused of violent behavior, none were charged or disciplined.

The University says it is investigating. You can read more at this link: http://www.tulsaworld.com/sportsextra/baylor/espn-report-police-records-show-more-violent-incidents-at-baylor/article_3584ef42-b832-51c7-9475-e941e62bde31.html

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Tinsley Mortimer Police Report

Tinsley Mortimer is a socialite and TV personality you may have heard of. On April 9 she was arrested for trespassing at the home of Nico Fanjul, with whom she’d previously had a relationship. Tinsley has claimed that Fanjul had committed domestic violence acts against her in the past, and a police report documents an alleged attack in December 24.

You can read a news article about Tinsley at this link: http://www.people.com/article/tinsley-mortimer-more-police-reports-alleged-domestic-violence

The 2014 police report has been posted here: http://radaronline.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Mercer-Police-Report.pdf

Overall, this is a well-written report – but I have some suggestions for changes. So here’s a challenge for you: Read the excerpts below to see if what changes you would make. Then scroll down to read more my responses. (Incidentally, “Mercer” is Mortimer’s maiden name.)

1. Upon arriving, I assisted Officer Pumalo with an uncooperative subject, later identified as Alexander Fanjul so m 09/25/85.

2. Initially, Fanjul was uncooperative.

3. Fanjul had a strong order of alcohol and appeared to be intoxicated.

4. Contact was made with Mercer’s mother who advised she had not spoken to her since approximately 0200 hours.

5. Fanjul advised that he and his girlfriend, Tinsley Mercer wif 08/11/75 had an argument. Fanjul advised during the argument, Mercer attacked him and scratched him, leaving minor lacerations to his chest, back, and bruising above his right rib cage. Fanjul advised that Mercer left the area after the alleged attack. I checked the premise and did a neighborhood search for the whereabouts of Mercer but ended with negative results. Fanjul advised that officers were called to his residence earlier because of Mercer trespassing. Fanjul advised Mercer left and then came back. Fanjul is unaware if Mercer has a key to the residence. Fanjul advised that if Mercer comes back to his residence that he would like for police to issue a trespass warning.

Here are my comments:

1. Upon arriving, I assisted Officer Pumalo with a man an uncooperative subject, later identified as Alexander Fanjul so m 09/25/85. [Delete “upon arriving” – it’s obvious and doesn’t add anything useful. And delete “an uncooperative subject” because it’s an opinion. 

2. Initially, Fanjul was uncooperative.  [Same problem: “uncooperative” isn’t objective. The report should list Fanjul’s uncooperative behaviors. “Fanjul stood in front of me with his arms folded and did not speak when I talked to him.” “In a loud voice Fanjul told me I had no right to be there and he wasn’t going to answer my questions. He walked into the kitchen and slammed the door.”]

3. Fanjul had a strong order of alcohol and appeared to be intoxicated. [Alcohol is odorless. Also: “appeared to be intoxicated” is an opinion. Preferred: “Fanjul had a strong odor of alcoholic beverage. His pupils were dilated, he slurred his words, and he swayed as he walked toward me.”]

4. Contact was made with Mercer’s mother who advised she had not spoken to her since approximately 0200 hours. [Passive voice is a bad choice because it doesn’t record who talked to her, and how: In person? By phone? Email? A text? And “advised” is the wrong word. It means “counseled” or “suggested.” Use “told” or “said.” Another problem is that “her” is confusing because there are two women, Mercer and her mother. Better: “I telephoned Mercer’s mother, who said she had not spoken to Mercer since about 0200 hours.”]

5. This wordy and repetitious paragraph is inefficient. Write Fanjul’s statement more concisely as a list (also called “bullet style”).

Fanjul told me:

– he and his girlfriend, Tinsley Mercer wif 08/11/75 had an argument

– Mercer attacked him and scratched him, leaving minor lacerations to his chest and back, and bruising above his right rib cage

– Mercer left the area

–  officers were called to his residence earlier because of Mercer trespassing

–  Mercer came back

–  he doesn’t know whether Mercer has a key to the house

 – if Mercer comes back to his house, Fanjul would like for police to issue a trespass warning

Tinsley Mortimer

                      Tinsley Mortimer

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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 $19.95 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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The Death of Prince

On April 21, police in Chanhassen, Minnesota responded to an emergency medical report about the multi-talented musician Prince. The police report has been released. Here’s the narrative section – a model of good police writing:

On 4/21/2016 at about 0943 hours, sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to a medical call at Paisley Park Audubon Dr., Chanhassen, MN. Sheriff’s deputies and emergency personnel from Chanhassen Fire and Ridgeview Ambulance arrived at about 0948 hours and found an unresponsive adult male in the elevator. They tried to provide lifesaving CPR, but were unable to revive the victim. He was pronounced deceased at 1007 hours. He has been identified as Prince Rogers Nelson (57) of Chanhassen.

A strict grammarian would note one problem with the report:

They tried to provide lifesaving CPR, but were unable to revive the victim.  OMIT THE COMMA

Use a comma with and/but only when you’re joining two sentences. The comma would be correct if the sentence read like this:

They tried to provide lifesaving CPR, but they were unable to revive the victim.  CORRECT

Overall, though, this report is concise, complete, objective, and free of jargon. Well done!

(You can download Commas Made Simple free at this link: http://bit.ly/CJCommas)

Prince

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The Privacy Problem

Last year, in response to calls for more transparency from law enforcement, the White House asked agencies to put police records online in easily searchable formats. More than 50 jurisdictions have signed on – but there’s a problem. According to the Washington Post, some departments have been posting identifying information about crime victims.

For example, the Dallas Police Department posted the names, ages, and home addresses of six people who complained of sexual assault. (Administrators say the posts were made in error, and the names have been removed.) Similar mistakes have been made by other agencies. In at least one case, names were omitted but home addresses were published.

Federal Trade Commission chief technologist Lorrie Cranor says that publishing names, ages, and addresses can put victims of sexual assault and domestic violence at risk. Kaofeng Lee, deputy director of the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, agrees. Computer privacy expert Arvind Narayanan says that some departments may not have the technical expertise needed to deal effectively with the privacy issue.

You can read the Washington Post article at this link: http://wpo.st/QhvX1. And you can read about the Police Data Initiative here: https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/05/18/launching-police-data-initiativ

Dallas PD Flickr

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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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