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.

More about Passive Voice

In my previous post, I discussed a recurring problem with the police reports I read: They almost always lapse into passive voice near the end. Examples include “Smith was read his Miranda rights” and “The suspect was patted down.”

Active voice (better) sentences would be “I read Smith his Miranda rights” and “Officer Colm patted down the suspect.” You should always explain who performed an action during a call.

There’s another problem with passive voice that’s often overlooked – a grammatical one. Passive voice requires a construction called a past participle. It’s a specialized verb form (brought, gone, and done are examples). Many past participles end with -ed, which is easy to forget when you’re in a hurry. The result is that many writers flub these past participles.

I came across an example in the July 16, 2015 issue of Smithsonian Daily:

I’m going to focus on the first sentence:

Whether its call a drinking fountain, water fountain or bubbler, public sources of clean water have long been a part of urban life.  INCORRECT

There’s a lot wrong with this sentence. (Apparently there’s no copy editor on the staff of Smithsonian Daily.) It should be changed to they (“Public sources of clean water” is plural), and its needs an apostrophe (to mean it is).

But today we’re interested in call, which is a past participle that needs an -ed ending. Here’s the sentence with the –ed added:

Whether it’s called a drinking fountain, water fountain or bubbler, public sources of clean water have long been a part of urban life.  CORRECT

Active voice is easier because it don’t require past participles. Here’s how the sentence could have been written. (I’ve also corrected the singular/plural problem.)

Whether people call them drinking fountains, water fountains or bubblers, public sources of clean water have long been a part of urban life.  CORRECT

Why do officers keep writing in passive voice? It’s a tradition dating back to the days when criminal justice was wary of the word “I.” Trainers and supervisors believed that if you used “I” in a report, you might lie. Omit “I,” and you would be sure to tell the truth.

That’s absolute nonsense, and academies no longer train recruits that way. But passive voice lives on…and on…and on.

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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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Passive Voice

Many experts (including me) wish that passive voice in police reports would just go away.

Passive voice is a grammatical construction that omits the “who” from a sentence. Here’s a sentence written in active voice (which is better for police reports):

I transported Sanders to the county jail.  ACTIVE VOICE

Here’s the passive voice version:

Sanders was transported to the county jail.  PASSIVE VOICE

One obvious problem is with this sentence is that you don’t know who did the driving. And that’s why I’m always astonished when I see passive voice in a police report. Shouldn’t supervisors be concerned? What if there’s a question later on about that drive to jail?

And yet many reports feature passive voice. It’s especially likely to creep in near the end of a report, when an officer is writing about arresting the suspect or handling evidence.

Here’s a challenge for you. Take a look at three of your recent police reports. I can just about guarantee that there’s at least one passive voice sentence in each of those reports, and I can even tell you where you’ll find it.

Go to the bottom of the report – often called the “disposition” – where you tie up all threads: where the evidence went, what happened to the suspect, and so on.

I can just about guarantee that you wrote a sentence like one of these:

  • The evidence was logged into the evidence room (instead of “Officer Canby logged the evidence into the evidence room“).
  • Smith was read his Miranda rights (instead of “I read Smith his Miranda rights“).
  • Fallon was treated for her injuries (instead of “Paramedics treated Fallon for her injuries”).
  • No further action was taken (instead of “I did not take any further action“).

How do I know you probably wrote one of those passive voice sentences? It’s not some magical powers I possess. The answer is that I almost never read a police report without passive voice. (Mind you, I read lots of reports from some fine police writers. But most have passive voice sentences near the end.)

Here’s what’s especially interesting. When I ask officers why they wrote those sentences, they look at me blankly. They can’t give a reason. It’s just something they did without thinking about it.

So here’s a question for you: Do you think there’s any effective writer in the world who makes writing choices for no reason, without thinking about them? (Hint: the answer is no.)

Did you notice anything those passive-voice sentences had in common? Here it is: The sentence never named the person who performed the action. It’s as if there was a ghost who read those Miranda rights or logged that evidence or treated those injuries.

I’ll discuss another problem with passive voice in my next post.

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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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If You’re Preparing for a Promotion

Most of the time I use this blog to deal with police reports. Today, though, I’d like to venture into another type of police writing: Administrative paperwork.

Below I’ve posted the first paragraph of a cover letter that accompanies a report written by Peter Zimroth, a federal monitor who’s been examining NYPD stop-and-frisk practices. (You can read the entire report here: nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/09/nyregion/document-changes-to-new-york-police-practices-and-policies.html.)

Question: Do you notice anything unusual about the first sentence of this letter?

Zimroth 2

Here’s what I noticed: It’s human. Instead of the usual “This is in regards to…,” Zimroth wrote, “I am pleased to submit.”

Workplace writing has changed so that it’s no longer necessary to sound as if you’re an impersonal machine. 

If you have a leadership position in an agency (or you’re hoping for one some day), it might be a good idea to start thinking now about ways to update your writing habits.

320px-NYPD 2

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How a Defense Attorney Thinks

Val Van Brocklin is a prosecutor who has written some excellent articles for PoliceOne.com. I enjoy her articles because they give police officers a fresh perspective on report writing. 

Click here to read “Five Ways Defense Attorneys Try to Trip up Cops…and How to Beat Them.”

Van Brocklin says, “Cops are frustrated to learn that defense attorneys have no obligation to the truth in defense of their clients. But take solace in the fact that it frustrates an attorney when they’re unable to rattle you.”

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The Courtney Irby Police Report

On June 20, Courtney Irby was arrested in a Florida police station. She had gone into her husband’s home, removed two weapons, and taken them to the police department. She told the officer that her husband had been abusing her. A judge had said that her husband could not own any weapons. Because the police hadn’t removed the weapons, Courtney decided to turn them in herself.

There is a huge controversy about whether she should have been charged with a crime. After five days in jail, she was released on bail. You can read more here: https://www.theledger.com/news/20190624/state-attorney-urged-to-drop-case-against-courtney-irby-lakeland-woman-arrested-for-giving-estranged-husbands-guns-to-police

You can read the police report here: https://heavy.com/news/2019/06/courtney-irby/

Below is a sample. I think it could have been written more efficiently (a boon to both the writer and anyone who needs to read it). There’s no need to write the date, time, and address – they already were typed into the form. Courtney’s statement could be written as a timesaving list. You can scroll down to read my version.

On the above date and time, I responded to 450 south Broadway (Bartow Police Department) in reference to a domestic aggravated battery. The victim (Courtney Irby) advised the following: She and the defendant (Joseph Irby) are married with two children in common and have resident together as a family unit in the past. She and the defendant were attending court today in reference to going through a divorce. After court the victim and defendant engaged in a verbal altercation. The victim arrived to her vehicle and attempted to leave the courthouse. The defendant followed behind her in his vehicle and began ramming his vehicle front bumper into the back of the victim’s rear bumper. He then began screaming and yelling at her. The victim told me that the defendant ran her off the roadway a few times, while she was making contact with the Bartow Police Department Dispatch via telephone. Affiant observed scratches on the victim’s rear bumper. The victim was uncontrollable crying and advised that she was in fear for her life. She also stated that she has had serval restraining orders on the defendant in the past. 

Here’s my version:

I responded to a domestic aggravated battery. The victim (Courtney Irby) told me:

-she and the defendant (Joseph Irby) are married

-they have two children in common

-they have been living as a family unit

-they were in court today about their divorce

-they argued after the court hearing

-Courtney tried to drive away from the courthouse

-Joseph followed in his car

-he rammed his car’s front bumper into her rear bumper

-he screamed at her

-he ran her off the road a few times while she was phoning the Bartow Police Department

-she was afraid Joseph might kill her

-in the past she had several restraining orders against him

I saw scratches on Courtney’s rear bumper and heard her crying uncontrollably.

          Courtney Irby

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The Kellen Winslow Police Report

Winslow Kellen is a former NFL player who played for Cleveland, Tampa Bay, New England and the New York Jets. He has been convicted of raping a homeless woman in California, and there are other charges as well.

In 2013, Kellen was caught masturbating in a car in New Jersey. You can read the story here: https://www.nj.com/jets/2014/01/witness_told_police_jets_tight_end_kellen_winslow_jr_was_masturbating_in_his_car.html

You can read the police report here:  https://blacksportsonline.com/2014/01/kellen-winslow-jr-caught-masturbating-in-car/

It’s an effective report about a complicated situation. The officer didn’t witness Kellen’s sexual behavior but did see plastic drug containers and plastic bags in the car. Tests later showed that the bags contained synthetic marijuana, and Kellen was arrested for possession.

The report deals first with the masturbation issue: “I observed Mr. Winslow wearing dark colored sweatpants and two open containers of Vaseline on his center console but his genitals were not exposed.” (The woman’s statement appears later in the report.)

Then the report covers the plastic containers and Winslow’s answers to the officer’s questions.

The report is thorough and objective. The officer used active voice through most of the report. One notable example is “I patted Mr. Winslow down for weapons with negative results.” Bravo!

But later in the report there’s a string of passive voice sentences. “A written consent to serve form was signed by Mr. Winslow.” It would be simpler to write “Mr. Winslow signed a written consent to serve form.” It’s odd that many officers automatically switch to passive voice in the last paragraph.

And there are two examples of police jargon throughout the report: advised (which should have been “told”) and observed (“saw” is a more efficient word).

Overall, though, it’s an excellent report.

                                                Kellen Winslow

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A Police Report from Phoenix, Arizona

On May 29, a family was shopping at a dollar store in Phoenix, Arizona. A four-year-old girl allegedly took a doll out without paying for it. A Phoenix police officers is accused of threatening to shoot the children and using excessive force against their parents.

A citizen standing nearby videotaped the encounter on his phone. After the video went public, Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams said she was “disturbed by the language and actions.”

The police report does not seem to match what actually happened outside the store. Meanwhile, more information about the couple’s background has been found, and a 16-page investigation has been released.

You can learn more and read the police report here: https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/phoenix/2019/06/14/phoenix-police-release-report-controversial-response-shoplifting-incident/1461089001/

You can watch the bystander’s video here: https://www.cbsnews.com/video/phoenix-mayor-apologizes-after-controversial-video-shows-police-officers-altercation-with-family/

Our interest here is – of course – in the police report. Most of it is extremely well written. Three features impressed me. The sentence structure is excellent. There’s no jargon – no advised, for example. And the officer correctly used active voice in a sentence about transporting the suspect to jail:

AFTER BOOKING PROCEDURES WERE COMPLETE, OFFICER HERRICHT AND I TRANSPORTED RENITA TO 4TH AVENUE JAIL WITHOUT ANY INCIDENTS.

But there were also two awkward sentences:

RENITA WAS WITH CHRISTINE WHO SHE SUPPOSE TOO TAKE CARE OFF.

N 0527-19 AT 1153 HOURS, OFFICER HERRICHT READ RENITA HER RIGHTS, FOR WHICH IN UNDERSTANDING SHE STATED ‘YEAH!’ RENITA THEN SAID SHE WILL NOT TALK TO OFFICER HERRICHT OF WHAT HAVE OCCURRED AT THE ABOVE STORE AND ASKED FORA LAWYER.

What happened? Was the officer getting tired? Did he run out of time for proofreading?

Every police report is a legal document that reflects on both the police officer and their agency. Always take time to review what you’ve written. Don’t hesitate to ask for input from someone else.The words Write, Review, Submit

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Drugs at Burger King?

On May 7, police officers in St. Petersburg, Florida, searched a woman in a Burger King restroom. They found seven syringes containing a clear substance. Charges were later dropped. You can read the story and the report here: http://thesmokinggun.com/documents/crime/syringe-case-update-764829

I’m concerned about one sentence in the report: subject showed several indicators of narcotics usage. That is a subjective statement (an opinion). It needs to be backed up with details.

What unusual behaviors did you see? For example, was the woman agitated, confused, or lethargic? Were there physical signs of drug use? They might include nausea, bloodshot eyes, slow speech, a seizure, a dull stare, or uncontrollable shaking.

In this case, police were called because the woman was agitated. What did she say? Was her voice shrill? Uneven? Were there long gaps between words? Writing the exact words and the way she spoke could indicate confusion or paranoia. At that point you might have probable cause for a search.

When a report doesn’t give objective facts, a district attorney might decide to drop charges. Always list your observations (not your opinions, hunches, or conclusions!) when you write a report.

an empty syringe for injections

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Another Bicycle Incident

This seems to be the week for bicycle incidents!

In Santa Rosa, California, a police officer tackled a bicyclist who was allegedly violating traffic laws.  As a result, the bicyclist’s elbow was broken. You can read the entire story here: https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9631121-181/santa-rosa-police-records-detail

Below is a summary that was released to the public. Pretend that you’re a supervisor. What advice would you give the officer who wrote it? (Note that this is not an actual police report. But police departments often issue summaries like this one.)

The incident involved a case of a man known to Santa Rosa police who an officer said was swerving while riding his bike, violating traffic laws and appearing not to heed an officer’s attempts to pull him over.

The man’s claim, as seen on police body-camera footage, was that he didn’t know he was being pulled over or was resisting arrest, having thought the officer’s signals were only to allow the police vehicle to pass by.

As the cyclist continued on his way, Officer Mark Fajardin, a 12-year veteran of the department, exited his patrol vehicle, chased the man on foot, tackled him off his bike and detained him after a brief struggle on the ground.

My comments: This is an excellent summary. The sentence structure is crisp and professional. The facts are objective and straightforward.

But there’s a problem: the writer crammed too much information into each sentence. Here’s a rule of thumb that many professional writers (including me!) try to follow: one idea per sentence. Your writing will be easier to read (and to write!). And you’re far less likely to make errors when you keep your sentences short.

Here’s my revision:

The incident involved a case of a man known to Santa Rosa police. An officer said the man was swerving while riding his bike. He was violating traffic laws and didn’t obey an officer’s attempts to pull him over.

The man kept riding his bicycle. Officer Mark Fajardin, a 12-year veteran of the department, left his patrol car. Officer Fajardin ran after the cyclist, tackled him, and brought the cyclist to the ground.

Body-camera footage showed the cyclist arguing with the officer. The cyclist said he didn’t know he was being pulled over or was resisting arrest. He thought the officer’s signals were only to allow the police vehicle to pass by.

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The Borrowed Bicycle

Below is a summary of a recent police report that was released to the media. Pretend you were a supervisor as you read the report. What changes would you recommend?

Police said a 45-year-old woman was allegedly assaulted Friday afternoon in the 400 block of Carroll Boulevard after confronting another woman about a borrowed bicycle, according to a police report.

Officers responded to the incident around 5:30 p.m. in the 700 block of Fort Worth Drive, where the woman called police. The caller told police she confronted the woman because she wanted her to return a bicycle she had borrowed.

Their verbal argument escalated into a physical altercation, the report states. The woman who borrowed the bike pushed the caller to the ground and wrestled with her for a few moments, according to the report.

Police observed abrasions on the victim’s ankle, knee and forehead.

Here are my comments:

  1.  Overall this is a professional, objective report. Well done!
  2. Delete verbal. There’s no difference between an argument and a verbal argument. Police officers are busy people with no time for unnecessary words.
  3.  Change “abrasions” to scrapes, bruises, or scratches. Use ordinary words whenever you can. Be as specific as you can.
  4. Change “physical altercation” to fight. Again, use ordinary words whenever you can.
  5.  The sentence below is confusing. Never use she when there are two women in a sentence:

The caller told police she confronted the woman because she wanted her to return a bicycle she had borrowed.

In my version, I changed the second “she” to the suspect. Now the sentence is easier to understand:

The caller told police the suspect had borrowed a bicycle and didn’t return it. The caller demanded her bicycle back.

a red women's bicycle

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