Category Archives: What’s New

A Type 4 Report

Yesterday’s post asked you to evaluate a police report about an assault charge against George Zimmerman. Now I have another question for you – two questions, actually. Are you familiar with the four types of reports? And do you know what type of report you would write about Zimmerman’s arrest?

Answer: It’s a Type 4 report. (See the chart below.) Here’s a quick summary of what I’m talking about: There are four basic types of police reports. Type 1 is the simplest, and each subsequent type adds another feature. Type 4 is the most complicated type of report.

What makes Type 4 reports different? The officer (or, in the Zimmerman case, officers – there were two of them) initiates the action. Because the officers make the decision on their own to get involved, probable cause is an issue.

Take a moment to read the Zimmerman police report and see if you can spot the sentence about probable cause. 

Did you find it? It’s this sentence: 

The officers advised they heard glass break, and saw the [blacked out] drive off without headlights on…

That sentence establishes probable cause for stopping the car and talking to the woman who claimed that Zimmerman assaulted her.

Understanding the four types of reports can save time and ensure that every report meets criminal justice standards. Studying the chart below is a good place to start!

Types of Reports

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George Zimmerman is Back in the News

George Zimmerman was arrested on January 5 for throwing a wine bottle at a woman in Lake Mary, Florida. The police report (which you can read here) is thorough, objective, and professional – but it’s also wordy.

Here’s an excerpt from the original report:

On 1/05/15 approximately 23:30 hours a disturbance was discovered in occurrence at the address of 1874 Valley Wood Way, in the City of Lake Mary. Officer Langworthy and PFC Snider were on patrol in the area at that residence. Their attention was drawn to that location further by hearing the sound of glass break, and seeing the Victim drive away from the residence without headlights on (at night). The officers stopped the vehicle and made contact with the Victim to investigate. Upon making contact with the Victim they learned that the victim was just involved in a disturbance at that residence with Defendant George Zimmerman.

The Victim indicated to the Officers that she and the Defendant were in an argument over various issues. The Victim indicated that she was X with the Defendant for the past two (to three) months, where they have had an intimate relationship. The Victim indicated that at that time that the officers came into the area the Defendant had just thrown a wine bottle at the Victim. The bottle did not strike her person. The incident scared the Victim so she then departed the area in her car. During the investigation the Victim was extremely upset and emotional. She also indicated that the Defendant caused her cell phone to be broken by throwing it on the ground.  [222 words]

Here’s a more concise version of the same information:

On 1/05/15 at approximately 23:30 hours, Officer Langworthy and PFC Snider were on patrol on Valley Wood Way in Lake Mary. They heard glass break and saw a woman drive away from a house at 1874 Valley Wood Way without headlights on. The officers stopped the car and talked with the woman. She said she had been quarreling with Defendant George Zimmerman. They have had an intimate relationship. He had just thrown a wine bottle at her. It did not strike her. He also threw her cell phone to the ground and broke it. She was afraid and drove away.  [99 words]

Police officers are busy! Repetition doesn’t help a report (“The Victim indicated…The Victim indicated.”) Filler words and expressions use up an officer’s valuable time and don’t add anything useful (“Their attention was drawn to that location further….”). Once you’ve identified Zimmerman as the defendant, you can refer to him as “he” – there’s no need to write out “the Defendant” every time. Similarly you can write “she” instead of repeating “the Victim” again and again.

If you’ve read the entire report, you might notice another possible improvement. The officer wrote, “During the investigation the Victim was extremely upset and emotional.” Specific details are needed. How do you know she was upset? Describe what you saw and heard: tears, trembling, moaning, yelling, darting eyes. Those details might be useful if this case ends up in court.

Reading and evaluating actual police reports like this one can help you improve your own writing skills. What parts of this report did you admire? What practices can you imitate? And what improvements would you make?

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A Dangerous Ride

Here’s an unusual story: On January 8, a Florida mother drove about 540 yards with her son on the hood of her car. He had jumped onto the hood to keep her from driving off, and she thought that starting the car would prompt him to jump off and, incidentally, teach him a lesson.

It’s not clear whether the experience taught him anything, but he didn’t jump off, and she was arrested.

You can read the police report at this link: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/buster/bad-parents/juvenile-hood-ornament-897631. Suggestion: Read the report, evaluate it, and then scroll down to read my comments.

Here’s what I thought when I read it:

Overall, this is a well-organized and thorough report. Most sentences are written clearly, in normal English.

Suggestions:

  • Avoid unnecessary jargon. “Saw” is quicker to write than “observed”; “house” is better than “residence”; “told” is better than “advised.”
  • Use “she” instead of repeating “Officer Guerra” and “Tojuana.”
  • Avoid repetition. Take a look at these two sentences:

Winter Springs Code Enforcement Officer Terri Guerra, observed a black male juvenile male on top of a black Mazda while in movement on N Moss Road. Code Enforcement Officer Guerra advised over the radio the incident she was observing.  WORDY

It would be more efficient to write:

Winter Springs Code Enforcement Officer Terri Guerra radioed that she saw a black male juvenile male on top of a black Mazda moving on N Moss Road.  BETTER

Here’s a good rule of thumb: If a word or phrase doesn’t add anything useful, don’t use it.

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A Controversial Police Report from Pasadena

If you’ve been following the news, you know that there’s a controversy about the police report for the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9.

Now another police shooting is in the news, and the same controversy is brewing: How much information does the public have a right to know?

On March 24, 2012, two Pasadena police officers shot Kendrec McDade as he ran from them on Sunset Avenue. McDade, an African-American teenager, was unarmed. McDade’s death sparked protests and prompted an independent review.

The Pasadena Police Officers Association has not released the independent review. Under California laws often called the Peace Officers Bill of Rights, many police records are confidential. California’s supreme court, however, recently ordered that police to release the McDade report.

At the heart of the controversy is a 911 call from a citizen who claimed his laptop had been stolen at gunpoint. Based on that false report, officers fired on McDade. Subsequent investigation found McDade and another youth had been on the scene during the theft, and the second youth actually committed the crime.

On Octobeer 16, Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant ruled that Pasadena should make public at least a portion of the independent consultant’s report.

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A Palin Family Incident

Sarah Palin is in the news again – this time in connection with a brawl near Anchorage, Alaska, involving several family members. (No charges were filed.) You can read about the incident at this link.

Although the story is old news by now (it happened on September 6), the police report wasn’t released until this week. You can read it at this link. Despite a few omitted words and other minor glitches, it’s a model of good police reporting.

1.  It’s objective. The officer sticks to the facts without making assumptions or drawing conclusions. For example, instead of writing “Lebida was uncooperative,” the officer wrote: “Lebida said he was not going to tell me what happened and he just wanted to go home.”

2.  It’s coherent. The situation was chaotic: Several disorderly people – some under the influence of alcohol – were arguing and offering conflicting accounts of what had happened. Punches were exchanged. There was bloody clothing. The officer recorded each person’s statement separately, and he wrote separate paragraphs to document his own observations and actions.

3.  It’s written in clear, simple language (“McKenna said,” “I walked,” “I asked,” “he tripped,” and so on). There’s no police jargon and almost no passive voice. For example, instead of writing “No injuries were observed on McKenna” (passive voice), the officer wrote, “I observed no injuries on McKenna” (active voice).

A few corrections could be made. For example:

  • The officer wrote, “I smelled the strong odor of alcohol coming from the group of subjects.” Alcohol is odorless. It would be better to write “I smelled the strong odor of an alcoholic beverage….”
  • The officer wrote, “MCKENNA said there buddy STEVE was sucker punched by an unknown person.” There is incorrect. The officer should have written that “their buddy STEVE was sucker punched….”

Overall, though, this is an impressive report.

SarahPalin

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Jonathan Dwyer

On September 17 the Phoenix Police Department arrested Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer on five charges, including domestic violence, that occurred on July 21 and 22. You can read the story at this link. Dwyer is accused of violence against his wife, 27-year-old Kayla, and their 18-month-old son, J.J.

Here’s the police report – and a practice activity for you: What changes would you recommend? My comments are posted below the report. 

UPON OFFICERS ARRIVAL VICTIM REPORTED SHE WAS ENGAGED IN A VERBAL ARGUMENT OVER THE TELEPHONE WITH A FAMILY MEMBER. SHE ADVISED SHE AND HER SON WERE THE ONLY OCCUPANTS IN THE RESIDENCE. AFTER THE OFFICERS LEFT THE VICTIM FLED WITH THEIR SON. SHE LATER RETURNED AFTER THE DEFENDANT TEXT HER A PICTURE OF A KNIFE AND STATED HE DID NOT WANT TO LIVE ANYMORE. IT WAS LATER LEARNED BY INVESTIGATORS THE DEFENDANT WAS HIDING INSIDE THE RESIDENCE WHEN OFFICERS RESPONDED ON THE INITIAL CALL. SHE SAID HE HAD THREATENED TO KILL HIMSELF IN FRONT OF HER AND THEIR CHILD IF SHE ALERTED THE POLICE TO THE ASSAULT, SO SHE DENIED TO THE OFFICERS THAT HE WAS PRESENT AND THAT SHE HAD BEEN ASSAULTED.

My suggestions:

  • Use simple language: Instead of “she and her son were the only occupants in the residence,” I would have said “she and her son were at home alone.” Use “said,” not “advised” (which should be reserved for giving advice).
  • Put an -ed ending on “text”: “She later returned after the defendant texted her a picture of a knife…”
  • Put an apostrophe into “officers” in the first sentence. If one officer handled the call, write “Upon officer’s arrival.” If there were several, write “Upon officers’ arrival.”

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A Stolen Watch

Efficiency is an important issue for busy police officers. Wordy reports waste time, and unnecessary repetition doesn’t add anything useful.

Here’s an example of a thorough and professional report that’s more wordy than necessary: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1301216-judge-police-report.html

How would you write it more efficiently? (Remember, you don’t want to omit any information.) After you’ve read and evaluated this report, read on for my suggestions.

Suggestions:

  1. Use bullets. 
  2. Remember that you’re not writing a novel! Record only what’s necessary.
  3. Use simple language (“I” rather than “myself,” for example).
  4. Omit the introductory sentence, which restates information already recorded on the report form. (Note: Some agencies still require officers to duplicate this information. Follow your agency’s requirements.)
  5. Use a separate paragraph for each person you talked to (TSA Manager, Trooper Durant, suspect, alleged victim), and another paragraph for your own investigation (viewing the security video).

Here’s an example of how the report could be rewritten:

An excerpt from the original report:

When I arrived, I was approached by TSA Manager Daniel Winship and he told me that a passenger reported to him that her watch was stolen. He handed me a photograph taken from security video of an older Caucasian woman with brown hair, wearing dark clothing and a bright colored scarf. The woman was holding what appeared to be a watch in her right hand. Winship told me that he checked the video and observed the person In the photograph taking a watch from one of the bins and placing it in her carry-on bag. I asked him about the Identity of the victim and he told me that he asked her to remain in the area.

Revision:

TSA Manager Daniel Winship showed me a photograph taken from security video of an older Caucasian woman with brown hair, wearing dark clothing and a bright colored scarf. The woman was holding what appeared to be a watch in her right hand.

Winship told me he had:

  • viewed a security video showing the woman taking a watch from one of the bins and placing it in her carry-on bag
  • identified and interviewed the woman
  • asked her to remain in the area 

Under another heading the officer could record the suspect’s statement. Breaking up the report this way helps ensure that nothing is omitted – and makes the report easier to review later if further action is needed.

Each step in the investigation (finding the victim, interviewing her, watching the security video, allowing the suspect to board her flight, etc.) can be documented the same way.

Result: A more efficient report.

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New Law Restricts Domestic Violence Reports

Massachusetts has a new law that removes domestic violence police reports from public records. Gov. Deval Patrick signed the domestic violence reform bill into law on August 8. Under the new law, police are prohibited from releasing information about domestic violence arrests. The public may not be informed until the suspect is arraigned in court.

Supporters of the law say it will encourage victims to go to police. The bill was largely inspired by the death of Jennifer Martel, who was fatally stabbed a year ago by Jared Remy, the son of Red Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy. You can read more about the case here.

Lysetta Hurge-Putnam, executive director of Independence House in Hyannis, a resource and referral center for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, said a lack of privacy might be preventing people from going to police.

“The impact is the public becomes aware but in the meantime the victim might be facing consequences,” such as harassment from the perpetrator’s friends and family, Hurge-Putnam said.

But not everyone thinks that withholding the reports is a good idea. Some of the comments posted on Facebook expressed doubts: “It is a slippery slope to not be sharing info with the public,” said one. “Also, it makes it harder to know who your neighbors are!”

And some law enforcement experts wonder whether the law is necessary. In the Jared Remy case, for example, Jennifer Martel went to the police several times for her death. Remy had been arrested for domestic violence dozens of times – at the request of a number of victims – before the murder charge.

You can learn more about the law at this link: http://shar.es/1n8emf.

Domestic Violence

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The Police Report about Michael Brown

The Ferguson Police Department in Missouri has released its police report recounting an alleged strong-arm robbery by Michael Brown on August 9. You can read it at this link.

If you’ve been following the news, you know that shortly after the robbery, Brown was stopped for jaywalking. He and a companion – also allegedly involved in the robbery – ran from the police officer, who pursued them and fatally shot Brown. The story is still developing. You can learn more about it at this link.

The report about the robbery is an excellent example of professional police writing.  It’s written in first person, with a minimum of jargon (except that advised crept in several times when told or said would have been better). There’s a however sentence that needs a period:

An apparent struggle or confrontation seems to take place with Brown, however it is obscured by a display case on the counter.

Here’s the improved sentence:

An apparent struggle or confrontation seems to take place with Brown. However, it is obscured by a display case on the counter.

Overall, though, this is an impressive report. Sophisticated sentence patterns throughout the report suggest a high level of writing skill. Here’s an example from the step-by-step description of what is happening in the surveillance video from the convenience store (the name of the clerk was redacted):

[The clerk], no longer between Brown and the door, stops and watches Brown as he walks toward the exit door.

Far more important than the fine points of writing, however, is the question of the public’s right to know. Are police reports internal documents – or does the public have the right to read them? And…who decides?

Just last month, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled against mandatory release of police documents. (You can read the decision here.) Another recent case, still undecided, concerns a university police force in Ohio that does not want to release arrest documents. The Ohio Supreme Court has not yet issued its ruling. (You can read about that case here.)

In Ferguson, Missouri, the unanswered questions center on the report of the shooting of Michael Brown. Did Officer Darren Wilson know that Brown and his companion were suspects in a robbery? That police report has not been released. Does the public have a right to read it? Or is a press release sufficient?

Who will make that decision? We can expect the debate to continue.

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Challenge Yourself!

Earlier this month, 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 ear 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

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