Category Archives: police reports

Writing tips, English usage and grammar review, and news stories for officers and other criminal justice professionals who deal with police reports.

Getting Either-Or Sentences Right

There’s a special subject-verb agreement rule that you should use in either or sentences. (Click on the link and read Rule 3, or just keep reading below.)

Here’s the rule: Pretend the “either” part of the sentence isn’t there. Look only at the or part.

Here’s an example:

Either several cars or a mini-bus (is/are) needed to transport the officers to the parade.

Skip “Either several cars” and go straight to “a mini-bus.” The correct word will be is.

Either a several cars or a mini-bus is needed to transport the officers to the parade.  CORRECT

(Incidentally, this is one of very few times you don’t look at the beginning of a sentence to get the verb right.)

Here’s another one for you to try. The answer appears below.

Either Mrs. Jones or her children (was/were) probably home when the burglary occurred.

Skip “Either Mrs. Jones” and go straight to “her children.”

 Either Mrs. Jones or her children were probably home when the burglary occurred.  CORRECT

One more thing: Neither/nor sentences work the same way.

well done

Share

Was It an Accident or a Collision?

My background is English, and I’m especially interested in some philosophical issues we run into when we use language. I sometimes talk to real-world writers (like police officers!) who wonder if all this theoretical stuff really matters.

Yes, it does – and here’s an example. You may be aware that some jurisdictions have improved their procedures for dealing with vehicle accidents. The NYPD is a good example.

Some time ago, the NYPD instituted a number of changes in the way it investigates and documents vehicular crashes. Case in point: The word “accident” has been replaced with “collision.”

The reason? The word accident evokes something unfortunate that happened on its own. But the word collision suggests that something went wrong. It feels more like a police matter. (You can read about the NYPD policy changes here.)

Paul Steely White is the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a cycling and pedestrian advocacy group. He said the changes constitute “a very significant step toward a safer, more humane city.”

Words matter! “An accident is when a meteor falls through your house and hits you in the head,” he said. “Collisions can be prevented.”

Two cars that collided

Share

A Misplaced Modifier

Here’s a summary of a police report. Can you spot the misplaced modifier ?

Officers are looking into a burglary in the 1800 block of 16th Street. A property manager told police that sometime between 10:30 p.m. Tuesday and 2:30 p.m. Wednesday someone broke into a duplex residence he manages by unknown means. The manager said about 70 feet of copper pipe were taken from the basement of the duplex.

Here it is:

...someone broke into a duplex residence he manages by unknown means.

“By unknown means” refers to the break-in. But the sentence sounds as if he manages the property “by unknown means.”

Here’s how the sentence could be rewritten:

A property manager told police that sometime between 10:30 p.m. Tuesday and 2:30 p.m. Wednesday someone used unknown means to break into a duplex residence he manages. 

Problem solved! (Incidentally, a “modifier” is a description. A “misplaced modifier” is simply a description in the wrong place.)

a break-in

Share

Comma Rule 1

Do commas worry you? Many writers say they worry more about commas than any other punctuation mark.

Actually commas aren’t that hard. Most professional sentences are based on just three comma rules. Today we’re going to review and practice Comma Rule 1.

Here it is: Use a comma when a sentence begins with an extra idea.

Everything you say or write is either a sentence (beginning with a person, place, or thing) or an extra idea. Take a look at these examples:

We need additional security for tonight’s concert.  SENTENCE

Because we need additional security for tonight’s concert.  EXTRA IDEA

I can trade shifts with Kenny.  SENTENCE

If I can trade shifts with Kenny.  EXTRA IDEA

Notice that looking at the first word usually tells you whether you have a sentence or an extra idea.

Here is Comma Rule 1 again: Use a comma when a sentence begins with an extra idea. If the extra idea is in back, don’t use a comma.

Take a look at these examples (the extra idea is in green):

We’ve had a shortage of officers for the past three years.  NO COMMA

For the past three years, we’ve had a shortage of officers.  COMMA NEEDED

Get into the habit of listening for sentences and extra ideas. You’ll soon hear the difference. Then check the beginning of each sentence, and you’ll know immediately whether you need a comma.

You can watch a short video by clicking here.

Comma Rule 1

Click here to download a free, printable copy of Commas Made Simple, a handout that explains all three comma rules.

Male figure holding up a comma

Share

Buy Me Some Peanuts and Cracker Jack

Baseball’s spring training season is underway! Today I’m going to use a police report about a 2013 baseball game to make a point about facts and opinions.

First I need to remind you that police writing has its own special requirements. The dull, short sentences that your English teacher complained about are ideal for a police report:

I saw a baseball bat propped near the kitchen door.

Lacey Collins was trembling when she answered the door.

I’m about to send you to read a police report that really is fun. First, though, you have to promise not to imitate the style, which clearly won’t work in a real police report.

Ready? Click here to read a wonderful account of a Blue Jays baseball game that included an unauthorized walk-on by an overenthusiastic fan.

Why am I encouraging you to read a police report that doesn’t meet the requirements for criminal justice writing? To make an important point. If you spotted the words and phrases that don’t belong in the report, you’ve just proved that you’re a true professional.

Let’s look at one of the paragraphs in this report. Can you see where the officer stopped reporting and started commenting?Blue Jays

 Problem wording includes “surprisingly,” “underrated,” “hapless,” and the background information about the Jays’ prospects this season. In addition, the suggestion that we can “almost forgive” the fan clearly doesn’t belong in a report.

Let’s rewrite the report to make it more professional. Here’s a suggested revision:

On May 5, 2013 at approximately 3:18 pm, a Toronto Blue Jays fan, Joe Smith, left his seat at level 100 and ran onto the baseball field. I arrested him and transported him to 52 Division. He was released on a Form 10/11.1.

baseball

Share

Lists Save Time!

Lists are great timesavers when you’re writing a police report. There are three good reasons for using lists:

  • They’re easier to write than elaborate sentences
  • You’re less likely to make grammatical mistakes
  • You already have a lot of experience with them (shopping lists, to-do lists, and so on)

(By the way, that’s an example of a professional list!)

Did you notice that I’m not writing this whole post as a list? You write your report as usual. But when you come to a string of information (such as a list of stolen items), you switch to a list.

You can see a police report that includes a list by clicking here.

Criminal justice professionals often speak of “bullet lists” and “bullet style.” That’s just another way of talking about a “list.”

Let’s try it. Here’s a paragraph from a police report. Try rewriting it in bullets. Then compare your results with the bullets below.

Janet Lincoln said she came home from work at about 5:20 p.m. She saw that her front door was kicked open. When she went into the living room, she realized that her LQ TV was missing. Also gone were the silver serving pieces in a cabinet in her dining room, cash she kept in a bank in a kitchen cabinet, and a laptop computer that had been on the dining room table.

Here’s the information again written as a list.

Janet Lincoln told me:

  • She came home from work at about 5:20 p.m
  • She saw that her front door was kicked open

The following items were missing:

  • the LQ TV in her living room
  • the silver serving pieces in a cabinet in her dining room
  • a bank and cash from a kitchen cabinet
  • a laptop computer from the dining room table

Easy, isn’t it? How did you do? (You can watch a video about using lists in a report by clicking here.)

 

Share

Editing a Report

Many officers find that editing a report is an excellent way to sharpen their writing and thinking skills. In just a moment you’re going to read three sentences adapted from an actual report. If you were the supervisor, what changes would you suggest?

Upon the arrival of backup officers five CDs were recovered from the suspect, who had concealed those items by stuffing them inside his jacket. The suspect was going to attempt to pass all points of sale without purchasing the CDs. Total value of the CDs is $89.12.

Here are some points you might have raised:

1.  You need to state who recovered the CDs – and how. Passive voice “were recovered” might cause problems if there’s a court hearing later and the defense attorney wants to know who did what. Better:  “Officer Johnson reached inside Patterson’s jacket….”

2.  Write the suspect’s name instead of “the suspect.”

3.  Eliminate the mind reading. A defense attorney might challenge you on “the Defendant was going to pass all points of sale….” Don’t try to guess what someone is thinking.

Here’s how this part of the report might be rewritten:

Officers Johnson and Devue arrived at approximately 5:25 pm. Officer Johnson reached inside Patterson’s jacket and removed five CD’s (total value $89.12).  CORRECT

a compact disk or CD

Share

Thinking about a Traffic Stop

Here’s part of a news account about a traffic stop. What information would you have to change, add, or delete if you were writing this incident up as a police report? Make a list, and then scroll down to see my list of suggestions.

An officer stopped Smith for reckless driving. Smith, allegedly smelling of alcohol, sitting in his running car, refused to exit the car to participate in a field sobriety test. After police used a Taser twice to bring him into custody, Smith became enraged, hitting his head and face against the roof of the police car. Then, as blood began to run down Smith’s nose into his mouth, he spat blood at several officers, telling them he had AIDS and Hepatitis C. Smith was charged with DUI and resisting arrest.

Here are the points you’d need to think about:

  • This is a Type 4 report (the officer initiates the action). That means you need to establish probable cause by describing exactly what Smith was doing on the road (such as crossing the center line, weaving, going through a stop sign)
  • Alcohol is odorless, so you’d have to say that Smith smelled of “liquor” or an “alcoholic beverage”
  • Omit “became enraged” (an opinion) and stick to what you saw and heard: “Smith did not move after I twice told him to exit the car for a sobriety test” or “Smith told me that I could go to hell after I twice told him to exit the car for a sobriety test”
  • Other details about what you saw and heard at the scene should include these facts: Smith hit his head and face against the roof of the police car. Officers used a Taser twice. Blood ran down Smith’s nose and into his mouth. Smith spat blood at several officers. Smith said he had AIDS and Hepatitis C. 
  • “Smith was charged” is passive voice: You need to state who arrested him (a point that might be important if there’s a court hearing)

How did you do? Traffic Stop black trooper

Share

Efficiency

Have you ever heard anyone make a strong case for the value of inefficiency? Of course not. We all recognize the need to get things done without wasting valuable time and energy, especially when we’re working.

But sometimes efficiency is forgotten because we’re trying so hard to impress others with our writing skills–especially in a police report. The big culprit is usually wordiness. Take a look at this sentence, for example:

 I emphasized to Sparks the vital necessity of removing herself from her apartment for the night.  WORDY

Wouldn’t it be better to simply write something like this?

I told Sparks she should spend the night somewhere else.  BETTER

Share

Can You Spot the Error?

Here’s a summary of a police report from a news website. Can you spot the error?

While taking a report of a theft from vehicle on Arbor Road, a resident from the unit block of Devon Road approached me and reported that his vehicle that was left unlocked was also entered overnight. A briefcase containing a laptop computer was taken from the car, but no value was given for the stolen item.

Answer: There’s a dangling modifier in the first sentence, which refers to “taking a report” but doesn’t say that an officer was doing it.

While taking a report of a theft from vehicle on Arbor Road, a resident….DANGLING MODIFIER

The resident wasn’t taking the report – you were! The sentence should read like this:

While taking a report of a theft from vehicle on Arbor Road, I….CORRECT

Or you could rewrite the sentence like this:

While I was taking a report of a theft from vehicle on Arbor Road, a resident from the unit block of Devon Road approached me and reported that his vehicle that was left unlocked was also entered overnight. CORRECT

Dangling modifiers (in simple English, descriptions in the wrong place) often appear when you use an -ing word near the beginning of a sentence.

Share