The Death of Vanessa MacCormack

Police are investigating the violent death of Vanessa MacCormack, a 30-year-old wife, mother, and teacher who was found dead at home on September 23. Her husband has been charged with her death. Text messages, financial information, and testimony from a drug dealer are factors in the case.

You can read the police report (it’s lengthy) at this link: http://www.masslive.com/news/boston/index.ssf/2017/09/read_police_report_on_investig.html

The police report is thorough, objective, and professional. But it’s always a good idea to think about possible improvements.

What do you think of this sentence?

He was visibly distraught, was crying and hyperventilating, and had his shirt off and over his head.

My suggestion: delete “visibly distraught,” which is an opinion. The rest of the sentence is objective and appropriate for a police report.

Now take a look at these two paragraphs:

Officer Duca stated that he spoke with a firefighter on scene who advised him that EMT’s were inside the home, and that it may be a possible suicide.  In the opinion of all officers who viewed the victim’s body, the degree of violence to her head made suicide an unrealistic possibility.

Officer Duca stated that as he entered the residence he could smell a strong odor of bleach, Officer Duca stated that he walked through the living room and into the kitchen and he observed two additional firefighters in the hall, in front of a bedroom He walked to the bedroom door and observed the victim lying on the floor face up. near the threshold covered in blood. The victim was later identified as VANESSA MACCORMACK, the wife of ANDREW MACCORMACK.

My comments:

  • There’s a lot of time-consuming repetition.
  • Opinions about whether it was suicide or homicide do not belong in a police report. Very likely the medical examiner will be giving an expert opinion on the manner of death.
  • “Advised” is police jargon – and confusing. Nobody was giving advice to Officer Duca. Use “told.”

Here’s how the information could be written more efficiently – without omitting anything important:

Officer Duca stated that a firefighter on the scene told him that EMT’s were inside the home. As Officer Duca entered the home, he smelled a strong odor of bleach. He saw two more firefighters in the hall, in front of a bedroom. He stood in the bedroom doorway and saw the victim lying on the floor face up, near the threshold. She was covered in blood. She was later identified as VANESSA MACCORMACK, the wife of ANDREW MACCORMACK.

The original statement (in green) is 131 words; the second version (in blue) is 79 words – 40% shorter. (I’m not sure it’s necessary to record the locations of the three firefighters, but that’s a matter for agency administrators to decide.)

Now think about this: The entire report about the Vanessa MacCormack investigation is 15 pages long. Imagine the saving in time, energy, and effort if it could be written 40% more efficiently. That would be 9 pages instead of 15.

More and more agencies are advocating that kind of efficiency, for good reasons. There is no benefit to writing – say – “the month of September” when “September” does the job just as well. “For the purpose of” can be rewritten as “for” (that’s an 80% saving!). Many phrases and sentences can be shortened the same way.

Of course it’s important to write effective, accurate, and thorough police reports. But what’s the advantage in making a report almost half again as long as it needs to be? If you’re not adding anything useful, that’s time and energy that could be invested in other police priorities.

What about you? Do you strive to write your reports efficiently?

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