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Identifying Passive Voice

Passive voice often causes problems in criminal justice reports. (Here’s a typical passive voice sentence: The vehicle was searched.) It’s easy to see how passive voice can cause problems, especially in an investigation or court hearing: The sentence doesn’t tell who performed the search.

In general, you should avoid using passive voice in your reports. Be careful, however, not to be fooled into “correcting” sentences that were right in the first place. Make sure a sentence is really passive before you change it.

Here are two examples of what I’m talking about:

The suspects were questioned.  PASSIVE VOICE

While we were questioning the subjects, Officer Brown arrived at the scene.  ACTIVE VOICE

“We were questioning” is active voice (OK to use) because you know that we were doing it.

Now let’s look at a series of sentences. Can you see which are passive and which are active? Scroll down for the answers.

Jones was seen running away from the convenience store.

Jones was carrying a six-pack of beer and a bottle of white wine.

Three sobriety tests were administered.

Patterson was looking in his wallet for his driver’s license.

Both witnesses were questioned.

Finch was having difficulty answering the questions.

Here are the sentences again, with the passive sentences labeled:

Jones was seen running away from the convenience store.  PASSIVE  (Who saw him?)

Jones was carrying a six-pack of beer and a bottle of white wine.  √

Three sobriety tests were administered.  PASSIVE  (Who administered them?)

Patterson was looking in his wallet for his driver’s license.  √

Both witnesses were questioned.  PASSIVE  (Who questioned them?)

Finch was having difficulty answering the questions.  √

Reminder: Passive voice is acceptable only when you don’t know who performed an action. Otherwise, use active voice.

The two passive voice sentences below are acceptable because the officer writing the report doesn’t know who broke into the store and who took the money and liquor:

The store was broken into at around midnight.  [PASSIVE – OK]

Fifty dollars and five bottles of liquor were taken.  [PASSIVE – OK]

passive voice test

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Look at the Beginning of a Sentence

Warnings of possible sentence problems often show up at the beginning of a sentence. Here are four tips you’ll use again and again:

1.  Anything that begins with a person, place, or thing is probably a real sentence and should end with a period.

Donna had questions about my report.  SENTENCE

If it doesn’t begin with a person, place, or thing, it’s probably an extra idea and should a) end with a comma and b) be attached to a real sentence.

Because Donna had questions about my report,  EXTRA IDEA

Because Donna had questions about my report, I decided to revise it.  SENTENCE

(Click here to learn about Comma Rule 1.)

2.  Remember that it is a thing. Here’s a handy rule of thumb: If it starts with it, it’s a sentence.

I pushed on the door, it wouldn’t open.  INCORRECT

I pushed on the door. It wouldn’t open. CORRECT

3.  The beginning of the sentence usually tells you who or what the sentence is about. That information will make you more likely to get the rest of the sentence right.

Use of illegal substances (has/have) increased in this county.

Focus on the word use, and you’ll know immediately that the verb should be has. [Use…has]

Use of illegal substances has increased in this county. CORRECT

(Click here to read about Subject-Verb Agreement Rule 4.)

4.  Be especially careful about starting sentences with -ing words. Of course it’s correct to start a sentence with a word ending in -ing: But you risk writing a sentence fragment or a dangling modifier.

Buttoning his jacket as he ran to his car.  FRAGMENT

He was buttoning his jacket as he ran to his car. CORRECT

Buttoning his jacket, his cell phone fell out of the pocket.  DANGLING MODIFIER

While he was buttoning his jacket, his cell phone fell out of the pocket. CORRECT

Here’s a suggestion that will pay off again and again: Look at the beginning of a sentence and think about possible problems. Try it!

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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. 

Criminal Justice Report Writing 

“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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Editing Software

If you’re an officer who’s hoping to make your mark in the criminal justice field, you need to think about ways to sharpen your writing skills. Career advancement always requires good writing skills!

One tool you should think about is editing software. Some services are free, while others charge a subscription fee. My friend Chuck Warren sent me an article that lists 11 editing tools and describes how they work: Instantly Improve Your Writing with These 11 Editing Tools.”

I recommend reading the article and thinking about using one of these editing tools to look for errors in your written work. These electronic tools can be especially valuable when you’re taking college courses or working on an important report for your agency.

Computer software tools can’t think like humans, of course! For example, most editing tools can’t spot a word that’s spelled correctly but used incorrectly (your/you’re, its/it’s). And sometimes they’re not as smart as we are! The grammar checker on my computer sometimes nags me to fix a sentence that I know is perfectly ok.

Still – spellcheckers, grammar checkers, and other editing tools are a great boon to writers. (The tools on my home computer have saved me from many embarrassing errors!)

Here are some tips:

  • If your work-issued laptop doesn’t have a spellchecker or a grammar checker, consider writing your reports on a PC first. Run your finished piece through the spelling and grammar checks, and then copy it onto your laptop.
  • Consider using a free editing tool – or subscribing to one.
  • Don’t assume that everything the computer says is right. When in doubt, ask a friend for a second opinion.

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The Run-On Sentence Problem

A run-on sentence is a serious writing problem that every officer wants to avoid. So…how do you know you’ve written a run-on, and how can you fix one that finds its way into a report you’ve written?

First, a definition. A run-on is a sentence that needs a period. Here’s an example:

I knocked on the door Sam Clinton opened it.  RUN-ON

It’s still a mistake if you try to fix it with a comma:

I knocked on the door, Sam Clinton opened it.  RUN-ON

You can always fix a run-on sentence with a period. Here’s the corrected sentence:

I knocked on the door. Sam Clinton opened it. CORRECT

*  *  *  *  * 

Don’t be fooled into thinking that every long sentence is a run-on. That’s not true. For example, although the sentence you’re reading right now is too long, in my opinion, there’s no place where it needs a period, so in grammatical terms it’s not a run-on.

How can you avoid writing a run-on sentence? I think you can answer that question yourself: Use a period when you come to the end of a sentence. Don’t take a breath and keep going!

Charlene talked quietly to Mrs. Wilson I took Mr. Wilson into the dining room.  INCORRECT

Charlene talked quietly to Mrs. Wilson. I took Mr. Wilson into the dining room. CORRECT

Here’s another don’t-be-fooled tip: Don’t put a comma at the end of a sentence. Use a comma at the end of an extra idea. Use a period at the end of a sentence.

While Charlene talked quietly to Mrs. Wilson, EXTRA IDEA

While Charlene talked quietly to Mrs. Wilson,  I took Mr. Wilson into the dining room. CORRECT

(Comma Rule 1 can be a huge help with this issue. Click here to learn more.)

Everything you say or write is either an extra idea (with a comma) or a sentence (with a period). Practice hearing the difference, and you’ll see a huge improvement in your sentences. That’s a guarantee!

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Prepositional Phrases

Many criminal justice writers are wary when they hear the term “prepositional phrase.” It’s got to be hard, right? After all, “prepositional” is a five-syllable mouthful of a word.

Well, there’s good news and bad news. Bad news first: Many writers make mistakes when they write a sentence containing a prepositional phrase.

The good news? There’s an easy rule that will keep you out of trouble. And here’s even better news: there’s also an easier rule that works maybe 99.5% of the time.

Let’s get started.

Prepositions are small, everyday words that indicate direction or purpose. The English language has dozens of them. For now, let’s stick to six: in by for with to of. These are the most common prepositions, and you don’t have to memorize any others. (Surely you can memorize six little words, right? in by for with to of)

Prepositions are rarely used by themselves. You wouldn’t say “I went skiing with.” Expressions like “with Mary,” “to the store,” “for a wedding gift, “by myself” and so on are prepositional phrases.

There are a couple of general rules of thumb for writing a sentence with a prepositional phrase that work really well. Take your pick! Either one will help you get your sentences right.

  • When you’re doing the grammar of a sentence, skip the prepositional phrase.
  • Go to the beginning of the sentence.

Maybe once or twice a year you’ll come across a sentence that works differently. That means most of the time you can use one of these rules, and you’ll be fine. (If you’re curious about the exception, click here and read Rule 6.)

Let’s try a couple of examples.

The bookcase with the glass doors (need, needs) to be emptied and moved.

What will you be emptying and moving? The glass doors or the bookcase?

The obvious answer is the bookcase! (You can either go to the beginning of the sentence (bookcase) or cross out “with the glass doors.”)

So here’s your sentence:

The bookcase with the glass shelves needs to be emptied and moved. CORRECT

Another one:

Misunderstanding of department policies (have, has) caused many problems recently.

What caused the problems – department policies or misunderstanding?

The obvious answer is misunderstanding! Again, you can either go to the beginning of the sentence (misunderstanding) or cross out the prepositional phrase “of departmental policies.”

So here’s your sentence:

Misunderstanding of department policies has caused many problems recently. CORRECT

To learn more about writing a sentence with a prepositional phrase, click here and read Rule 4.

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One more thought: There’s a reason why writers often have difficulty with prepositional phrases. Most people aren’t used to thinking about parts of sentences. It’s not a normal activity. (When was the last time you found yourself thinking, “Hey! That was a prepositional phrase!’?)

You’re learning a new skill. Be patient with yourself, and keep reviewing and practicing. After a while it will become second nature. That’s a promise!

Dictionary definition of a preposition

 

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More Police Jargon to Avoid in Reports

Here are more examples of outdated police jargon and confusing expressions you should avoid in your reports. (Click here to see the previous list.)

abovementioned

This old-fashioned, time-wasting word needs to be stored permanently in the attic. Use “this” or, better yet, repeat the name or information.

The abovementioned suspect is now in custody. WRONG

Langford is now in custody. CORRECT

advise

Advise refers to giving advice. If you use it that way, advise is a fine word. But don’t use it as a synonym for “tell.”

I advised her to seek medical attention for the cut on her arm. CORRECT

I advised her that I would be returning the next day.  WRONG

I told her that I would be returning the next day. CORRECT

affect

Affect is a useful verb meaning “to change.” [Much less commonly it’s also a noun that means emotion.] So why should you avoid affect? Two reasons.

First is the risk of confusing affect and effect. Why take a chance? If you mean change, that’s the word you should write.

I couldn’t affect his decision, so I stopped arguing.  RISKY

I couldn’t change his decision, so I stopped arguing. SAFER

A more serious problem with affect is that it’s vague. It’s better to choose a word that indicates whether the change was for the better or the worse.

The new schedule affected morale.  VAGUE

The new schedule improved morale. BETTER

Rainy days always affect my mood.  VAGUE

Rainy days always make me feel gloomy. BETTER

being that

Never use this clumsy expression. Use because instead.

[Incidentally, being is a perfectly good word that can, however, gum up a sentence. Use it with care.]

I smelled alcohol on his breath

A defense attorney can get you on this one. Alcohol is odorless and tasteless. Say that you smelled “alcoholic beverage” on his breath.

residence

Vague. Use home, condominium, apartment, mobile home.

blue in color

Professional writers avoid wasting time with empty words. “In color” doesn’t add anything, so don’t use it.

The suspect was wearing a shirt that was blue in color.  EMPTY WORDS

The suspect was wearing a blue shirt.  BETTER

the month of September

Same problem. When is September not a month?

They were married in the month of September.  EMPTY WORDS

They were married in September. BETTER

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Police Jargon to Avoid in Reports

Today we’re going to begin focusing on police jargon and confusing expressions you should avoid in report writing. There are three advantages to avoiding these words. First, you’ll sound more up-to-date and professional. Second, your reports will be more specific. Most important, you’ll be more efficient.

Think about it! Saving a few seconds when you type a word doesn’t sound important. But over a year you may type thousands and thousands of words. Those seconds add up! And you’re also making life easier for everyone who reads your reports.

Here’s today’s list:

Ascertained

This clumsy word has two strikes against it. First, it’s archaic. Second, it doesn’t explain how you acquired the information. Better choices are “saw” or “heard.”

Affirmative

“Yes” works better.

At the present time

Use “now” instead – (better yet!) or just leave it out. There’s no difference between “He’s now awaiting trial” and “He’s awaiting trial.”

Baker Acted (as in “I Baker Acted him.”)

This is police jargon and out of place in a professional report. Substitute “I started Baker Act proceedings” or “I took her into custody under the provisions of the Baker Act.”

Contacted

This is too vague for a professional report. In fact it could cause problems in court later on, if you forget exactly how you got in touch with the person. Be specific: I phoned her, I visited him, I emailed her, I taped a note on his office door.

Endeavor

Substitute “try.”

Expedite

Substitute “hurry” or “speed up.”

If and when

Substitute “if,” which covers both words.

In close proximity to

Substitute “near.”

In order to

Substitute “to.”

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Active Voice or Passive Voice?

Here’s a simple way to improve your reports: Use active voice whenever possible.

I tested the doorway for fingerprints. ACTIVE VOICE

The doorway was tested for fingerprints by me. PASSIVE VOICE

In bygone days, some officers thought that passive voice made reports more accurate, objective, and professional. Sadly, that’s not the case. Professionalism comes from a deep commitment to observing the highest standards possible. Rewording a sentence won’t transform someone who’s biased or careless into a model officer.

Let’s try a scenario. An officer is investigating a burglary. She goes into the bedroom and sees a beautiful ring on the nightstand. She realizes that the homeowner will probably think the burglar took the ring. What an opportunity! She pockets the ring.

Later the officer gets out her laptop and starts writing her report. She writes, “The bedroom was entered by this officer.” Typing those words transforms her into an honest person, and she returns the ring.

Ridiculous, isn’t it?

Suppose, though, you’re an officer who happens to like passive voice. You’re old-school, and that’s how you were taught to write. Why change?

Three reasons:

  • You want your writing to sound up-to-date and professional. Bygone terminology dates you.
  • Passive voice takes longer to write and to read. It’s going to slow you down if you’ve had a busy shift or you have a great deal of paperwork to review before a court hearing.
  • Passive voice creates confusion. Suppose you’re testifying in court and the question of Miranda rights comes up. “Who read Johnson his rights?” asks the attorney. “It says in your report that Johnson was Mirandized, but it doesn’t say who did it.”
    You gulp. You suddenly realize that the other officer at the scene, Joe McDonald, read Johnson his rights. Unfortunately McDonald isn’t in court today. The hearing has to be postponed until McDonald can testify.
    You could have avoided that embarrassing mistake if you’d used active voice: “Officer Joe McDonald used his Miranda card to advise Johnson of his rights.”

Here are a couple of pointers:

  • Active voice tells who did what: The burglar pried open the door.
  • Passive voice often uses by: The door was pried open by the burglar.

Note: Not all “was” and “-ing” words signify passive voice. These sentences are active voice:

Linda was washing her car. ACTIVE VOICE

The mayor was exploring a new approach to the problem. ACTIVE VOICE

Here are passive-voice versions of these sentences:

The car was being washed by Linda. PASSIVE VOICE

A new approach to the problem was explored by the mayor. PASSIVE VOICE

* * * * * *

There’s one situation when passive voice is useful: when you don’t know who committed an act.

The crime scene was compromised. PASSIVE VOICE (effective: You don’t know who compromised it)

The house was entered through the unlocked back door. PASSIVE VOICE (effective: You don’t know who entered)

Bottom line: When you know who did what, use active voice. Or – to restate the handy rule I gave you earlier – start every sentence in your reports with a person, place, or thing.

 

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The Death of Vanessa MacCormack

Police are investigating the violent death of Vanessa MacCormack, a 30-year-old wife, mother, and teacher who was found dead at home on September 23. Her husband has been charged with her death. Text messages, financial information, and testimony from a drug dealer are factors in the case.

You can read the police report (it’s lengthy) at this link: http://www.masslive.com/news/boston/index.ssf/2017/09/read_police_report_on_investig.html

The police report is thorough, objective, and professional. But it’s always a good idea to think about possible improvements.

What do you think of this sentence?

He was visibly distraught, was crying and hyperventilating, and had his shirt off and over his head.

My suggestion: delete “visibly distraught,” which is an opinion. The rest of the sentence is objective and appropriate for a police report.

Now take a look at these two paragraphs:

Officer Duca stated that he spoke with a firefighter on scene who advised him that EMT’s were inside the home, and that it may be a possible suicide.  In the opinion of all officers who viewed the victim’s body, the degree of violence to her head made suicide an unrealistic possibility.

Officer Duca stated that as he entered the residence he could smell a strong odor of bleach, Officer Duca stated that he walked through the living room and into the kitchen and he observed two additional firefighters in the hall, in front of a bedroom He walked to the bedroom door and observed the victim lying on the floor face up. near the threshold covered in blood. The victim was later identified as VANESSA MACCORMACK, the wife of ANDREW MACCORMACK.

My comments:

  • There’s a lot of time-consuming repetition.
  • Opinions about whether it was suicide or homicide do not belong in a police report. Very likely the medical examiner will be giving an expert opinion on the manner of death.
  • “Advised” is police jargon – and confusing. Nobody was giving advice to Officer Duca. Use “told.”

Here’s how the information could be written more efficiently – without omitting anything important:

Officer Duca stated that a firefighter on the scene told him that EMT’s were inside the home. As Officer Duca entered the home, he smelled a strong odor of bleach. He saw two more firefighters in the hall, in front of a bedroom. He stood in the bedroom doorway and saw the victim lying on the floor face up, near the threshold. She was covered in blood. She was later identified as VANESSA MACCORMACK, the wife of ANDREW MACCORMACK.

The original statement (in green) is 131 words; the second version (in blue) is 79 words – 40% shorter. (I’m not sure it’s necessary to record the locations of the three firefighters, but that’s a matter for agency administrators to decide.)

Now think about this: The entire report about the Vanessa MacCormack investigation is 15 pages long. Imagine the saving in time, energy, and effort if it could be written 40% more efficiently. That would be 9 pages instead of 15.

More and more agencies are advocating that kind of efficiency, for good reasons. There is no benefit to writing – say – “the month of September” when “September” does the job just as well. “For the purpose of” can be rewritten as “for” (that’s an 80% saving!). Many phrases and sentences can be shortened the same way.

Of course it’s important to write effective, accurate, and thorough police reports. But what’s the advantage in making a report almost half again as long as it needs to be? If you’re not adding anything useful, that’s time and energy that could be invested in other police priorities.

What about you? Do you strive to write your reports efficiently?

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An Assault with a High-Heeled Shoe

On September 13, police were called to a bikini contest in Stuart, Florida, to investigate a crime involving a high-heeled shoe. One of the contestants claimed that another contestant assaulted her with a shoe. You can read the police report at this link: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/documents/florida/case-dropped-against-accused-bikini-brawler-809324

Overall this is a well-written report. Today I’m going to recommend two changes in one of the paragraphs. Read it yourself to see if you can spot the changes:

Shipley yanked on her arm trying to take her down to the ground. Mize stated she could not get her to leave her alone so she pushed her away. Mize advised when she swung her arm her shoes hit Shipley but did not know where they made contact with her. Mize then ran to her mother because she did not want to fight.

My comments:

 1.  This officer is trying too hard to be sophisticated: Mize stated, Mize advised. Police reports should be straightforward and efficient. Just use said. (If you open up a newspaper, you’ll see that every quote begins with “said.” There’s never any variation, even though “said” may be used thousands of times each day.)

What officers should never do is substitute advise for said. Advise means “counsel” or “suggest.” Trying to make advise mean “said” sets up your report for confusion – and makes a bad impression on anyone outside law enforcement who reads your report. (“Huh? The officer doesn’t know what advise means?”)

2.  She and her are tricky words when there are two women in a sentence:

Mize stated she could not get her to leave her alone so she pushed her away.

I would repeat the names to eliminate any chance for confusion:

Mize stated she could not get Shipley to stop. So Mize pushed Shipley away.

I have one more suggestion. When all the information comes from one person, use a simple list:

Shipley yanked on her arm trying to take her down to the ground. Mize said:

  • She could not get Shipley to leave her alone
  • Mize pushed Shipley away
  • When Mize swung her arm, her shoes hit Shipley
  • Mize did not know where they made contact with Shipley
  • Mize ran to her mother because she did not want to fight

 

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