How to Use “However” in a Sentence

I see lots of mistakes in sentences with however. In fact I’m always tempted to send a congratulatory email when I spot a correct “however” sentence in a police report – it’s that unusual.

Take a look at this paragraph from a recent report:

Wichita Police say recent posts on social media reporting alleged kidnapping attempts are not valid, however confusion over the social media posts led to confrontation that happened around 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 4 at Towne East Mall, located in the 7700 block of east Kellogg.  22-year-old woman recognized a 37-year-old woman who had been accused on Facebook of kidnapping. Police urged the public to check with law enforcement before sharing and acting on Facebook accounts of alleged crimes.

We’re going to focus on this sentence:

Wichita Police say recent posts on social media reporting alleged kidnapping attempts are not valid, however confusion over the social media posts led to confrontation that happened around 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 4 at Towne East Mall, located in the 7700 block of east Kellogg.

That’s a long sentence, and it’s crammed with information – too much information. “One idea per sentence” is a good rule for any writer, and it’s especially appropriate for police reports. Give up the idea of writing like Charles Dickens! Short, crisp, and clear sentences are the order of the day.

But what interests me most is the word however. Here’s a simple principle for you: Use a period and a capital letter. (NEVER use a comma.)

Wichita Police say recent posts on social media reporting alleged kidnapping attempts are not valid. However confusion over the social media posts led to confrontation that happened around 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 4 at Towne East Mall, located in the 7700 block of east Kellogg.  CORRECT

If you really want to write like a pro, put a comma after however:

However, confusion over the social media posts led to confrontation that happened around 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 4 at Towne East Mall, located in the 7700 block of east Kellogg.  CORRECT

Let me make one more suggestion. I’ve rarely use however in my own writing. It’s a stuffy word. I find that sentences with but are more natural and easier to read:

But confusion over the social media posts led to confrontation that happened around 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 4 at Towne East Mall, located in the 7700 block of east Kellogg.  BETTER

But can you start a sentence with but? Yes. Despite what you may have been told, there is not and never has been a rule against starting a sentence with but. It’s an urban myth. If you look at the books, magazines, and newspapers in your home, you’ll find that they all feature sentences starting with but. You can read more about but (you might be surprised!) at this link.

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“It will definitely help you with your writing skills.” – Joseph E. Badger, California Association of Accident Reconstructionists Newsletter

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Matthew Kennedy, Part 2

In yesterday’s post, I discussed an excellent police report that could – however – have been written more efficiently. Today I’m going to suggest ways to make the report (about a recent noisy party in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts) more objective.

See what you think of these excerpts:

I attempted further conversation with this male, but was unsuccessful.

He became even more irate with me.

A male, later identified as Matthew Kennedy, came to the door and immediately became angry with me. He gave me little opportunity to explain our presence.

All of those statements are opinions that a defense attorney could challenge in court. Because it’s impossible to look inside a person’s brain to see what they’re thinking, there’s no way to prove that Kennedy was angry or irate. An attorney could argue that Kennedy is always abrupt or brusque, for example.

And “unsuccessful”can be just as slippery. Maybe the conversation was stymied by outside noise.

So the report needs to give any specific evidence that the conversation was “unsuccessful” or that Kennedy was irate, angry, and uncooperative. Here are some objective statements:

I repeated the question three times, but Kennedy did not answer.

Kennedy shouted [record his exact words]

Kennedy told me that I was [record his exact words]

Kennedy came to the door, and I explained I was a police officer responding to a noise complaint. Kennedy said, [record his exact words] and closed the door.

* * * * * *

Before I go, I want to point out one more persistent problem with police reports: the ever-present advised. Somehow, when recruits enter a police academy, they stop using the words “tell” and “told.” I picture an officer at a restaurant with friends saying something like, “I advised Julie that the Italian food here is wonderful.” Ridiculous isn’t it?

Advise means “suggest” or “counsel.” If you give information or a warning to a citizen, use tell or told.

I advised Kennedy (whom I have never encountered or recognized) that I needed to speak with the owner or person in charge of the home.  CONFUSING

I told Kennedy that I needed to speak with the owner or person in charge of the home.  BETTER

I advised both parties of the Noise by-law violation.  CONFUSING

I told both parties about the noise by-law violation.  BETTER

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 Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from Amazon.com for the low price of $17.95. For a free preview, click on the link or the picture below.

Updated, with a new chapter on Writing Efficiently

 

“It will definitely help you with your writing skills.” – Joseph E. Badger, California Association of Accident Reconstructionists Newsletter

Criminal Justice Report Writing

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The Matthew Kennedy Police Report

It’s rare for me to read a truly efficient police report. Because so many officers say they dislike paperwork, you’d expect them to try to write as concisely as possible. Let’s get it done! But the opposite is true. Most reports are swollen with unnecessary words that don’t do any work and waste time for both the writer and anyone who reads them.

Here’s what’s really strange: many of those reports – despite their excessive length – omit some of the details needed for a thorough, objective, and totally professional report.

Today we’re going to look at a recent example of an effective police report that could – however – have been better. On August 20, neighbors reported a noisy party at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. Matthew Kennedy and his daughter Caroline (son and granddaughter of Robert F. Kennedy) were arrested for disturbing the peace and violating a noise ordinance. The Boston Globe published the police report, which you can read here.

Here are my comments:

  1. Many sentences begin with phrases that don’t add any useful information:

At this time

Once there

Upon walking up

Upon my arrival

Here’s an example:

Upon my arrival on Irving Ave., I shut down my cruiser approximately 200-300 feet before Iyanough Ave. I could clearly hear loud music and loud music coming from the corner house. I also observed several people walking up the road carrying coolers. I also observed Hyannisport Security off at the intersection.

If you were 200-300 feet away and you shut down your cruiser, it’s obvious that you had arrived. (Incidentally, the detail about 200-300 feet away is useful because you’re dealing with a noise complaint. If you could hear the music that far away, the noise complaint was justified. As I said, in many ways this is an excellent report.)

“At this time” is just as unnecessary. What other time would it have been? In many years of reading reports, I’ve noticed that officers always do a good job of recording events in the order they happened. (Would you put the arrest before the investigation? I’ve never seen a report do that.) You don’t need “at this time,” “whereupon,” and similar expressions. Just record – in order – what happened.

2. Sometimes the report takes a roundabout route to recording a simple fact. Here’s an example:

I asked the above-referenced unidentified male for identification.

How about: “I asked Kennedy for identification”? And see what you think of this sentence:

I observed Kennedy to have noticeably blood shot and glassy eyes and he was sweating profusely during our conversation.

“Saw” is a perfectly respectable word. And why “noticeably”? How could you have known that his eyes were bloodshot if the redness hadn’t been noticeable? And there’s no need to write “during our conversation.” The report just pointed out that the officer was questioning him.

Here’s a more efficient (and perfectly professional) sentence:

I saw that Kennedy’s eyes were bloodshot, and he was sweating profusely.  EFFICIENT

In tomorrow’s post I’ll discuss some details that were omitted from this report. Meanwhile, you might want to read the report yourself and see what you think.

Matthew Kennedy

 Matthew Kennedy

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A Cucumber Problem at Wendy’s

On August 3, Theodore Gunderson ordered a salad at a Wendy’s drive-through window. The salad didn’t have enough cucumbers to satisfy him.  Gunderson threatened an employee and then tried to drive away. An officer reached into Gunderson’s car to take the car keys. Gunderson kept driving, despite the danger to the officer.

Gunderson was arrested for assaulting a police officer. You can read the police report here: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/documents/bizarre/wendys-cucumber-rage-arrest-792854

Overall this is a well-written report – but a few changes might be helpful.

  1. These sentences lack objectivity:

The Defendant used obscene language with the employee (victim), and threatened him by saying “If I had a gun or a knife you would be the first to go”. The victim was scared for his life.  SUBJECTIVE

Police reports are supposed to stick to observable facts. They can’t describe thoughts, feelings, or conclusions. Instead of mentioning obscene language, the report should simply record Gunderson’s exact words. (Remember that what one person considers obscene, another person might consider acceptable.)

There’s a similar problem when the report states that Gunderson threatened the employee: that’s an opinion. Perhaps another person in that situation wouldn’t have felt threatened. The report should record only the threatening words from Gunderson.

The same problem arises with this sentence: “The victim was scared for his life.” How do you know he felt that way? It would be better to write, “The victim told me that he was scared for his life.”

 2. Like many reports, this one lapses into passive voice near the end:

After he lowered the window he was advised he was not free to leave and was being placed under arrest.  PASSIVE VOICE

Who warned him not to leave, and who arrested him? The report doesn’t say. Every sentence in a report should include the name of the person (victim, suspect, witness, or officer) who performed the action. Here’s a useful tip: Start every sentence with a person, place or thing. (That’s probably not how your English teacher wanted you to write your compositions, but it’s great advice for report writing!)

My conclusion: this is a concise and professional report that could benefit from a few changes. 

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Sexual Assault Investigation at MSU

Michigan State University Police have released a detailed report on their sexual assault investigation. After interviews with more than 100 witnesses, Josh King, Donnie Corley, and Demetric Vance were charged with sexual assault. The heavily redacted report – 226 pages long – can be read at this link: http://detne.ws/2vpmemC.

The report is thorough, professional, and free of jargon – an excellent example of police writing. One feature, though, deserves comment: One of the police officers always uses “I,” while another officer consistently uses the old-fashioned (and time-wasting!) “this officer.” This inconsistency should be resolved so that all officers are writing their reports the same way.

I then followed up and sent her an email with my contact information and resources. ✓

This officer informed [redacted] about suspect Donnie Corley being moved to a new room. X

A reminder: There’s nothing wrong with the words I and me! In fact those are the very words that an officer would use to testify in court.

MSU's Spartan Stadium

                Spartan Stadium

_

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A Coke Dealer Reports a Theft

Today’s topic is efficiency. Bear with me for a moment while I make a detour to talk about Dennis the Menace! Hank Ketcham based this delightful comic strip on his real-life family: wife Alice and son Dennis.

But Ketcham made one change when he created the strip. Although the real Alice was a brunette, Ketcham drew her as a blonde. The reason? In a black-and-white comic strip, brunettes require ink, but blondes don’t. Ketcham saved himself hours and hours of labor because he didn’t have to color Alice’s hair.

I found myself thinking about Hank Ketcham’s pen while I was reading a police report about a bizarre case involving a drug dealer. A Florida man called police to report the theft of cash and a small bag of cocaine. He immediately told police he was a drug dealer, and of course he was arrested. (The investigating officer saw another plastic bag of white powder in the car, and it turned out to be cocaine.) You can read the complete report here.

So what’s the connection to Hank Ketcham? Here it is: This report (which is excellent, by the way – be sure to read it) substitutes Your Affiant for the simple words I and me no less than seven times.

I’m assuming that’s the agency’s policy, and I’m wondering why. I’m also wondering if anyone there has thought about much time is wasted over a year writing “Your Affiant” – 11 letters – instead of “I” – one letter.

Here’s an example:

At that time Your Affiant was able to place hand restraints on Blackmon.

My version:

I placed hand restraints on Blackmon.

Those unnecessary words add up to a lot of wasted time! Here’s another example:

Based on the aforementioned information…

Why not just say “Based on this information”?

Efficiency is hugely important in a busy police agency. As you think about local policies and your own reports, you should always be looking for ways to eliminate time-wasting words and expressions.

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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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Harassment vs. Stalking

A recent UK study of stalking and harassment reports came to some alarming conclusions. Although the report concerns British policing, US agencies might find it a useful tool for reviewing their own policies and practices.

Here are some questions that agencies can ask:

  • Do officers know the difference between harassment and stalking (which is a much more dangerous crime)?
  • Do officers take steps to make harassment and stalking victims feel more safe – or do they blame victims?
  • Do officers ever tell victims that it’s up to them to take steps to protect themselves?

Most important (our focus here):

  • Do officers file reports for every harassment and stalking case?

The UK study, which looked at a sample of 112 stalking and harassment cases, found that:

  • none of the cases were handled well
  • fewer than 40% showed that victims were provided with a risk-management plan
  • some victims were told the problems were their fault because they used Facebook and other social media
  • only one-fourth of the cases were handled by detectives
  • in a number of cases, police took no legal action despite victims’ repeated requests for help

An article at this link includes useful information about the differences between harassment and stalking.

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Privacy Rights and Police Reports

Law enforcement experts are very aware of privacy concerns about police reports.

No one is surprised that some lawbreakers quickly become famous. But what about the victims? Should their names be made public? And what about people who have been injured in an accident or crime? US privacy laws require that health information should be a private matter. Does that legal principle also apply to police reports? 

West Bridgewater Police Chief Victor Flaherty recently released a police report about a May 28 car crash – with the names of the driver and victim blacked out. Robert Ambrogi, a media attorney and the executive director of the Massachusetts News Publishers Association, has demanded to see those names. (You can read about the case here.)

Chief Flaherty issued a statement that doing so would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy. He cited Massachusetts laws that prohibit the release of that information.

But Ambrogi disagreed: “A name is not a medical record, and the fact that someone was injured in an auto accident doesn’t turn it into one. There’s no ground to withhold the name of the victim in this case.”

Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, also wants to see the name of the victim: “When a major car accident occurs on a public street and the driver is accused of fleeing the scene, we need to know who was involved and how law enforcement responded.”

What is your take on this privacy issue?

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When Police Reports Are Challenged

Two recent news stories underline the importance of effective report writing. (Academy instructors may want to discuss these cases with their classes.)

On June 21, police in Daytona Beach, Florida, removed seven children from a filthy apartment and charged the two mothers with one count of felony child abuse. You can read more about the case here: http://theledger.com/news/20170622/7-children-removed-from-filthy-apartment-2-moms-charged

In his report, Officer James Thomas wrote: “Immediately upon entering the apartment, I noticed an infant running barefoot on carpet that was supposed to be brown in color but was matted, thick, clumpy, and covered wall to wall with black mold.”

The report also noted:

  • the smell was so pungent that it burned his eyes, and he had to wash them afterwards
  • fleas were everywhere
  • the only food was an open jar of jelly, a small jar of peanut butter, and a jar of mayonnaise
  • the only furniture was two broken chairs
  • the children were lying on a “severely stained” mattress and wearing dirty diapers
  • the unflushed toilet was filthy with urine, feces, and soiled paper
  • there were no signs of “anything related to child care”

Officer Thomas took photographs of the children and their surroundings.

Melinda Jenkins, mother of two of the children, argued that “everything…was false in that report.” She said the apartment management was responsible for the filth, and she and her sister were in the process of moving.

The other police report concerned actor Miles Teller, who recently appeared in the boxing movie Bleed for This. Teller was arrested for public drunkenness. On June 19 Teller challenged the arrest report with this Tweet:”Went down to SD to see my buddy before he deployed. I wasn’t arrested I was detained bc there was no evidence to charge me with a crime.” You can read more at this link: https://usat.ly/2tG6MOD.

The police report tells a different story: Officer Billy Hernandez wrote that Teller was “swaying side to side, slurring his speech and had bloodshot eyes.” At one point Teller “lost his balance and almost fell into the street.” Police officers arrested Teller and transported him to a detox center.

Police statements quoted in both newspaper stories show that the investigating officers were thorough, objective, and detailed.

Whose accounts do you think are more believable: Police – or the three people who were arrested?

My money is on the police officers.

   Miles Teller in “Bleed for This”

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