Body Cameras and Police Reports

My thanks to Bruce A. Sokolove, principal of Field Training Associates, for alerting me to an article with some interesting implications for police reports. The section on memory science (which I’ll discuss below) is especially valuable. 

The 2015 issue of Journal of Law Enforcement (Volume 4, No. 6) examines an intriguing study: “Body-Worn Cameras Improve Law Enforcement Officer Report Writing Accuracy” by D. Dawes, W. Heegaard et al. You can download the article at this link: www.jghcs.info/index.php/l/article/download/410/355.

The study involved eleven law-enforcement officers who wrote a use-of-force report from memory. The officers then then reviewed their body-worn-camera recordings and amended their reports. The study found that the officers corrected 21 errors “related to miscounting, mis-sequencing, or omitting force, warnings, compliance, or other important descriptors of the use of force.”

What interested me most is the research about memory science. We assume, the authors say, that remembering is like playing back a digital recording. Science has shown, however, that remembering is a “reconstructive process.” A 2013 article in the National Review of Neuroscience compares memory to paleontology: “out of a few stored bone chips, we remember a dinosaur.”

I encourage you to read the section on memory science (it’s short, and you’ll find it on the first page). Knowing your limitations is the first step towards moving past them. Awareness of the ways that our memories can mislead us is the first step towards better remembering.

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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 $16.90 at this link: http://amzn.com/1470164450Criminal Justice Report Writing is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $11.99: Click here.

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Test Yourself

Aldon Smith is an NFL football player who’s currently a free agent. Recently Smith was involved in an automobile collision that made the news because he walked away from it without leaving identifying information.

Below is a press release from the Santa Clara Police Department that describes what happened. It provides an opportunity for you to think about the kinds of information required in a police report. (A press release is not, of course, a police report – it’s a fact sheet for newspapers, TV, and other media.)

So…after you read the press release, make a list of additional information you’d expect to see if you had a chance to read the actual police report. (Reminder: A police report has to be specific.) After you’re finished, scroll down to see my list and compare it to yours.

On Thursday, August 6, 2015 at about 8:46 PM, Santa Clara Officers were dispatched to Moreland Way to investigate a disturbance involving a collision. On arrival, officers learned Aldon Smith was parking his vehicle and collided with a parked vehicle. After the collision, Smith exited his vehicle and caused additional damage to the parked vehicle with his car door.

Smith then left the area not reporting the collision or leaving his identifying information at the scene. He later returned to the parking area where he was contacted by officers. Smith displayed objective symptoms of being under the influence of an alcoholic beverage. Officers administered a field sobriety test to Smith.

Additional information I would expect to find in the police report might include:

  • What actions by Smith caused the damage to the parked vehicle?
  • What did the damage look like?
  • Who saw Aldon Smith exit his car?
  • What were the signs that Smith was under the influence of an alcoholic beverage?
  • How did the police contact Smith when he returned?
  • How did he respond to the police?
  • Which field sobriety test was administered?
  • Which officer administered it?
  • What were the results?

Specific practices for writing police reports can vary from agency to agency. If your list is different, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong. Just be sure that you’re carefully following the guidelines for your agency.

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Setting the Record Straight

In a moment I’m going to discuss an impressive police report that the Washington Post newspaper just posted in connection with a recent news story.

First, I hope you don’t mind a brief detour into a recurring topic – passive voice (which, incidentally, is going to figure in the police report I just mentioned).

Anyone who reads my posts regularly knows that I consider passive voice The Enemy. It shows up often in police reports and sometimes causes problems because it tends to omit an important piece of information: who performed the action.

The suspect was arrested and read her Miranda rights.  PASSIVE VOICE  (Who arrested her? Who read her Miranda rights?)

This morning I came across an example of passive voice that’s not associated with criminal justice – and makes my point better than I could.

I was reading an article about “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post magazine in May 1920. Here’s the sentence in question:

Fitzgerald later said that the story came from a letter of advice written about 1915 to his younger sister, he nineteen or so and Annabel five years younger.

The sentence confused me because it doesn’t state who wrote the letter of advice. I did some more checking and found out that Fitzgerald himself wrote it. Well, that makes sense. But why not just say so in the first place?

Here’s how the sentence could have been written more clearly: 

Fitzgerald later said that the story came from a letter of advice he had written about 1915 to his younger sister, he nineteen or so and Annabel five years younger.  BETTER

Bernice

Now I’m going to turn to the news story. A photo is circulating online that shows a white police officer aiming a weapon at an unarmed black woman. The implication is that the officer is overreacting and racially biased.

The police report, however, shows that the officer was responding appropriately to the situation. The woman, apparently under the influence of alcohol, had driven into two cars and was trying to flee. You can see the picture and read the story at this link: http://wpo.st/cUYT0.

What interests me, of course, is the report, which you can read by clicking here. It is one of the most professional reports I have ever read. The writing is sophisticated without losing clarity. The sentences are direct and clear. Best of all, the officer avoided passive voice.

Well done! And some advice: If you’re trying to improve your report writing skills, click on the link and see how this report was written. You’ll learn a lot. Here’s the link again: click here.

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For Pros Only

Most of the time I use this blog to deal with police reports. Today, though, I’d like to venture into another type of police writing: Administrative paperwork.

Below I’ve posted the first paragraph of a cover letter that accompanies a report written by Peter Zimroth, a federal monitor who’s been examining NYPD stop-and-frisk practices. (You can read the entire report here: nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/09/nyregion/document-changes-to-new-york-police-practices-and-policies.html.)

Question: Do you notice anything unusual about the first sentence of this letter?

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Here’s what I noticed: It’s human. Instead of the usual “This is in regards to…,” Zimroth wrote, “I am pleased to submit.”

Workplace writing has changed so that it’s no longer necessary to sound as if you’re an impersonal machine. 

If you have a leadership position in an agency (or you’re hoping for one some day), it might be a good idea to start thinking now about ways to update your writing habits.

(You can read my article about Zimroth’s report at this link: http://www.lawenforcementtoday.com/2015/07/15/a-report-card-on-nypds-stop-and-frisk-practices/.)

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Bernard Tomic Goes to Jail

Yesterday I offered two reasons for not using passive-voice sentences: They often omit useful information (who arrested the suspect and drove him or her to jail), and writers often forget that they have to use a past participle.

Almost immediately a police report with both errors turned up online.

On July 15, Bernard Tomic was arrested for refusing to turn down the music in a Miami hotel room. Tomic, 22, is a tennis star from Australia.

After two hours in jail, Tomic was released on $2,000 bail. He has apologized for his actions. You can read the story and see the police report at this link.

Here’s the first problematic passive-voice sentence in the Tomic police report:

Defendant was advise several times that if he did not pack his belongings and leave the premises he would be arrested for trespassing.

I see three problems here: First, the sentence should read “was advised” (the -ed ending is missing). Next, the sentence doesn’t tell which officer talked to Tomic – or whether both did the talking Finally, advise, which means counseled, is the wrong word. Since Tomic was about to be arrested, the report should use something stronger: told or warned.

Here’s the second problematic sentence:

Defendant was arrested and transported TGK.

In this sentence the report uses the -ed endings correctly (arrested and transported). But which officer performed those actions? That could be vital information if problems with the arrest or transport process show up later. (Remember the suspect who died in a Baltimore police van?)

Incidentally, TGK is the Turner Guildford Knight Correctional Centre.

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Why Passive Voice is a Problem

Many experts (including me) wish that passive voice in police reports would just go away.

Passive voice is a grammatical construction that omits the “who” from a sentence. Here’s a sentence written in active voice (which is better for police reports):

I transported Sanders to the county jail.  ACTIVE VOICE

Here’s the passive voice version:

Sanders was transported to the county jail.  PASSIVE VOICE

One obvious problem is with this sentence is that you don’t know who did the driving – and that’s why I’m always astonished when I see passive voice in a police report. Shouldn’t supervisors be concerned?

And yet many reports feature passive voice. It’s especially likely to creep in near the end of a report, when an officer is writing about arresting the suspect or handling evidence.

There’s another problem with passive voice that’s often overlooked – a grammatical one. Passive voice requires a construction called a past participle. It’s a specialized verb form (brought, gone, and done are examples). Many past participles end with -ed, which is easy to forget when you’re in a hurry. The result is that many writers flub these past participles.

I saw an example just this week in the July 16, 2015 issue of Smithsonian Daily:Passive 2

I’m going to focus on the first sentence:

Whether its call a drinking fountain, water fountain or bubbler, public sources of clean water have long been a part of urban life.  INCORRECT

There’s a lot wrong with this sentence. (Apparently there’s no copy editor on the staff of Smithsonian Daily.) It should be changed to they (“Public sources of clean water” is plural), and its needs an apostrophe (to mean it is).

But today we’re interested in call, which is a past participle that needs an -ed ending. Here’s the sentence with the –ed added:

Whether it’s called a drinking fountain, water fountain or bubbler, public sources of clean water have long been a part of urban life.  CORRECT

Active voice is easier because it don’t require past participles. Here’s how the sentence could have been written. (I’ve also corrected the singular/plural problem.)

Whether people call them drinking fountains, water fountains or bubblers, public sources of clean water have long been a part of urban life.  CORRECT

Why do officers keep writing in passive voice? It’s a tradition dating back to the days when criminal justice was wary of the word “I.” Trainers and supervisors believed that if you used “I” in a report, you might lie. Omit “I,” and you would be sure to tell the truth.

That’s absolute nonsense, and academies no longer train recruits that way. But passive voice lives on…and on…and on.

How about promising yourself that you’re never going to write another passive voice sentence in a report? Start today!

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Hope Solo

United States soccer fans are hoping that the US team will win the Women’s World Cup final against Japan this Sunday. All eyes will be on Hope Solo, the goalie who deserves much of the credit for the team’s success.

After the game is over, women’s soccer will drop out of the news until the next soccer season begins – but we’ll continue to hear about Hope Solo because of a domestic violence charge she is fighting. (You can read the story at this link: http://es.pn/1Ju8FBG.)

On June 21, 2014, police were called to the home of Teresa Obert (Solo’s half sister) because of a fight between Solo, Obert, and Obert’s son. (Because he was 17 at the time, his name has not been released.) Obert said that she and Solo had been drinking wine. An argument began between Solo and Obert’s son, and soon it became physical.

According to Obert’s statement, she became involved in the fight, and Solo assaulted her. Obert’s son hit Solo with a wooden broom, which broke. When the fighting continued, Obert’s son grabbed an aluminum mop. Police arrived, and Obert did not use the mop on Solo.

Obert asked the police not to charge Solo, but she was arrested anyway and taken to jail. The officer on duty there reported that she used abusive language against the officers at the jail.

Solo claimed that she suffered a concussion but refused to have her head photographed. Obert and her son agreed to be photographed. The police report says that Obert had a swollen left cheekbone and purplish discoloration in her cheekbone area.

The case against Solo was dismissed by a judge on procedural grounds. There were inconsistencies in the alleged victims’ stories, and the Oberts refused to answer some of the questions about the son’s injuries, citing medical privacy concerns.

Prosecutors have filed an appeal. They will file their argument before July 13. Oral arguments are scheduled for September 11.

The lengthy police report from June 21 will figure importantly in the case. (You can read it at this link: http://ti.me/1KVTt2h.)

The report is an excellent example of professional police writing. It is objective, thorough, and free of police jargon. There is almost no passive voice: Every sentence clearly states who did what. Here’s an example:

After obtaining a statement, I took photographs of and his injuries. ACTIVE VOICE

The detail in the report is especially impressive. For example, instead of saying that Obert’s son seemed to be hurt, the report lists the injuries and the son’s comments:

I observed that X nose and left jawbone area were red. His t-shirt was torn on the left side from underarm area to the bottom seam. He had a bleeding cut on the bottom of his left ear, just above the earlobe. His arms were bright red and had scratch marks on it. He was crying and stated that “we just let her back into our lives.” He further explained that she “always does this.”

This report is an effective model of good police reporting. And the story makes an important point: You never know who will read your reports. The Solo report was obtained and posted by the ESPN sports news network.

Hope Solo

                           Hope Solo

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The Scoop on Poop

Here’s a press release about a police report. Can you find the jargon problem? Scroll down to see how the report could be written more effectively.

The officer took a report by phone from a male caller regarding a littering complaint. He advised that since moving into his residence… in December, he has had several instances of the neighbor’s dog defecating in his driveway. He advised that he has not elected to report it until today. He advised the neighbor was out walking her dog and noticed after they were away from his residence that there was a pile of feces in the driveway. He advised he confronted her and asked her to keep her dogs out of his yard. (He) advised he wanted this incident to be on record for possible future use.

Did you spot the problem? It’s the repeated use of advised for told. “Advise” should be saved for “counsel” or “give advice”:

He told me that he left work at 5:05. CORRECT

I advised him to see a doctor. CORRECT

Inefficiency is another problem  – there’s a lot of repetition. And the repeated use of “he” is confusing: Is “he” the caller…or the dog? Here’s a more professional rewrite:

The officer took a littering complaint by phone from a male caller . The caller said that since moving into his home… in December, the neighbor’s dog had been defecating in his driveway. The caller finally decided to report it today.

The caller said:

  • he saw his neighbor  was out walking her dog 
  • after they walked away from his residence there was a pile of feces in the driveway
  • he confronted her and asked her to keep her dog out of his yard
  • he wanted this incident to be on record for possible future use

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A Police Report about Dylann Roof

We’ve been watching the sad coverage of the shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Details are beginning to emerge about alleged shooter Dylann Roof’s previous brushes with the law.

On February 28, Roof was arrested at the Columbiana Mall in Columbia, South Carolina, and charged with drug possession. The report has been published at this link, and it’s worth reading for two reasons. First, it’s a reminder that even a routine police report can become national news later on. At the time, Roof seemed to be just another juvenile involved with an illegal substance.

Second, the report can serve as a learning tool. Evaluating reports written by other officers can help you sharpen your writing skills. What do you admire about the report? What could be done differently?

Here are some points I noticed when I read this report:

  • It’s a thorough, well-written report that’s largely free of jargon. The officer calls himself “I” and uses everyday words in clear, straightforward sentences. It’s a pleasure to come across “stated” in a report rather than the annoying “advised” (which should be saved for actual advice):

I then asked Mr. Dylann what the orange strips were and he stated they were Listerine strips.  CLEAR, SIMPLE WRITING

  • I’m pleased that the officer used active voice instead of lapsing into passive voice, as many officers do at the end of a report:

I then placed Mr. Dylann under arrest for possession of Schedule III.  ACTIVE VOICE

I had all evidence tagged into the property room.  ACTIVE VOICE

  • Some parts of the report are wordy and inefficient. Here’s a sample:

Mall Security then pointed out the subject at which time I made consentual contact with him. Upon making contact with the subject I confirmed that his name was Dylann S. Roof, DOB XX/XX/XXXX. Upon talking with Mr. Dylann I asked him why he was asking the employees of the business those questions. WORDY

This version is better because it eliminates unnecessary words:

Mall Security then pointed out Mr. Dylann, who agreed to talk to me. I confirmed that his name was Dylann S. Roof, DOB XX/XX/XXXX. I asked him why he was asking the employees of the business those questions. BETTER

  • In a few places the report became subjective. Here’s an example:

Mr Dylann then began speaking very nervously.  OPINION

“Nervous” is an opinion that defense attorney could attack in court. It would be better to list the nervous behaviors that the officer saw: trembling, looking from side to side, moistening his lips repeatedly, whispering, speaking hesitantly.

  • Overall, though, this report is a good example of  a professional report.

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