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.

Recommended Reading

Here’s a link to a terrific article: “Two Words that Should Never Appear in Your Police Report.” Go to https://www.policeone.com/legal/articles/8466468-2-words-that-should-never-appear-in-your-police-report/

The author – Val Van Brocklin – is a prosecutor. She explains the questions that you might hear in court if you’ve written a weak police report. It’s a perspective you might not hear about in a police standards course.

My thanks to Bruce A. Sokolove, Law Enforcement Consultant at Field Training Associates, for sending me this link.

Eight signs saying "no"

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For Correctional Officers

I taught in a prison school for almost four years and wrote my share of disciplinary reports and incident reports. This article by Ryan Shanks has some excellent suggestions for corrections reports.

I’d like to add two suggestions about Shanks’ model sentence: “During a targeted pat search due to the inmate’s suspicious behavior, I did discover a lock tied inside of a sock, which is commonly used as an impact weapon.”

a)  Instead of “I did discover,” I’d write “I discovered.” 

b)  It would be helpful (especially if there’s a disciplinary hearing) to document what constituted “the inmate’s suspicious behavior.”

Still – this is an excellent article! Prison cell with bed inside Alcatraz main building san francisco california

photo by:

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Border Patrol Protest

On March 19, three students disrupted a University of Arizona classroom where two Border Patrol agents were talking about career opportunities to members of the Criminal Justice Club. The three protesters were arrested for disorderly conduct and disturbing the police.

You can read the report and learn more about what happened at this link: https://news.azpm.org/p/news-articles/2019/4/16/149844-ua-police-report-details-march-protest/

The report is exceptionally well written. Sentences are crisp and clear. There’s almost no jargon. The reporting is detailed and objective.

I was especially impressed by this sentence from the report:

The agents were trying to continue with their presentation; however, the female was very loud and it caused the presentation to be disrupted.

When you join two sentences with however, you need to use a period or a semicolon, as this officer did. A comma isn’t strong enough to do the job. Well done!

I have a few suggestions:

1.  Upon arrival I observed a female dressed in a black shirt and black jeans yelling from the hallway (leaning forward to get her head inside the classroom).

I would omit upon arrival. It doesn’t add anything useful. Yes, it’s only two words – but once you develop the habit of adding unnecessary words, it can be a time-consuming drag on your efficiency.

2.  I then spoke to X, who advised the room was being used for a club sponsored Criminal Justice event.

Advised means “counseled.” X told you about the room. Don’t capitalize Criminal Justice unless it’s the official title of an organization. Careers aren’t capitalized.

3.  The female was soon joined by a second female who started yelling “murder patrol”.

In the US, periods and commas always go inside the quotation marks: started yelling “murder patrol.”

4.  I did not get the name’s of any of the protesters.

Omit the apostrophe. The names don’t own anything.

Overall, though, this is an exceptionally well-written report.

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Trouble on the Golf Course

Here’s a useful practice activity for you. Two Pennsylvania golfers assaulted each other during a dispute over the rules governing puddles of water on a golf course. You can read about the incident here.

The affidavit has been published online, and it’s reproduced below. Here’s your challenge: List the changes that would be needed to transform it into a modern police report. (Scroll down for some suggestions.)

Affidavit of Probable Cause

On 08/03/14 at approx. 1300 hours the following incident took place a the Springdale Golf Course, located in South Union Township, Fayette County. A group of 5, which included the Defendant and the Victim, started playing a round of golf. At some point, early on, it rained, interrupting play. Rain stopped, and play resumed. There was a conversation and somewhat heated debate regarding e rules involving “casual water” on the 5th green, which was resolved. Play on the 6th hole continued without incident. All 5 teed off on the 7th. The Defendant and the Victim ended up about even on opposite sides of the fairway. The rule debate reignited when the Victim stated they are “rolling the ball on the fairway”. The Defendant took odds with that. Words were exchanged. This went back and forth. The Victim was saying things back to the Defendant and pointing his finger at him. The Defendant walks across the fairway, still saying things and pointing his club at the Victim. At this point the Defendant is right up to the Victim, with his club in the Victims face. The Victim put his hand up and said “get that club out of my face”. At this point the Defendant, who had his club in his hand – gripping it up near the head, swung the club, striking the Victim in the left forearm and top of the head. The Victim had put his hand up to deflect the blow, which resulted in the strike to his forearm. The Victim goes down from the blow on all fours. The Victim got up and a scuffle ensued, resulting in both of them being on the ground. During the scuffle, the Defendant was struck in the left side of his face and his lower lip by the Victims fist. The fight was broken up, both men were treated in Uniontown Hospital ER for injuries sustained during this incident. The Victim sustained swelling and redness to the top of his head, a mild concussion, and swelling and redness to his left forearm.

Suggestions:

  • You can omit many of the details that happened before the assault. Begin your report at the 7th green:

On 08/03/14 at approx. 1300 hours the following incident took place a the Springdale Golf Course, located in South Union Township, Fayette County. A group of 5, which included the Defendant and the Victim, started playing a round of golf. At some point, early on, it rained, interrupting play. Rain stopped, and play resumed. There was a conversation and somewhat heated debate regarding e rules involving “casual water” on the 5th green, which was resolved. Play on the 6th hole continued without incident. All 5 teed off on the 7th. The Defendant and the Victim ended up about even on opposite sides of the fairway.

  • Use names rather than “Defendant” and “Victim”
  • Use simple, straightforward sentences to recount what happened. As a busy police officer, you should try to avoid fillers like “The rule debate reignited” and “This went back and forth.”
  • Clarify where your information came from. Have one heading for Bryan Bandes and another for Robert Lee Harris. Organizing your report this way enhances your objectivity and credibility. You’re not taking sides; you’re reporting what each person told you.
  • Stick to past tense. “The Victim goes down from the blow on all fours” should be rewritten as “Bandes went down on all fours.”
  • Avoid wordiness: “The Victim got up and a scuffle ensued, resulting in both of them being on the ground. During the scuffle, the Defendant was struck in the left side of his face and his lower lip by the Victims fist.”
    It would be more efficient to write, “Bandes got up and fought with Harris. Both fell to the ground. Harris used his fist to strike Bandes on the left side of his face and on his lower lip.”
  • Stick to active voice. “The fight was broken up” omits important  information: Who broke it up? How? Did you take a statement from that person? That testimony might be important if the case goes to court.
  • Use an apostrophe in “Victim’s face,” “Victim’s injuries,” and similar phrases.

(Here’s one more piece of information: The rulebook for golf covers what to do when a ball lands in a mud puddle! The golfer is allowed to move the ball to a green as long as it isn’t placed closer to the hole.)

Golf club and ball in grass

 

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Make a Judgment

Let’s say you recently accepted a supervisory job for a law enforcement agency several states away. You’re just getting to know the officers you’ll be supervising.

You want to evaluate the writing skills in the department, so you decide to read some recent police reports. The first report includes this sentence:

Bruising was observed on the alleged victim’s right cheek. Scratches were observed on her throat. Spots of blood were seen on the front of her blouse.

You pick up another report and read these sentences:

I saw a broken plate, three pieces of fried chicken, and a baked potato on the floor near the kitchen table. I noticed a kitchen chair was lying on its side.

You glance at the names and see that the reports were written by different officers. What impressions would you form?

 *  *  *  *  *

Years ago, supervisors would have trusted the first officer (“bruising was observed…”) and mistrusted the second (“I saw a broken plate…”). The word “I” immediately raised the possibility that an officer was biased and unprofessional. To ensure objectivity and accuracy, officers had to write in passive voice (“was observed,” “were seen”).

Do you still fall into the passive-voice habit? Many police writers do.

Here’s the truth – and it’s either good news or bad news, depending on how up-to-date your training has been:

Objectivity and accuracy are character traits, not verbal tricks. Because police officers are human beings, it’s possible that bias will find its way into a report, or an officer might omit necessary information. Fatigue, time pressure, and human frailty can lead to errors.

You can’t guarantee honesty and professionalism by writing in passive voice and avoiding “I.” Sorry!

Let’s go back to those two officers. Are they telling the truth? Are they unbiased observers? Do they have a passion for thoroughness and accuracy? 

To find the answers to those questions, you’ll have to get to know them. You can’t just dismiss Officer #2 as unprofessional because he used “I” – and you can’t accept everything Officer #1 says as absolute truth because she used passive voice.

Here’s one conclusion you can safely draw, however: Officer #1, who writes almost every sentence in passive voice, may benefit from a refresher course in report writing!

a broken dish

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 Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from Amazon.com for $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 is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.

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Three Naked Women

Here’s a bizarre story. On April 10, a Florida Highway Patrol officer saw three unclothed women lying in the open at an I-75 rest area. The women told the officer to keep his distance. They ran to their Nissan and drove off in a hurry, striking a pedestrian along the way.

You can read the story and the officer’s report at this link: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/documents/stupid/jeniyah-mcleod-in-custody-041295.

Overall the report is detailed, objective, and thorough. There’s a minimum of jargon, and he used “I” when he recorded his observations and actions.

I encourage you to click the link, read the entire report, and evaluate it yourself. That’s a great way to sharpen your writing skills.

As often happens, I saw opportunities for edits. Here’s an excerpt from the report:

On 410/19 at 10:24 I arrived on scene to the rest area on 1-75 Northbound in reference to 3 naked females. Upon my arrival, I observed 3 younger black females on the lawn North of the building.  All3 females were visibly nude from the parking lot. As I pulled into a parking spot, the females observed me; they began dressing.

My suggestions:

  • “I arrived on scene” isn’t necessary
  • “in reference to 3 naked females” is unclear. Did someone report them? Was he dispatched?
  • You don’t need repetition – “I observed 3 younger black females” and “All3 females were visibly nude”
  • “Visibly nude from the parking lot” is confusing

What the officer was trying to accomplish is commendable. If there was a court hearing, he might be asked how he knew the women were undressed.

One solution would be to estimate the distance: “I parked my car approximately 20 feet away. From there I could see that all three were nude.”

One detail from his report adds strength to his account: “they began dressing.” (He also notes that he saw soap and water nearby, and they told him they hadn’t had time to shower earlier.) Overall, it’s an effective report.

an embarrassed emoticon

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Sign up for our FREE Police Writer e-Newsletter and receive a free copy of “10 Days to Better Police Reports,” ready to download! Your privacy is protected: We NEVER share emails with third parties.

 
 
 
____________________________________________________________

 Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from Amazon.com for $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 is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.

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The Stephon Clark Police Report

On March 18, 2018, Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old black man, was shot and killed in Sacramento by two police officers who thought Clark was holding a gun. A later investigation showed that Clark was holding a cell phone, not a gun.

The police report has been released and can be read here: https://cbssacramento.files.wordpress.com/2019/03/stephon-clark-police-report.pdf

It is an exceptionally well written report. Sentences are objective. There’s practically no jargon. The officer used everyday words – I, me, we, he, house, and so on:

“I continued my infrared camera search and located a subject standing at what appeared to be a glass door or window in the backyard of XXXX 29th Street.”

“I activated our onboard video recorder and continued my observations.”

My only gripe is that the officer kept using advised instead of said or told. (Please, please – save advise for when you actually give advice!)

Since the shooting and the release of video footage, there have been questions about what happened. You can view the video and read more information at this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shooting_of_Stephon_Clark.

                                                  Stephon Clark

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Sharpen Your Skills

Experienced police officers have an astounding ability to pick up a clue that a situation that isn’t quite right long before anyone else notices. “I just had a hunch,” they’ll say. Or they’ll mention something they saw that nobody else paid attention to.

Where does that intuition come from? Training and experience. Over time, the neurons in an officer’s brain reorganize  themselves in response to the challenges of a criminal justice career.

You can encourage your brain to undertake a similar process to sharpen your writing skills. Ever notice how quickly an English teacher or editor can scan and evaluate a composition or article? Again, it’s the result of training and experience.

Here are some practical ways to improve your skills:

1.  Read. It doesn’t have to be professional material. Anything that’s well-written will improve your vocabulary, punctuation, and sentence structure. And anything NOT well-written will sharpen your ability to correct errors.

2.  Listen. Start noticing the speech patterns of people you talk to. What conclusions can you draw about their backgrounds and experience? What verbal habits do you admire?

3.  Write. Moving a pen across a piece of paper or tapping a keyboard instantly activates the language capabilities of your brain. The more time you spend at it, the better you’ll get.

4.  Stay grounded. Some officers – alas – give up any hope of becoming better writers because they think they need to stuff their brains with abstract grammar theory. Not true! Good English usage doesn’t require a lot of fancy terminology. Most rules are easy to learn. (You can find jargon-free explanations and examples right on this website.)

 Go for it! Spending just a few minutes a day thinking about language and practicing your skills will pay off handsomely – and in much less time than you think.

Checklist with "excellent" on top

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Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

In my files I have a probable cause affidavit about a couple who attacked a coffeeshop employee over an incorrect order. (The wife requested vanilla latte, but she got caramel instead.) It’s a well written document, but there’s some repetition that could have been avoided, saving time for both the writer and the eventual readers.

Here’s what I mean:

– “initially went in the drive thru” – you could omit “initially.” It doesn’t add any useful information.

-“Co-defendant Longo then aggressively approached victim Hall and attempted to strike him at which point the incident became physical.” All you need here is “Co-defendant Longo attempted to strike victim Hall.”

-“several witnesses attempted to break up the fight and separate the parties involved.” You can omit “break up the fight and.” Separate the parties involved says it very well.

Brevity is a virtue – especially in report writing!

Cup of foamy vanilla latte

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Sign up for our FREE Police Writer e-Newsletter and receive a free copy of “10 Days to Better Police Reports,” ready to download! Your privacy is protected: We NEVER share emails with third parties.

 
 
 
____________________________________________________________

 Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from Amazon.com for $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 is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.

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