More about Objectivity

In a recent post, I discussed the concept of objectivity: stating observable facts rather than thoughts, ideas, hunches, and judgments. (Another name for this concept is fact vs. opinion.)

An incident that happened in Mesa, Arizona, provides a good opportunity to consider some objectivity issues. An officer observed a man riding a bicycle recklessly. The man did not respond to the officer’s command to stop. A scuffle ensued. You can read the entire story and watch the body-cam video here.

Witnesses and other officers dispute some details about what happened. Another complication is that the man on the bicycle had been using illegal drugs.

Because our focus is strategies for writing better police reports, we’re going to look at only detail from the incident: the man’s refusal to stop. Was he disobeying an order from a police officer?

Perhaps. But that’s not an objective fact because no one can read another person’s mind. Similarly a police report can’t state that a suspect intended to do something or was planning to do something or thinking about it. All you can do is describe the person’s actions.

Let’s go back to the man on the bicycle. He didn’t stop when the officer yelled at him. Did that mean he refused to stop? You simply can’t know what he was thinking. If you claim to be able to read someone’s mind,  you open yourself to challenges in a court hearing.

A defense attorney could say that the man didn’t see the officer (who was behind him). Or the man on the bicycle might not have understood what the officer shouted (the area was noisy). Or perhaps the man didn’t know that the command was directed specifically at him. (There were many people nearby.)

What the report can say is that the officer shouted “Stop!” and the man continued riding his bicycle.

Writing objectively takes training and practice. You need to develop your ability to observe and recall what happened – in detail. And (this is the hardest part for new recruits) you need to know what not to write.

These examples will help you see the difference between a fact and an opinion:

The man raised his fists.  √ (fact)

The man was thinking about punching me.  X  (mind reading)

The woman was planning to run.  X  (mind reading)

The woman looked several times at the door.  √  (fact)

Develop the habit of rereading your reports carefully before you submit them. Look at each detail to make sure it’s written objectively. Over time you’ll develop the skills needed to write impressive reports that help convict lawbreakers.

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