A Police Report about Stealing Contraceptives

Take Action is one of the “morning after” contraceptive pills that can be taken after a couple has sex. It’s the centerpiece of a recent crime story at a Walgreens drugstore in Oklahoma.

On July 3 a customer with a handgun stole three boxes of Take Action and left the store on a motorcycle. You can read the police report at this link: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/documents/crime/emergency-contraceptive-stickup-749301

The report is impressive: thorough, objective, and largely free of jargon. Sentence structure is sophisticated and professional. It’s always a pleasure to come across “I” in a police report (some officers are still afraid to use this handy word!). And I rarely see however used correctly with a semicolon. The advanced writing skills make me think that this is probably a college-educated officer.

And that’s raises a question: What should you do if you’re an officer who doesn’t write at that level?

Answer: Use the skills you have. In fact you may be better off not trying to write like a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist.

To explain what I mean, I’m going to discuss a sentence from today’s report:

The suspect then entered the store, the surveillance does not show the suspect placing items in his backpack; however, footage shows [redacted] approaching the suspect at approximately  2027  hours.

What do you gain by writing a long, sophisticated sentence? Nothing – and you run the risk of errors.

Here’s my version:

The suspect entered the store. The surveillance does not show the suspect placing items in his backpack. Footage shows [redacted] approaching the suspect at approximately  2027  hours.

Three short sentences are better than one long sentence For one thing, short sentences are more efficient. The words “then” and “however” don’t add anything useful to the report. (In fact that “however” is confusing.)

More seriously, when you try to write fancy sentences, errors tend to creep in. That’s exactly what happened here. “The suspect entered the store” is a sentence and requires a period, not a comma. (You know it’s a sentence because it begins with a person – the suspect. Most sentences begin with a person, place, or thing.)

A moment ago I mentioned efficiency. There’s a paragraph in this report that repeats [redacted] stated four times. It would be more efficient to explain only once that you’re recording a statement from a witness:

[Redacted] stated:

– Walgreens has a policy that customers have to remove their helmets for safety

– he was looking for a manager to talk to the suspect about the helmet

and so on.

Bottom line: Short, straightforward sentences are exactly what are needed in a police report.


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