How to Revise a Report

Let’s drop in on an imaginary police department and watch a supervisor (we’ll call him Lieutenant Stickler) correct a report written by an officer new to the force (we’ll call him Officer Nervous).

Here’s the report submitted by Officer Nervous:

Upon arrival the Camry was observed to have the passenger side front window smashed out. The business owner, Linda Collins, advised that the victim’s vehicle had been damaged over the weekend; the actor(s) had attempted to open the trunk and removed several items from the vehicle itself, including the battery and GPS. Investigation is pending until the surveillance video is reviewed.

And here’s Lt. Stickler’s rewrite:

I saw that the passenger side front window was smashed. I talked to a neighbor, Robert Cary, who said he noticed the damage when he came back from a trip late Sunday night.

I saw scratch marks around the lock of the trunk. When I lifted the hood, I saw that the battery was gone. The business owner, Linda Collins, told me the GPS was gone. A surveillance camera monitors the rear of the building where the Camry was parked.

Here are Lt. Stickler’s comments:

  • “Upon arrival the Camry” sounds as if the Camry arrived. No – the officer arrived! (An English teacher – Lt. Stickler is married to one – would call this a “dangling modifier.”) And why even put “upon arrival” into your report? You’ve already filled in the location and arrival boxes in the report form.
  • “was observed” is passive. There’s an old superstition in law criminal justice that passive voice (“was observed” instead of active voice “I saw”) makes you trustworthy. Spend five seconds thinking about that, and you’ll realize it’s not true and never was.
  • “a neighbor advised” – no, he told you. Advised means counseled (“I advised her to see a doctor”).
  • “The actors had attempted to open the trunk” – how do you know? What did you see? To hold up in court, a report has to be specific. Were there scratches? Was the lock damaged? And why “actors”? This isn’t a play.
  • “removed several items from the vehicle itself” – busy officers avoid unnecessary words like these. Just list what was taken.

broken windshield glass

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