Category Archives: What’s New

Online Police Reporting

A number of police departments are encouraging citizens to report non-violent crimes online. In Virginia, the Norfolk Police Department has introduced a new online system that features a virtual police officer to help with the process. The system is available around the clock in both English and Spanish.

“Empowering our residents and community members to report crime is a great asset to enhancing our police services,” said Police Chief Michael Goldsmith. “The solution will play a critical role in assigning our personnel to best protect the needs of the city we serve.”

The system is intended to reduce time and costs associated with reporting so that officers can spend their time on other crime fighting, according to the release. Police said it reduces officer dispatch by up to 30 percent for all reports. You can take a look at Norfolk’s reporting system at this link

The Troy Police Department in New York is another agency that is making online reporting available for non-violent crimes. The Troy PD has added another helpful feature: A downtown computer terminal with a direct link to police. Eventually kiosks will be installed to make it easier for citizens to make reports.

Tedesco said the system, which costs $5,200 annually, will streamline the workload so that these crimes are still reported and attended to, but officers then potentially have more time to investigate city crime hot spots. You can view the system at

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Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds


An Old-School Report

New information is becoming available about the Freddie Gray incident in Baltimore, Maryland on April 12. (You will remember that Gray spotted police, ran, was arrested when a knife was found in his pocket, and was found to have serious injuries when the police vehicle arrived at the station. He subsequently died. The knife in his pocket turned out to be a legal pocketknife. An investigation is ongoing.)

You can read about recent developments at this link:

What interests me today is the incident report that has been released. Here is the narrative portion:

…the above named Defendant fled unprovoked upon noticing police presence. The Defendant was apprehended in the 1780 Block of Presbury St after a brief foot chase. This officer noticed a Knife clipped to the inside of his front right pants pocket. The defendant was arrested without force or incident. The Knife was recovered

This is old-school report writing. It uses passive voice (“The Defendant was apprehended…”). The officer does not identify himself or herself (“This officer noticed a Knife…”).

Happily, this type of report writing is becoming more rare. Police reports need to state exactly what happened and who performed each action. Did you notice that the name of the person who captured Freddie Gray is missing? And that there are no details about how Freddie Gray was “apprehended?” Was force involved? The report doesn’t say.

Writing “this officer” instead of “I” is a leftover from a kind of magical thinking that used to shape police reports. Criminal justice used to believe that if you said “I,” you could be lying. But if you said “this officer,” or you used passive voice, you were guaranteed to be telling the truth.

Doesn’t make sense, does it?

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Andy Moeller

Prosecutor Jim Walter in Berea, Ohio has decided not to pursue charges against Cleveland Browns offensive line coach Andy Moeller, who was accused of assaulting a woman at his home. You can read about this latest development at this link. And you can read an earlier news story, along with the original incident report, by clicking here.

Today I’m interested in one sentence from the incident report:

The victim was advised that the original complaint she signed would be forwarded to the Berea Prosecutor for review, and that no arrests would be made on the complaint at this time.

What’s your opinion? Is this an example of good police writing?

My answer is no (although most of the report is excellent) for two reasons.

First, “advised” is the wrong word. There was no “advice.” The victim was told the status of her complaint.

Second, this sentence omits an essential piece of information: The name of the officer who told her what was going to happen to her complaint.

Here’s how the sentence could be written (assuming that the officer writing the report is also the person who told her about the Berea prosecutor):

I told the victim that the original complaint she signed would be forwarded to the Berea Prosecutor for review, and that no arrests would be made on the complaint at this time. BETTER

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Will a Comma Save the Day?

A crime story in today’s newspaper is a good reminder about the confusion so many people feel about commas.

Shannon Lamb, a Delta State University professor, is believed to have killed his girlfriend, Amy Prentiss, and another professor, Ethan Schmidt. As police closed in on him Monday night, Lamb took his own life.

The Associated Press has published a photo of a hand-written note provided by police in Gautier, Mississippi. The caption explains that “Lamb is accused of killing Prentiss, his girlfriend and a colleague, fellow Delta State professor Ethan Schmidt.” (You can read the entire story at this link.)

When I read the caption under the photo, I was bothered by this phrase: 

Prentiss, his girlfriend and a colleague

How many people – one, two, or three? A girlfriend named Prentiss who’s a colleague, or a girlfriend named Prentiss and another person who’s a colleague, or Prentiss, a girlfriend, and a colleague?

But if you add another comma, it’s still confusing:

Prentiss, his girlfriend, and a colleague, 

This sentence illustrates why it’s so important to teach writers to think rather than simply have them diagram sentences and complete workbook exercises.

Here’s what I would have done: Add the word both. The revised sentence would read, “Lamb is accused of killing both Prentiss, his girlfriend, and a colleague, fellow Delta State professor Ethan Schmidt.”

Bottom line: Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can solve any sentence problem with a punctuation mark. Sometimes you’ll need to cross out a sentence and rewrite it. Often I find that I need to break one long sentence into two shorter ones – there’s no other way to make my point clear.

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A Backlog of Police Reports

The Redding Police Department in California is backlogged by more than 100 police reports. According to Chief Robert Paoletti, the backlog is causing a four-to-six hour wait. “If there’s priority one calls, a lot of priority one calls, we may not get to that report at all and we don’t capture that crime.”

A major cause is an outdated computer system. “Our computer system was house-built in 1984,” Paoletti said. “They’re still handwriting face pages, which most departments haven’t done for 15 years because everything is computerized.”

But change is on the horizon. Next year the department will be revamping its computer system. The $2.2 million price tag will be split among three agencies – Redding, the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office, and the Anderson Police Department.

You can read more and watch a television report about the problem at this link:


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No Report Was Written

The situation is so embarrassing that NYPD Commissioner William Bratton is issuing an apology.

At noon on Wednesday, tennis star James Blake was leaving a New York City hotel when an undercover executive picked him up, body slammed him, put him on the ground, and cuffed him. The officer did not identify himself or give Blake a chance to explain who he was. Blake says, “I was standing there doing nothing – not running, not resisting, in fact smiling.”

Half-a-dozen officers got involved and shoved Blake face first into a large, mirrored building support beam. Blake was detained for 15 minutes and suffered cuts and bruises.

Charlie Sanders,  who sells newspapers nearby, saw the whole thing. “He told them, ‘I have my U.S. Open badge in my pocket,'” Sanders said.

It was a case of mistaken identity. Police were looking for a James Blake look-alike who was involved with credit card fraud.

Commissioner Bratton says he has concerns about “the inappropriateness of the amount of force that was used during the arrest.” Bratton has reviewed video evidence of the arrest.

Bratton cited one more damning detail: All six officers violated NYPD policy by not submitting a report about the incident.

You can read a full account at this link.

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                                                                      James Blake



False Police Reports

False police reports are a recurring problem for law enforcement. False reports waste time and resources, and filing one can be a criminal matter.

I just came across an interesting article about the problem that includes some observations from Dr. Eric Hickey, a forensic psychologist and dean of the California School of Forensic Studies for Alliant International University. It’s worth reading! Click here.




Body Cameras and Police Reports

My thanks to Bruce A. Sokolove, principal of Field Training Associates, for alerting me to an article with some interesting implications for police reports. The section on memory science (which I’ll discuss below) is especially valuable. 

The 2015 issue of Journal of Law Enforcement (Volume 4, No. 6) examines an intriguing study: “Body-Worn Cameras Improve Law Enforcement Officer Report Writing Accuracy” by D. Dawes, W. Heegaard et al. You can download the article at this link:

The study involved eleven law-enforcement officers who wrote a use-of-force report from memory. The officers then then reviewed their body-worn-camera recordings and amended their reports. The study found that the officers corrected 21 errors “related to miscounting, mis-sequencing, or omitting force, warnings, compliance, or other important descriptors of the use of force.”

What interested me most is the research about memory science. We assume, the authors say, that remembering is like playing back a digital recording. Science has shown, however, that remembering is a “reconstructive process.” A 2013 article in the National Review of Neuroscience compares memory to paleontology: “out of a few stored bone chips, we remember a dinosaur.”

I encourage you to read the section on memory science (it’s short, and you’ll find it on the first page). Knowing your limitations is the first step towards moving past them. Awareness of the ways that our memories can mislead us is the first step towards better remembering.

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Test Yourself

Aldon Smith is an NFL football player who’s currently a free agent. Recently Smith was involved in an automobile collision that made the news because he walked away from it without leaving identifying information.

Below is a press release from the Santa Clara Police Department that describes what happened. It provides an opportunity for you to think about the kinds of information required in a police report. (A press release is not, of course, a police report – it’s a fact sheet for newspapers, TV, and other media.)

So…after you read the press release, make a list of additional information you’d expect to see if you had a chance to read the actual police report. (Reminder: A police report has to be specific.) After you’re finished, scroll down to see my list and compare it to yours.

On Thursday, August 6, 2015 at about 8:46 PM, Santa Clara Officers were dispatched to Moreland Way to investigate a disturbance involving a collision. On arrival, officers learned Aldon Smith was parking his vehicle and collided with a parked vehicle. After the collision, Smith exited his vehicle and caused additional damage to the parked vehicle with his car door.

Smith then left the area not reporting the collision or leaving his identifying information at the scene. He later returned to the parking area where he was contacted by officers. Smith displayed objective symptoms of being under the influence of an alcoholic beverage. Officers administered a field sobriety test to Smith.

Additional information I would expect to find in the police report might include:

  • What actions by Smith caused the damage to the parked vehicle?
  • What did the damage look like?
  • Who saw Aldon Smith exit his car?
  • What were the signs that Smith was under the influence of an alcoholic beverage?
  • How did the police contact Smith when he returned?
  • How did he respond to the police?
  • Which field sobriety test was administered?
  • Which officer administered it?
  • What were the results?

Specific practices for writing police reports can vary from agency to agency. If your list is different, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong. Just be sure that you’re carefully following the guidelines for your agency.

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