The Friendly Skies?

I’ve often urged police officers not to use subjective words like “belligerent” and “disruptive” in their reports. What’s the problem? Those are opinion words that a defense attorney can easily challenge in court.

Today – thanks to United Airlines – I have an example for you that doesn’t involve law enforcement. The setting is different, but the principle is the same: When you’re dealing with a difficult situation, you have to be objective.

First, some background. By now you’ve probably heard about a public relations disaster for United Airlines. On Monday the airline decided to forcibly remove a 69-year-old physician from a plane bound for Louisville, Kentucky. The doctor’s seat was needed for an employee who had to travel to Louisville to work on a connecting flight.

The physician refused to give up his seat. He said he had been traveling for 24 hours, he had patients to see in Louisville, and he wasn’t leaving.

United Airlines had him dragged out of the plane. The results: a broken nose, a bloodied face, a concussion, two broken teeth – and bad publicity for United Airlines. (You can read the full story here.)

A short time later, the United Airlines CEO sent employees a letter meant to defend United Airlines. Unfortunately his words only made the situation worse. (You can read the letter yourself at the link.)

My purpose here is not to attack or defend the airline – that’s a matter for legal experts. What I want to consider are some problems in the CEO’s letter that are similar to problems in many of the police reports I read.

The CEO said that Dr. Dao – the physician who was forced off the plane – was “belligerent” and “disruptive.” Was he? It’s impossible to say. Everyone has a different definition of what constitutes “belligerent” behavior. It’s a matter of opinion – exactly what an officer doesn’t want to deal with in a court hearing. “Just the facts, Ma’am.” (I’ve talked to a number of people myself about the incident and heard various opinions.)

Now let’s look at “disruptive.” What did Dr. Dao disrupt – and how did he do it? If you think about it, “disruptive” is yet another empty word.

So what could the CEO have written instead? He could have listed Dr. Dao’s actions: Dr. Dao refused to get up. He stayed in his seat. Those are objective statements.

Unfortunately for United Airlines, the CEO’s letter, with its accusations about “belligerent” and “disruptive” actions, created an uproar when it was released to the public. The CEO had to hastily deliver an apology – and then another apology – and then another one.

Now let’s return to you and your reports. Because you’re a law enforcement officer, you see conflicts all the time. You have to deal with them, write about them, and – perhaps – defend your decisions in court.

You can learn an important lesson from the CEO’s mistake. Always use objective language. Describe the actions you witnessed. Be as specific as possible: you saw fists, or kicking, or spitting, or biting. If a suspect lied or threatened you, record the exact words. Do not use empty words like “belligerent,” “defiant,” “dangerous,” or “aggressive” that aren’t supported by details and facts.

Here’s the most useful advice about report writing I’ve ever heard: “If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen.” If you don’t have a written list of specific actions you saw, you risk an uphill battle if there’s a court hearing. Don’t let it happen to you!

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