Category Archives: What’s New

A Cucumber Problem at Wendy’s

On August 3, Theodore Gunderson ordered a salad at a Wendy’s drive-through window. The salad didn’t have enough cucumbers to satisfy him.  Gunderson threatened an employee and then tried to drive away. An officer reached into Gunderson’s car to take the car keys. Gunderson kept driving, despite the danger to the officer.

Gunderson was arrested for assaulting a police officer. You can read the police report here: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/documents/bizarre/wendys-cucumber-rage-arrest-792854

Overall this is a well-written report – but a few changes might be helpful.

  1. These sentences lack objectivity:

The Defendant used obscene language with the employee (victim), and threatened him by saying “If I had a gun or a knife you would be the first to go”. The victim was scared for his life.  SUBJECTIVE

Police reports are supposed to stick to observable facts. They can’t describe thoughts, feelings, or conclusions. Instead of mentioning obscene language, the report should simply record Gunderson’s exact words. (Remember that what one person considers obscene, another person might consider acceptable.)

There’s a similar problem when the report states that Gunderson threatened the employee: that’s an opinion. Perhaps another person in that situation wouldn’t have felt threatened. The report should record only the threatening words from Gunderson.

The same problem arises with this sentence: “The victim was scared for his life.” How do you know he felt that way? It would be better to write, “The victim told me that he was scared for his life.”

 2. Like many reports, this one lapses into passive voice near the end:

After he lowered the window he was advised he was not free to leave and was being placed under arrest.  PASSIVE VOICE

Who warned him not to leave, and who arrested him? The report doesn’t say. Every sentence in a report should include the name of the person (victim, suspect, witness, or officer) who performed the action. Here’s a useful tip: Start every sentence with a person, place or thing. (That’s probably not how your English teacher wanted you to write your compositions, but it’s great advice for report writing!)

My conclusion: this is a concise and professional report that could benefit from a few changes. 

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Updated, with a new chapter on Writing Efficiently

Criminal Justice Report Writing

“It will definitely help you with your writing skills.” – Joseph E. Badger, California Association of Accident Reconstructionists Newsletter

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Criminal Justice Report Writing is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99Click here.

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Sexual Assault Investigation at MSU

Michigan State University Police have released a detailed report on their sexual assault investigation. After interviews with more than 100 witnesses, Josh King, Donnie Corley, and Demetric Vance were charged with sexual assault. The heavily redacted report – 226 pages long – can be read at this link: http://detne.ws/2vpmemC.

The report is thorough, professional, and free of jargon – an excellent example of police writing. One feature, though, deserves comment: One of the police officers always uses “I,” while another officer consistently uses the old-fashioned (and time-wasting!) “this officer.” This inconsistency should be resolved so that all officers are writing their reports the same way.

I then followed up and sent her an email with my contact information and resources. ✓

This officer informed [redacted] about suspect Donnie Corley being moved to a new room. X

A reminder: There’s nothing wrong with the words I and me! In fact those are the very words that an officer would use to testify in court.

MSU's Spartan Stadium

                Spartan Stadium

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A Coke Dealer Reports a Theft

Today’s topic is efficiency. Bear with me for a moment while I make a detour to talk about Dennis the Menace! Hank Ketcham based this delightful comic strip on his real-life family: wife Alice and son Dennis.

But Ketcham made one change when he created the strip. Although the real Alice was a brunette, Ketcham drew her as a blonde. The reason? In a black-and-white comic strip, brunettes require ink, but blondes don’t. Ketcham saved himself hours and hours of labor because he didn’t have to color Alice’s hair.

I found myself thinking about Hank Ketcham’s pen while I was reading a police report about a bizarre case involving a drug dealer. A Florida man called police to report the theft of cash and a small bag of cocaine. He immediately told police he was a drug dealer, and of course he was arrested. (The investigating officer saw another plastic bag of white powder in the car, and it turned out to be cocaine.) You can read the complete report here.

So what’s the connection to Hank Ketcham? Here it is: This report (which is excellent, by the way – be sure to read it) substitutes Your Affiant for the simple words I and me no less than seven times.

I’m assuming that’s the agency’s policy, and I’m wondering why. I’m also wondering if anyone there has thought about much time is wasted over a year writing “Your Affiant” – 11 letters – instead of “I” – one letter.

Here’s an example:

At that time Your Affiant was able to place hand restraints on Blackmon.

My version:

I placed hand restraints on Blackmon.

Those unnecessary words add up to a lot of wasted time! Here’s another example:

Based on the aforementioned information…

Why not just say “Based on this information”?

Efficiency is hugely important in a busy police agency. As you think about local policies and your own reports, you should always be looking for ways to eliminate time-wasting words and expressions.

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A Police Report about Stealing Contraceptives

Take Action is one of the “morning after” contraceptive pills that can be taken after a couple has sex. It’s the centerpiece of a recent crime story at a Walgreens drugstore in Oklahoma.

On July 3 a customer with a handgun stole three boxes of Take Action and left the store on a motorcycle. You can read the police report at this link: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/documents/crime/emergency-contraceptive-stickup-749301

The report is impressive: thorough, objective, and largely free of jargon. Sentence structure is sophisticated and professional. It’s always a pleasure to come across “I” in a police report (some officers are still afraid to use this handy word!). And I rarely see however used correctly with a semicolon. The advanced writing skills make me think that this is probably a college-educated officer.

And that’s raises a question: What should you do if you’re an officer who doesn’t write at that level?

Answer: Use the skills you have. In fact you may be better off not trying to write like a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist.

To explain what I mean, I’m going to discuss a sentence from today’s report:

The suspect then entered the store, the surveillance does not show the suspect placing items in his backpack; however, footage shows [redacted] approaching the suspect at approximately  2027  hours.

What do you gain by writing a long, sophisticated sentence? Nothing – and you run the risk of errors.

Here’s my version:

The suspect entered the store. The surveillance does not show the suspect placing items in his backpack. Footage shows [redacted] approaching the suspect at approximately  2027  hours.

Three short sentences are better than one long sentence For one thing, short sentences are more efficient. The words “then” and “however” don’t add anything useful to the report. (In fact that “however” is confusing.)

More seriously, when you try to write fancy sentences, errors tend to creep in. That’s exactly what happened here. “The suspect entered the store” is a sentence and requires a period, not a comma. (You know it’s a sentence because it begins with a person – the suspect. Most sentences begin with a person, place, or thing.)

A moment ago I mentioned efficiency. There’s a paragraph in this report that repeats [redacted] stated four times. It would be more efficient to explain only once that you’re recording a statement from a witness:

[Redacted] stated:

– Walgreens has a policy that customers have to remove their helmets for safety

– he was looking for a manager to talk to the suspect about the helmet

and so on.

Bottom line: Short, straightforward sentences are exactly what are needed in a police report.

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Harassment vs. Stalking

A recent UK study of stalking and harassment reports came to some alarming conclusions. Although the report concerns British policing, US agencies might find it a useful tool for reviewing their own policies and practices.

Here are some questions that agencies can ask:

  • Do officers know the difference between harassment and stalking (which is a much more dangerous crime)?
  • Do officers take steps to make harassment and stalking victims feel more safe – or do they blame victims?
  • Do officers ever tell victims that it’s up to them to take steps to protect themselves?

Most important (our focus here):

  • Do officers file reports for every harassment and stalking case?

The UK study, which looked at a sample of 112 stalking and harassment cases, found that:

  • none of the cases were handled well
  • fewer than 40% showed that victims were provided with a risk-management plan
  • some victims were told the problems were their fault because they used Facebook and other social media
  • only one-fourth of the cases were handled by detectives
  • in a number of cases, police took no legal action despite victims’ repeated requests for help

An article at this link includes useful information about the differences between harassment and stalking.

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Privacy Rights and Police Reports

Law enforcement experts are very aware of privacy concerns about police reports.

No one is surprised that some lawbreakers quickly become famous. But what about the victims? Should their names be made public? And what about people who have been injured in an accident or crime? US privacy laws require that health information should be a private matter. Does that legal principle also apply to police reports? 

West Bridgewater Police Chief Victor Flaherty recently released a police report about a May 28 car crash – with the names of the driver and victim blacked out. Robert Ambrogi, a media attorney and the executive director of the Massachusetts News Publishers Association, has demanded to see those names. (You can read about the case here.)

Chief Flaherty issued a statement that doing so would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy. He cited Massachusetts laws that prohibit the release of that information.

But Ambrogi disagreed: “A name is not a medical record, and the fact that someone was injured in an auto accident doesn’t turn it into one. There’s no ground to withhold the name of the victim in this case.”

Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, also wants to see the name of the victim: “When a major car accident occurs on a public street and the driver is accused of fleeing the scene, we need to know who was involved and how law enforcement responded.”

What is your take on this privacy issue?

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When Police Reports Are Challenged

Two recent news stories underline the importance of effective report writing. (Academy instructors may want to discuss these cases with their classes.)

On June 21, police in Daytona Beach, Florida, removed seven children from a filthy apartment and charged the two mothers with one count of felony child abuse. You can read more about the case here: http://theledger.com/news/20170622/7-children-removed-from-filthy-apartment-2-moms-charged

In his report, Officer James Thomas wrote: “Immediately upon entering the apartment, I noticed an infant running barefoot on carpet that was supposed to be brown in color but was matted, thick, clumpy, and covered wall to wall with black mold.”

The report also noted:

  • the smell was so pungent that it burned his eyes, and he had to wash them afterwards
  • fleas were everywhere
  • the only food was an open jar of jelly, a small jar of peanut butter, and a jar of mayonnaise
  • the only furniture was two broken chairs
  • the children were lying on a “severely stained” mattress and wearing dirty diapers
  • the unflushed toilet was filthy with urine, feces, and soiled paper
  • there were no signs of “anything related to child care”

Officer Thomas took photographs of the children and their surroundings.

Melinda Jenkins, mother of two of the children, argued that “everything…was false in that report.” She said the apartment management was responsible for the filth, and she and her sister were in the process of moving.

The other police report concerned actor Miles Teller, who recently appeared in the boxing movie Bleed for This. Teller was arrested for public drunkenness. On June 19 Teller challenged the arrest report with this Tweet:”Went down to SD to see my buddy before he deployed. I wasn’t arrested I was detained bc there was no evidence to charge me with a crime.” You can read more at this link: https://usat.ly/2tG6MOD.

The police report tells a different story: Officer Billy Hernandez wrote that Teller was “swaying side to side, slurring his speech and had bloodshot eyes.” At one point Teller “lost his balance and almost fell into the street.” Police officers arrested Teller and transported him to a detox center.

Police statements quoted in both newspaper stories show that the investigating officers were thorough, objective, and detailed.

Whose accounts do you think are more believable: Police – or the three people who were arrested?

My money is on the police officers.

   Miles Teller in “Bleed for This”

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Sentence Quiz

What do these three sentences have in common?

I looked into the closet, it was empty.

Krepps jerked his head from side to side, then he ran across the parking lot.

We were worried about rain, however, the weather was beautiful for our open house.

Answer: They’re all run-on sentences. (Other names for this error are fused sentence and comma splice.)

Here are a few principles to live by. (They’re easy to learn, and they can save you from many errors!)

  1. Don’t use a comma to join two sentences.
  2. Here’s how to tell if you have two sentences: Look at the beginning. If it starts with a person,  place, or thing – it’s a sentence. Use a period.
  3. There are only seven words that you can use with a comma to join sentences: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So (the FANBOYS words)
  4. In real-world writing, most people use only two of these words: And, But.

Let’s fix today’s sentences. (It’s easy – just use a period!)

I looked into the closet. It was empty.  CORRECT

Krepps jerked his head from side to side. Then he ran across the parking lot.  CORRECT

We were worried about rain. However, the weather was beautiful for our open house.  CORRECT

You can download and print a free handout explaining comma rules at this link: http://bit.ly/EasyCommas

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How Police Departments Solve Crimes

Police reports that are well written and professional shine a light not only on the officers who write them, but on the agency they work for.

Here’s a recent headline in the Portland Press-Herald

Unusually detailed report on shooting offers rare glimpse into police work

According to the newspaper story, police reports filed in criminal court tell an impressive story. They reveal – step-by-step – how officers followed what they called a “bread-crumb trail” to identify and apprehend the transient who shot Portland resident Russell Solak.

You can read the story at this link: http://www.pressherald.com/?p=1207570

                             Portland, Maine

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The Tiger Woods Police Report – Updated

The Golf Channel has obtained an unredacted copy of the Tiger Woods police report. This version of the report is much longer than the previous one, which I wrote about at this link. The newer version notes that Woods said he’d been taking Xanax. You can read the latest news about the Tiger Woods arrest – along with the entire report – at this link.

The report is thorough and would make a useful teaching tool for recruits who are learning about DUI stops and arrests. The report covers various sobriety tests in detail, and the descriptions of Woods’ behavior are clear and specific. Instead of saying that Woods failed the sobriety tests, the report shows exactly what happened. Here’s one example:

Woods then began to lose his balance and placed his right foot behind in an effort to maintain his balance.

[I was impressed that the report spelled lose correctly! “Loose” is a common misspelling.]

I do have some suggestions. The report is much longer than it needs to be. Here are some sentences that could have been written more efficiently:

Upon arrival I made contact with officers on scene who stated that a black Mercedes…. WORDY

I talked to officers at the scene. They said a black Mercedes…. BETTER

While speaking with Woods I observed his slow mumbled and slurred speech. I asked Woods where he was coming from to which he stated “LA” and then I asked where he was coming from tonight to which he stated LA again and that he was on his way down to Orange County.  WORDY

Woods spoke slowly. He mumbled and slurred his words. He told me he was coming from LA and was on his way down to Orange County. BETTER

The disposition (end) of the report contains many passive voice sentences. Ironically, the officer is careful to note the attention to Woods’ safety – for example, he was secured with a seatbelt. But the report never mentions who did the handcuffing, who put Woods into the car, and who read his Miranda rights. For example:

Woods was placed into handcuffs….  [Who put him there?]

Woods was later placed into the backseat of my patrol vehicle and was secured with the seatbelt.  [Who put him there and buckled the seatbelt?]

Overall this is an effective report with a number of features that would make it an excellent teaching tool.

Tiger Woods

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