Comma Rule 1

Do commas worry you? Many writers say they worry more about commas than any other punctuation mark.

Actually commas aren’t that hard. Most professional sentences are based on just three comma rules. Today we’re going to review and practice Comma Rule 1.

Here it is: Use a comma when a sentence begins with an extra idea.

Everything you say or write is either a sentence (beginning with a person, place, or thing) or an extra idea. Take a look at these examples:

We need additional security for tonight’s concert.  SENTENCE

Because we need additional security for tonight’s concert.  EXTRA IDEA

I can trade shifts with Kenny.  SENTENCE

If I can trade shifts with Kenny.  EXTRA IDEA

Notice that looking at the first word usually tells you whether you have a sentence or an extra idea.

Here is Comma Rule 1 again: Use a comma when a sentence begins with an extra idea. If the extra idea is in back, don’t use a comma.

Take a look at these examples (the extra idea is in green):

We’ve had a shortage of officers for the past three years.  NO COMMA

For the past three years, we’ve had a shortage of officers.  COMMA NEEDED

Get into the habit of listening for sentences and extra ideas. You’ll soon hear the difference. Then check the beginning of each sentence, and you’ll know immediately whether you need a comma.

You can watch a short video by clicking here.

Comma Rule 1

Click here to download a free, printable copy of Commas Made Simple, a handout that explains all three comma rules.

Male figure holding up a comma

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 Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from Amazon.com for $17.95. For a free preview, click on the link or the picture below.

Updated, with a new chapter on Writing Efficiently

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

Criminal Justice Report Writing is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.

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Buy Me Some Peanuts and Cracker Jack

Baseball’s spring training season is underway! Today I’m going to use a police report about a 2013 baseball game to make a point about facts and opinions.

First I need to remind you that police writing has its own special requirements. The dull, short sentences that your English teacher complained about are ideal for a police report:

I saw a baseball bat propped near the kitchen door.

Lacey Collins was trembling when she answered the door.

I’m about to send you to read a police report that really is fun. First, though, you have to promise not to imitate the style, which clearly won’t work in a real police report.

Ready? Click here to read a wonderful account of a Blue Jays baseball game that included an unauthorized walk-on by an overenthusiastic fan.

Why am I encouraging you to read a police report that doesn’t meet the requirements for criminal justice writing? To make an important point. If you spotted the words and phrases that don’t belong in the report, you’ve just proved that you’re a true professional.

Let’s look at one of the paragraphs in this report. Can you see where the officer stopped reporting and started commenting?Blue Jays

 Problem wording includes “surprisingly,” “underrated,” “hapless,” and the background information about the Jays’ prospects this season. In addition, the suggestion that we can “almost forgive” the fan clearly doesn’t belong in a report.

Let’s rewrite the report to make it more professional. Here’s a suggested revision:

On May 5, 2013 at approximately 3:18 pm, a Toronto Blue Jays fan, Joe Smith, left his seat at level 100 and ran onto the baseball field. I arrested him and transported him to 52 Division. He was released on a Form 10/11.1.

baseball

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Think about Specific Details

Here’s a news report based on a police report. What details would need to be more specific in the actual report? (You do not need to  include the date, address, and the dog’s breed.) After you’ve made your list, scroll down to check your answers.

A dog attacked a police officer as responding to a disturbance Saturday, and the officer was forced to shoot.

The officer responded in reference to the report of a disturbance in progress. The officer made initial contact with a verbally hostile man later identified as 51-year-old John Doe.

The officer attempted to detain Doe in order to safely continue his investigation into the cause of the disturbance. While being handcuffed, Doe spun around and began to physically resist the officer’s lawful attempt to detain him. Both men went to the ground, and Doe continued to fight the officer. Doe’s dog also attacked the officer, biting his arm and holding on.

With one arm incapacitated by the attacking dog, the officer deployed his Taser in an attempt to subdue Doe, but in the struggle it appeared to be ineffective. A deputy arrived and was able to pull Doe off the officer and secure him in handcuffs. Doe’s dog continued to attack the officer, who was consequently forced to shoot the animal in order to get it to release its grip on his arm.

Further investigation revealed that Doe also appeared to have been the primary aggressor in the original altercation that generated the initial call. Doe was placed under arrest and transported to jail, where he was booked on the following charges and is currently being held on a total bond of $4,516.

Doe has been charged with one count of felony battery, misdemeanor battery, resisting an officer with violence and criminal mischief.

Here are the details that need to be more specific:

  • disturbance in progress (what was the suspect doing?)
  • the officer made initial contact (what did the officer say to Doe?)
  • with a verbally hostile man (what did he say?)
  • attempted to detain Doe (what did the officer do?)
  • began to physically resist (what did Doe do?)
  • in the struggle it appeared to be ineffective (how do you know?)
  • appeared to have been the primary aggressor (how do you know?)

The word details

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Lists Save Time!

Lists are great timesavers when you’re writing a police report. There are three good reasons for using lists:

  • They’re easier to write than elaborate sentences
  • You’re less likely to make grammatical mistakes
  • You already have a lot of experience with them (shopping lists, to-do lists, and so on)

(By the way, that’s an example of a professional list!)

Did you notice that I’m not writing this whole post as a list? You write your report as usual. But when you come to a string of information (such as a list of stolen items), you switch to a list.

You can see a police report that includes a list by clicking here.

Criminal justice professionals often speak of “bullet lists” and “bullet style.” That’s just another way of talking about a “list.”

Let’s try it. Here’s a paragraph from a police report. Try rewriting it in bullets. Then compare your results with the bullets below.

Janet Lincoln said she came home from work at about 5:20 p.m. She saw that her front door was kicked open. When she went into the living room, she realized that her LQ TV was missing. Also gone were the silver serving pieces in a cabinet in her dining room, cash she kept in a bank in a kitchen cabinet, and a laptop computer that had been on the dining room table.

Here’s the information again written as a list.

Janet Lincoln told me:

  • She came home from work at about 5:20 p.m
  • She saw that her front door was kicked open

The following items were missing:

  • the LQ TV in her living room
  • the silver serving pieces in a cabinet in her dining room
  • a bank and cash from a kitchen cabinet
  • a laptop computer from the dining room table

Easy, isn’t it? How did you do? (You can watch a video about using lists in a report by clicking here.)

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 Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from Amazon.com for $17.95. For a free preview, click on the link or the picture below.

Updated, with a new chapter on Writing Efficiently

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

Criminal Justice Report Writing is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.

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Editing a Report

Many officers find that editing a report is an excellent way to sharpen their writing and thinking skills. In just a moment you’re going to read three sentences adapted from an actual report. If you were the supervisor, what changes would you suggest?

Upon the arrival of backup officers five CDs were recovered from the suspect, who had concealed those items by stuffing them inside his jacket. The suspect was going to attempt to pass all points of sale without purchasing the CDs. Total value of the CDs is $89.12.

Here are some points you might have raised:

1.  You need to state who recovered the CDs – and how. Passive voice “were recovered” might cause problems if there’s a court hearing later and the defense attorney wants to know who did what. Better:  “Officer Johnson reached inside Patterson’s jacket….”

2.  Write the suspect’s name instead of “the suspect.”

3.  Eliminate the mind reading. A defense attorney might challenge you on “the Defendant was going to pass all points of sale….” Don’t try to guess what someone is thinking.

Here’s how this part of the report might be rewritten:

Officers Johnson and Devue arrived at approximately 5:25 pm. Officer Johnson reached inside Patterson’s jacket and removed five CD’s (total value $89.12).  CORRECT

a compact disk or CD

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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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 Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from Amazon.com for $17.95. For a free preview, click on the link or the picture below.

Updated, with a new chapter on Writing Efficiently

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

Criminal Justice Report Writing is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.

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Thinking about a Traffic Stop

Here’s part of a news account about a traffic stop. What information would you have to change, add, or delete if you were writing this incident up as a police report? Make a list, and then scroll down to see my list of suggestions.

An officer stopped Smith for reckless driving. Smith, allegedly smelling of alcohol, sitting in his running car, refused to exit the car to participate in a field sobriety test. After police used a Taser twice to bring him into custody, Smith became enraged, hitting his head and face against the roof of the police car. Then, as blood began to run down Smith’s nose into his mouth, he spat blood at several officers, telling them he had AIDS and Hepatitis C. Smith was charged with DUI and resisting arrest.

Here are the points you’d need to think about:

  • This is a Type 4 report (the officer initiates the action). That means you need to establish probable cause by describing exactly what Smith was doing on the road (such as crossing the center line, weaving, going through a stop sign)
  • Alcohol is odorless, so you’d have to say that Smith smelled of “liquor” or an “alcoholic beverage”
  • Omit “became enraged” (an opinion) and stick to what you saw and heard: “Smith did not move after I twice told him to exit the car for a sobriety test” or “Smith told me that I could go to hell after I twice told him to exit the car for a sobriety test”
  • Other details about what you saw and heard at the scene should include these facts: Smith hit his head and face against the roof of the police car. Officers used a Taser twice. Blood ran down Smith’s nose and into his mouth. Smith spat blood at several officers. Smith said he had AIDS and Hepatitis C. 
  • “Smith was charged” is passive voice: You need to state who arrested him (a point that might be important if there’s a court hearing)

How did you do? Traffic Stop black trooper

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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.

 
 
 
____________________________________________________________

 Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from Amazon.com for $17.95. For a free preview, click on the link or the picture below.

Updated, with a new chapter on Writing Efficiently

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

Criminal Justice Report Writing is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.

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Efficiency

Have you ever heard anyone make a strong case for the value of inefficiency? Of course not. We all recognize the need to get things done without wasting valuable time and energy, especially when we’re working.

But sometimes efficiency is forgotten because we’re trying so hard to impress others with our writing skills–especially in a police report. The big culprit is usually wordiness. Take a look at this sentence, for example:

 I emphasized to Sparks the vital necessity of removing herself from her apartment for the night.  WORDY

Wouldn’t it be better to simply write something like this?

I told Sparks she should spend the night somewhere else.  BETTER

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Can You Spot the Error?

Here’s a summary of a police report from a news website. Can you spot the error?

While taking a report of a theft from vehicle on Arbor Road, a resident from the unit block of Devon Road approached me and reported that his vehicle that was left unlocked was also entered overnight. A briefcase containing a laptop computer was taken from the car, but no value was given for the stolen item.

Answer: There’s a dangling modifier in the first sentence, which refers to “taking a report” but doesn’t say that an officer was doing it.

While taking a report of a theft from vehicle on Arbor Road, a resident….DANGLING MODIFIER

The resident wasn’t taking the report – you were! The sentence should read like this:

While taking a report of a theft from vehicle on Arbor Road, I….CORRECT

Or you could rewrite the sentence like this:

While I was taking a report of a theft from vehicle on Arbor Road, a resident from the unit block of Devon Road approached me and reported that his vehicle that was left unlocked was also entered overnight. CORRECT

Dangling modifiers (in simple English, descriptions in the wrong place) often appear when you use an -ing word near the beginning of a sentence.

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Writing Sophisticated Sentences

Every officer wants to write intelligent reports. That’s certainly a worthy goal. Unfortunately, there’s a hidden problem: When you try to write sophisticated sentences, clarity gets lost and errors creep in.

Here are two suggestions for writing sophisticated sentences that enhance your reports:

1.  Use a semicolon. This is easy to do! Find two simple sentences in a row that you want to put together. Change the first period to a semicolon. Change the capital letter to lower case unless it’s a word that needs to be capitalized.

Officer Baptiste saw smoke coming from the engine of the car. She called 911.  CORRECT

Officer Baptiste saw smoke coming from the engine of the car; she called 911.  CORRECT (semicolon)

I searched the basement. Sergeant Rios questioned Mrs. Pallatine.  CORRECT

I searched the basement; Sergeant Rios questioned Mrs. Pallatine.  CORRECT (semicolon)

2.  Try writing a Comma Rule 3 sentence when you use a proper noun (a capitalized name of a person, place, or thing).

First hint: Be sure to use TWO commas. Second hint: Read each sample sentence aloud. You’ll hear the commas. This is easier than you think!

We’ll be working extra shifts when Halloween, a favorite day for pranks, rolls around on October 31.  CORRECT

Uncle John, who was a police officer back in the 1960s, says law enforcement has changed dramatically since then.  CORRECT

Polk City, a small town in Central Florida, is continuing to grow.  CORRECT

a man writing

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What Type of Report Would You Write?

Knowing how to classify police reports is an important skill for law enforcement officers. When a scenario occurs, you can save time (and avoid errors) by deciding whether the situation calls for a Type 1, Type 2, Type 3, or Type 4 police report. Once you’ve figured that out, you’ll know what special features are needed and – just as important – what potential pitfalls to avoid.

Let’s try it. Read a news story about Philip Standefer, a police officer in Lubbock, Texas, who saved a driver’s life through quick thinking. Then watch the video below. (It’s only 47 seconds long.) What kind of report would you write: Type 1, 2, 3, or 4?

Answer: This situation calls for a Type 3 report (and a commendation for Officer Standefer!). What’s special about Type 3 reports is that you, the officer, become part of the story. (In Type 1 and Type 2 reports, the events happened before you arrived.)

Type 3 reports require special care because you’re dealing with two stories – before and after. Don’t make this complicated for yourself.

Part of Officer Standefer’s report might look like this (my version is incomplete because news reports didn’t finish the story):

At approximately 1:19 am on September 17, I, Philip Standefer, was standing at the 3700 block of 19th Street talking to a driver about a traffic accident.

I saw a flower van heading north on 19th Street at high speed. It crossed the median. I saw that Sarah Beaty, 19, was standing in the path of the vehicle. I pushed her away.

Sarah fell onto the road. The van crashed into a patrol car, which then hit another patrol car. I was pinned between both cars….

Notice that an effective police report sticks to the facts. Omit your thinking processes (“I suspected the driver was intoxicated,” “I was afraid the car would injure Sarah”).

You can learn more about Type 3 reports here. You can download a chart that explains the four types of reports here.

The numeral 3

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