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.

OJT and Police Reports

How did you learn how to write police reports? Most officers say they learned in two stages. Their academy training taught them the basics. But the real learning didn’t begin until they started working for an agency.

OJT (“on-the-job training”) is wonderful. But it’s important to remember that times change, and sometimes you need to update your thinking.

  *   *   *   *   *   *   *

I don’t know whether the following story is true, but it makes an excellent point.

Many years ago, the abbot of a monastery owned a cat with an annoying habit. The cat liked to meow and run around the chapel every evening at prayer time.

So a monk was appointed to find the cat at prayer time and tie it up until prayers were over. Peace was restored.

Time went by, the cat grew older, and finally it died. The monks immediately adopted another cat to tie it up at prayer time.

  *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Do you see the point? Sometimes we perpetuate traditions long after they’ve outlived their usefulness. Like the monks who forgot the original reason for tying up the cat every evening, police officers sometimes forget how traditions got started, and they may be slow to let go of a practice that no longer makes sense.

I started thinking about outworn traditions today when I read a couple of reports with sentences like these:

Johnson was driving a silver two (2) door Yaris hatchback.

Patel said it usually takes him ten (10) minutes to drive home from the office building where he works.

I spoke to four (4) people who said they knew Rodriguez well.

Why are those parenthetical numbers there? I’d be willing to bet that not a single officer could give me a reason. It’s a tradition. OJT. Others write numbers that way, so why not imitate them?

Here’s why:

  • because those parenthetical numbers don’t need to be there
  • because they make you look outdated
  • because they don’t enhance the professionalism of your report
  • because they waste time

Think about the monks and that meowing cat. Times have changed. Let’s drop that meaningless practice!

A Tabby Cat with Green Eyes

 

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Clarity Is Needed!

What problems do you see in this excerpt from a police report?

At approximately 9:10 p.m. I was dispatched to 30 Sycamore Road in response to a report about a disturbance. I arrived at the house at approximately 9:16 p.m. and talked to John Santaguida. He said he and two friends were watching a football game on TV and began to fight. Santaguida said he was struck in the head with an unknown object. He refused medical treatment and became uncooperative. He was unable to identify a suspect. I was unable to interview either of the two friends.

You should have noted that several statements in this report lacked clarity.

1.  The object was not “unknown” – Santaguida probably knew what struck him. It would be more accurate to say “unidentified object.”

2.  It’s not helpful to write that he “became uncooperative.” Was he silent? Did he argue? Did he leave the room? And what was the issue – not answering your questions, or something else?

3.  It’s unlikely that Santaguida was “unable to identify a suspect.” More likely he was unwilling. Again, what exactly did he say?

4.  Saying you were “unable to interview either of the two friends” is insufficient. Were they present? Did they refuse to talk? Or had they left before you arrived?

clarrity

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One Idea Per Sentence, Please

Here’s a useful guideline when you’re writing a report: One idea per sentence.

Long, complicated sentences slow down the writing (and reading) process, and they open the door to grammatical errors. It’s more efficient to write simpler sentences that focus on only one idea.

Here’s a sentence with too much information:

The four boys, who had jeering at Schmidt’s car and house for several days, according to Schmidt, decided to step up their harassment a notch by throwing uncooked eggs at the car, a blue 1988 Chevy with a rusted green hood, when Schmidt drove down Parker Lane Friday at about 10:45 a.m. on his way to Walmart.  TOO COMPLICATED

This version is more efficient – and easier to read:

Schmidt told me that for several days the four boys had been jeering at his house and car. His car is a blue 1988 Chevy with a rusted green hood. Tuesday morning, Schmidt was driving the Chevy down Parker Lane on his way to Walmart. At about 10:45 a.m., Schmidt saw the boys throw uncooked eggs at his car.  EFFECTIVE 

If you were preparing for a court hearing six months later, which version would you rather read?

a brown egg

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How to Include a List in a Report

A list is an effective and time-saving way to organize some (not all!) of the details in a police report. Instead of writing a complete sentence about each detail, you list them. (Sometimes these are called “bullet lists” because each item begins with a little bullet shape.)

Officers are sometimes wary about using lists. Changing a habit can be worrisome!

The fact is, though, that you already know most of what you need to learn: After all, you’ve been writing lists for years in your everyday life.

Give lists a try in a police report. You’ll soon realize it’s much easier than laboring to write a complete sentence for every fact.

Using a list offers you several advantages:

  • It’s often faster than writing complete sentences
  • It helps you avoid long, tangled sentences that can lead to grammar mistakes
  • It automatically helps you organize details for your report
  • It saves time when you’re reviewing information later on (for example, preparing for a court appearance)

Here’s an example to help you get started. Version 1 is information from a traditional police report. Version 2 uses a list for some of the information.

Version 1 (traditional paragraph):

Donna Riley told me she went into her bedroom and realized someone had gone through her personal belongings. The contents of drawers had been dumped on the floor. She called 9-1-1. Then she started sorting through the pile on the floor to see if anything was missing. She couldn’t find a cameo pin that had belonged to her great-grandmother. A diamond ring was also missing, along with three sets of gold earrings.

Version 2 (includes a list):

Donna Riley told me she went into her bedroom and realized someone had gone through her personal belongings. The contents of drawers had been dumped on the floor. She called 9-1-1.

Riley found these items were missing:

    • a cameo pin that had belonged to her great-grandmother
    • diamond ring
    • three sets of gold earrings

Here are some tips for using lists effectively:

  1. Don’t try to write an entire report as a list! It won’t work.
  2. Make sure you have several items of related information.
  3. Lists are useful for a victim’s or witness’ statement and for lists of stolen items and search results

Here are some useful sentences for introducing a list:

I took the following actions:

[Name] reported these items as missing:

I dusted these items for fingerprints:

I interviewed the following people:

These people also had keys to the house:

Here are two more examples of lists that you can use as models.

Example 1

Weigel told me:

    • He went to bed at about 12:30 Tuesday night
    • He did not see or talk to anyone Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning
    • His relationship with Joan Conners was over
    • He never threatened to hurt her

Example 2

I did the following:

    • handcuffed William Jelinek
    • called for a backup
    • called for an ambulance
    • asked Sarah Thomas to sit with Toni Jelinek until the ambulance came

List are both efficient and easy to use. Give them a try! 

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Writing a Police Report about a Vehicle Search

Cars are great conveniences – but they’re also useful for committing crimes and eluding arrests. Criminals often find hiding places for items they want to conceal from the police: drugs, cash, weapons, and stolen items, for example.

Because cars hadn’t yet been invented when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, there are no written guidelines for vehicle searches. But various criminal cases have provided many opportunities for U.S. courts to issue guidelines about stops, searches, and seizures of evidence.

Drivers and passengers have limited Fourth Amendment protection against intrusive searches. That’s because roads, highways, and parking lots are public places, and the mobility of cars means that waiting for a search warrant may not be a practical option. This principle works to an officer’s advantage.

But officers need to remember that hunches, suspicions, and (surprising to many officers) past experience can’t be used to justify a vehicle search.

These guidelines can be frustrating to work with. On the one hand, past court decisions seem to give you the right to search a vehicle when a traffic stop seems to be going wrong. On the other hand, your trained intuition does not carry any weight in a court of law.

How can you resolve this apparent contradiction? By writing an effective report.

Suspicions, hunches, intuition, and your experienced eye must be converted into observable facts. For example, you can’t write “The two back-seat passengers seemed anxious to hide something.” Instead you could write:

While I was questioning the driver, I heard the two back-seat passengers whispering to each other. I saw the man slide his hand across the woman’s lap. She put her hand over his. Then I saw her drop her hand into the space between her seat and the rear passenger door.

Here are other details you might look for and record at a traffic stop:

  • trembling
  • darting eyes
  • fidgeting
  • reaching towards the glove compartment or a pocket, or under the seat
  • slowly moving an envelope, bag, or box out of sight

You should also record inconsistent answers to questions you’ve asked, dangerous driving maneuvers you observed, and anything suspicious you saw, heard, or smelled. Specific details and descriptions are the keys to a successful prosecution.

Good grammar, spelling, and English usage will help the prosecutor make a strong case in court. In fact the defendant may decide not to fight the charges if your report is professional and convincing. These tips can help ensure that you’ve produced a well-written report:

  • avoid rambling, complicated sentences
  • use the spellchecker if you’re writing on a laptop
  • keep a dictionary handy if you’re writing by hand
  • ask a colleague to read over your reports before you submit them

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Evaluate a Report

You can learn a lot by reading a police report with a critical eye. Here’s a typical report that has some good information – but also needs revising.

What changes would you recommend? Scroll below for a list of problems with the report and some recommendations for fixing them.

This officer was dispatched to a report of criminal mischief at 315 Cooper Lane. Upon arrival the victim related a fence was damaged by what appeared to be a vehicle that was southbound on Cooper Lane. The vehicle left the roadway and after hitting the fence continued southbound. No evidence was left from the vehicle.

First, let’s look at a few problems with wording:

  • “This officer” is old-fashioned police jargon – it makes you sound outdated, and it doesn’t enhance the report. Use “I.”
  • “Upon arrival the victim…” is a dangling modifier. The victim didn’t arrive: You, the officer, did. Better wording: “Upon my arrival, the victim…”
  • “related…” What’s wrong with “said”?

Now let’s look at wording that could cause problems if this report becomes part of a prosecution later on. The officer wrote that the fence “was damaged by what appeared to be a vehicle…” Why did it “appear” to be a vehicle? If the victim doesn’t know what it was, how can she be so sure it traveled southbound after damaging the fence?

The report states “no evidence was left from the vehicle.” What evidence did the officer look for? It would be much better to state that there were no tire tracks on the ground and no paint chips on the broken length of fence. Reporting these details show that you’re an effective officer who knows what to look for.

Here’s a suggested revision:

I was dispatched to a report of criminal mischief at 315 Cooper Lane. The victim, Marilyn James, told me she saw a light-blue Toyota Matrix drive into a fence. The Matrix was going southbound on Cooper Lane and left the roadway.  It hit the fence and then continued southbound.I looked for paint chips and tire tracks from the car but found none.

The first principle of report writing is to be specific. A few details would make this a much better report.

well done

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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 is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.

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Does “Advise” Mean “Tell”?

Does “advise” mean “tell”? No. “Advise” means “give advice.”

Jargon is the enemy of good police writing. Here’s an example of jargon (using advised to mean told) from a report about a domestic dispute:

“Both witnesses advised they observed the passenger side door open and a (woman) fall out onto the road.”  INCORRECT

Bad writing. Here’s what the deputy should have written:

“Both witnesses said they observed the passenger side door open and a (woman) fall out onto the road.”  CORRECT

Advise is not a synonym for say or tell. According to www.Dictionary.com, advise means “to give counsel to; offer an opinion or suggestion as worth following: I advise you to be cautious.”

You may be wondering why I’m complaining about what the deputy wrote. We understand what he was telling us, right? Why is using advised in his sentence a problem?

Here’s why: If you frequently use advise when you mean tell (as many officers do), you’re going to create confusion when you actually give advice to a citizen. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

Pastor Grady advised me that vandals had defaced the church sign three times in the last six months. I advised him to install brighter lighting in front of the church building.  CONFUSING

In this example, “advised” is used twice with different meanings. The first sentence should be revised to read “Pastor Grady told me….”

Here, by contrast, is a statement from a law enforcement website in which advised is used correctly, in the sense of counseling:

The New Garden Township police are advising the communities in the southern portion of the township, along the Delaware border, to be watchful of suspicious activity occurring in and around their community.  CORRECT

I advise you to be careful how you use advise in your reports! (Did you notice that I was careful to use “advise” correctly?)

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A High-School Track Star Is Wounded

Reading police reports is one of the best ways to learn about writing police reports. While you’re reading, you can make decisions about what worked well in the report – and what didn’t.

Below I’ve reproduced a redacted report about a high school athlete in Charleston, South Carolina, last May. (You can also read it at this link: http://www.pjstar.com/news/20180627/nick-in-am-eiu-police-report-details-illini-west-athletes-shooting-aftermath.)

Connor Artman was wounded in an apparent BB-gun attack at a high school boys track and field state meet in Charleston, South Carolina on May 24, 2018 

This is what a police report should look like. It is factual and objective. It’s written in normal English. There’s no police jargon. (I found only one problem – a sentence in passive voice: “These items were placed into evidence locker 14.” Who placed them there? That information might be important if there’s an investigation later on.)

Are there any practices here you might want to adopt in your own reports?

A sprinter is ready to start a race

________________________________________________________

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 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 is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.

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Writing Efficiently about Time

As a busy officer, you know all about efficiency. There’s always something else to do – and not enough time to do it!

Here’s a tip for writing your police reports more efficiently: Avoid unnecessary words when you write about time.

Here’s a suggested list of words and expressions to avoid:

 Most of the time these words and expressions don’t add anything useful:

At this time I entered the building.  WORDY

I entered the building.  BETTER

I proceeded to question the witnesses.  WORDY

I questioned the witnesses.  BETTER

 

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Thinking about a Police Report

Writing a police report requires some complex thinking skills. Here’s an opportunity to practice those skills.

 Read the summary below and make a list of issues you might think about as you prepare to write your report. When you’re finished, compare your ideas with my list (below).

A 19-year-old woman stopped at the flashing red light at Shaffer Road and Bee Line Highway. Then she pulled into the intersection into the path of vehicle driven by a 73-year-old man that she didn’t see. The two vehicles collided and caused severe damage. A passenger in the  man’s vehicle was taken to the hospital for evaluation.

Here’s my list:

  • This is a Type 2 report (the officer didn’t see the incident happen and needs to conduct an investigation).
  • Sources are needed for some of the information. How do you know that she really did stop at the traffic signal and that she didn’t see the other vehicle?
  • How are you going to document the damage to the vehicles? “Severe damage” is probably too vague for a police report. You might list some of the effects of the accident or use your cell phone to photograph the vehicles.

One more point: Writing in passive voice (“was taken to the hospital”) is a bad habit that many officers struggle to overcome. If there’s a court hearing later on, it might be important to know who transported the passenger.

Develop the habit of using active voice (“Officer Traneski transported the passenger to the hospital”) in every sentence.

How did you do?

Accident report application form and human hand with ballpoint pen.

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