Category Archives: What’s New

Caleb Brantley

On April 13, former Florida defensive tackle and NFL Draft hopeful Caleb Brantley made the news in an unusual way. He was slapped in the face by a woman who was angry because he refused to sleep with her. Police in Gainesville, Florida investigated the incident and corroborated Brantley’s story. He decided not to press charges.

You can read the story and the incident report here. Several features impressed me:

  • The officer filed the report even though there were no charges. Not all officers are such sticklers about paperwork.
  • The report is written in plain English
  • Most sentences are short and straightforward
  • The officer used normal everyday words for speaking: said, admitted, and spoke rather than the jargonish advised

And there’s one more detail that impressed me. Here’s part of a sentence from the report (I shortened it to save time). See if you can figure out what I liked about it:

He used to sleep with one of Austin’s friends.

Here it is: the officer spelled used to correctly. Many writers – unfortunately – forget that d at the end: used to.

One detail that puzzled me was the omission of names and phone numbers for witnesses questioned by police – but perhaps there’s a reason the agency didn’t require that information.

Gainesville is – of course – a university town, and I suspect the officer who wrote the report is a college graduate. It’s worth reading and imitating. Well done!

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The Friendly Skies?

I’ve often urged police officers not to use subjective words like “belligerent” and “disruptive” in their reports. What’s the problem? Those are opinion words that a defense attorney can easily challenge in court.

Today – thanks to United Airlines – I have an example for you that doesn’t involve law enforcement. The setting is different, but the principle is the same: When you’re dealing with a difficult situation, you have to be objective.

First, some background. By now you’ve probably heard about a public relations disaster for United Airlines. On Monday the airline decided to forcibly remove a 69-year-old physician from a plane bound for Louisville, Kentucky. The doctor’s seat was needed for an employee who had to travel to Louisville to work on a connecting flight.

The physician refused to give up his seat. He said he had been traveling for 24 hours, he had patients to see in Louisville, and he wasn’t leaving.

United Airlines had him dragged out of the plane. The results: a broken nose, a bloodied face, a concussion, two broken teeth – and bad publicity for United Airlines. (You can read the full story here.)

A short time later, the United Airlines CEO sent employees a letter meant to defend United Airlines. Unfortunately his words only made the situation worse. (You can read the letter yourself at the link.)

My purpose here is not to attack or defend the airline – that’s a matter for legal experts. What I want to consider are some problems in the CEO’s letter that are similar to problems in many of the police reports I read.

The CEO said that Dr. Dao – the physician who was forced off the plane – was “belligerent” and “disruptive.” Was he? It’s impossible to say. Everyone has a different definition of what constitutes “belligerent” behavior. It’s a matter of opinion – exactly what an officer doesn’t want to deal with in a court hearing. “Just the facts, Ma’am.” (I’ve talked to a number of people myself about the incident and heard various opinions.)

Now let’s look at “disruptive.” What did Dr. Dao disrupt – and how did he do it? If you think about it, “disruptive” is yet another empty word.

So what could the CEO have written instead? He could have listed Dr. Dao’s actions: Dr. Dao refused to get up. He stayed in his seat. Those are objective statements.

Unfortunately for United Airlines, the CEO’s letter, with its accusations about “belligerent” and “disruptive” actions, created an uproar when it was released to the public. The CEO had to hastily deliver an apology – and then another apology – and then another one.

Now let’s return to you and your reports. Because you’re a law enforcement officer, you see conflicts all the time. You have to deal with them, write about them, and – perhaps – defend your decisions in court.

You can learn an important lesson from the CEO’s mistake. Always use objective language. Describe the actions you witnessed. Be as specific as possible: you saw fists, or kicking, or spitting, or biting. If a suspect lied or threatened you, record the exact words. Do not use empty words like “belligerent,” “defiant,” “dangerous,” or “aggressive” that aren’t supported by details and facts.

Here’s the most useful advice about report writing I’ve ever heard: “If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen.” If you don’t have a written list of specific actions you saw, you risk an uphill battle if there’s a court hearing. Don’t let it happen to you!

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Brushing Up on Capital Letters

Words like north, mother, professor, and officer can be confusing: How do you know when to use capital letters?

There’s a simple answer: Capitalize a word when you’re using it as a name.

Let’s look at directional words first. When you travel north on a highway or go to the northern part of town, you’re not referring to a specific place. There’s no capital letter.

On the other hand, sometimes North, South, East, or West refer to specific places and need capital letters. One useful clue is that they’re often preceded by “the.”

In Asia, elderly people receive a great deal of respect. Here in the West, however, we seem to have lost that tradition. CORRECT

I saw bloodstains on the carpet near an east-facing window in the bedroom.  CORRECT

He grew up in East Stroudsburg, a university town in Pennsylvania. CORRECT

You can park your car in the lot on the south side of the building.  CORRECT

The South always plays an important role in Presidential elections. CORRECT

The suspect drove in a northwest direction for two hours before she abandoned the car.  CORRECT

Here’s another clue: if a picture of a map pops up in your head, the capital letter is probably correct. East Stroudsburg, the South, and the West are all specific places on a map. But “facing east,” “a northwest direction,” and “the south side of the building” aren’t locations on a map. Don’t use a capital letter.

Now let’s look at words like mother, professor, and officer. The same rule applies: “Is it a name?”

I found a perfect birthday gift for Mother. CORRECT

How is your mother doing?  CORRECT

Swanson said his mother was taking care of the children while he was at work. CORRECT

Farrell was just hired as a professor. CORRECT

I still keep in touch with Professor Davies because he was wonderful to me when I was an undergraduate. CORRECT

Be aware that no professor will tolerate sloppy or careless work. CORRECT

You should ask Officer Harris for some tips about using spreadsheets.  CORRECT

Every officer who worked that case deserves congratulations.  CORRECT

We require officers to renew their certification every three years.   CORRECT

 

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More about Objectivity

In a recent post, I discussed the concept of objectivity: stating observable facts rather than thoughts, ideas, hunches, and judgments. (Another name for this concept is fact vs. opinion.)

An incident that happened in Mesa, Arizona, provides a good opportunity to consider some objectivity issues. An officer observed a man riding a bicycle recklessly. The man did not respond to the officer’s command to stop. A scuffle ensued. You can read the entire story and watch the body-cam video here.

Witnesses and other officers dispute some details about what happened. Another complication is that the man on the bicycle had been using illegal drugs.

Because our focus is strategies for writing better police reports, we’re going to look at only detail from the incident: the man’s refusal to stop. Was he disobeying an order from a police officer?

Perhaps. But that’s not an objective fact because no one can read another person’s mind. Similarly a police report can’t state that a suspect intended to do something or was planning to do something or thinking about it. All you can do is describe the person’s actions.

Let’s go back to the man on the bicycle. He didn’t stop when the officer yelled at him. Did that mean he refused to stop? You simply can’t know what he was thinking. If you claim to be able to read someone’s mind,  you open yourself to challenges in a court hearing.

A defense attorney could say that the man didn’t see the officer (who was behind him). Or the man on the bicycle might not have understood what the officer shouted (the area was noisy). Or perhaps the man didn’t know that the command was directed specifically at him. (There were many people nearby.)

What the report can say is that the officer shouted “Stop!” and the man continued riding his bicycle.

Writing objectively takes training and practice. You need to develop your ability to observe and recall what happened – in detail. And (this is the hardest part for new recruits) you need to know what not to write.

These examples will help you see the difference between a fact and an opinion:

The man raised his fists.  √ (fact)

The man was thinking about punching me.  X  (mind reading)

The woman was planning to run.  X  (mind reading)

The woman looked several times at the door.  √  (fact)

Develop the habit of rereading your reports carefully before you submit them. Look at each detail to make sure it’s written objectively. Over time you’ll develop the skills needed to write impressive reports that help convict lawbreakers.

 

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Fact Vs. Opinion

Fact vs. Opinion: You’ve probably heard that phrase before. How important is an understanding of fact vs. opinion when you’re writing a criminal justice report? Very.

Criminal justice requires objectivity. Opinions, deductions, hunches, and guesses don’t belong in a report, for three reasons:

  • They make your report look unprofessional.
  • They can cast doubt on your credibility.
  • They probably won’t stand up in court.

Difficulties can set in right from the beginning of your report. If you can’t establish probable cause, a judge may dismiss a case before you even get a chance to testify about what happened at the crime scene.

You may also run into difficulty if your actions seem based on stereotyping or bias: You made assumptions based on the person’s age (“She’s elderly, so I knew she’d be confused”), ethnicity (“He was lying to protect his friend, who was also Hispanic”) or religion (“I knew she was taking good care of her mother because Mormons have strong family values”).

These two rules are useful guides to separating fact from opinion in your reports:

1.  Don’t document your thoughts or thinking processes. Stick to what your five senses tell you.

2.  Be descriptive. Turn opinions (“He seemed scared”) into word pictures (“His hands were shaking, and his lips were trembling. He looked over his shoulder five times while I was questioning him”).

You can watch a short (and free) video about objectivity by clicking here.

        “JUST THE FACTS, MA’AM.”

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The Intoxicated Teacher

Last month a substitute teacher in South Carolina brought a box of wine to class with her and became sick while she was teaching. You can read the police report at this link: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/file/box-wine-teacher.

The report is excellent – objective and efficient. I’m especially pleased that the officer used active voice throughout the report. Many reports lapse into passive voice near the end (the disposition):

I called EMS for the teacher, Judith Richards-Gartee.  ACTIVE VOICE

EMS came to the school and transported her to LMC.  ACTIVE VOICE

I charged Judith with Public Disorder Conduct (CIT #32881GU) and released her to EMS.  ACTIVE VOICE

I would recommend only one change – using said or told instead of advised:

Mr Morton, an administrator at Brookland Cayce High School, advised me that a substitute teacher was intoxicated while in class.  POLICE JARGON

Mr Morton, an administrator at Brookland Cayce High School, told me that a substitute teacher was intoxicated while in class. BETTER

 

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Writing a Narrative

For many officers, telling the story of what happened at a call (the narrative) is the most difficult part of writing a report. Often the story began before you got there.

Instead of getting the story in one big chunk, like a TV show, you might get bits and pieces from several people. And they may start by telling you about events that happened in the middle of the story or even near the end.

So how do you put all this together into a narrative?

The answer is to use groupings. Remember, you’re not writing a Hollywood script. It’s perfectly OK (even recommended) to have a separate paragraph for each person’s part of the story.

So let’s say that a juvenile stole some valuable items from his parents and put them up for sale on eBay. Drug use is suspected. You might get bits of the story from the mother, the father, a sister, and a grandmother. Use a separate paragraph for each one. (Lists are great for this! They save time.)

Mark Grant, Jason’s father, told me:

  • Jason had frequently been in trouble lately.
  • Jason often withdrew into his room for hours at a time.
  • Jason kept complaining that he didn’t have enough money.

Karen Grant, Jason’s mother, told me:

  • She had noticed odd smells when she went into Jason’s room to get his dirty laundry.
  • She noticed a valuable ring was missing from her jewelry box at about seven o’clock this morning.
  • She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen the ring.

And so on.

Thinking about the type of report you’re writing (Type 1, 2, 3, or 4) can also be a huge help. You’ll have a model to work from rather than having to invent one yourself.

Once you’ve developed and practiced a strategy for organizing your reports, writing tasks become much easier.

 

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What’s a Hate Crime?

Police reports can play an essential role in prosecuting a hate crime.

In recent years, many jurisdictions have established a separate hate crime category, and the federal government also can investigate and prosecute hate crimes. These are criminal acts such as murder, arson, vandalism, and other crimes against people and property that are partly or wholly motivated by bias.

You should know that demonstrating hatred towards minorities, gays, Jews, persons with disabilities, or other groups is not sufficient: The bias must be shown beyond a reasonable doubt to be the motivation behind the crime.

Prosecuting a hate crime can be difficult. Hate in itself is not a crime, and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects free speech even when it is offensive.

Another problem is that sometimes an alleged hate crime is actually a hoax. In 2009, for example, McCain supporter Ashley Todd falsely claimed that she’d been robbed by a Barack Obama supporter who cut a B on her right cheek. Investigators noted that the cuts were superficial, Todd refused medical attention, and – most telling – the “B” was backward, as if it had been done in front of a mirror.

If you suspect a hate crime, be sure to record details in your report that will be helpful to the prosecutor. Here are some possibilities:

  • Relevant information about the offender’s and victim’s race, religion, ethnic/national origin, sexual orientation, or disability
  • Suspect’s oral statements indicating bias
  • Bias-related drawings, markings, symbols, or graffiti
  • Objects (like white sheets with hoods or a burning cross) indicating bias
  • Membership in a significant group (such as a white supremacy organization)

The officer at the scene will not be the person who decides how to prosecute the crime. But your observations and detailed reporting can be the deciding factors in a successful prosecution.

You can learn more about hate crimes by reading this article from the FBI website: https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2015/november/latest-hate-crime-statistics-available/latest-hate-crime-statistics-available.

 

 

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What to Omit from a Police Report

There’s an intriguing topic! Officers often worry (and rightly so) about leaving something important out of a report. But it’s also true that some things don’t belong in a report. Here are some examples:

  • Opinions (Because of Mrs. Brown’s age, I knew she might not have heard the noise outside)
  • Thoughts (I decided the suspect had probably exited through the bedroom window)
  • Generalizations (Foster seemed confused)
  • Hunches (Officer Collins agreed with me that the witness was probably lying)
  • Passive voice unless you’re describing an action by an unknown person
    Clark was questioned by me (unnecessary passive – avoid)
    I questioned Clark (better)
    A wallet and a diamond ring were taken (acceptable passive – you don’t know who took them)
  • Jargon (Mirandized,” “Baker acted,” “this officer,” “I processed the area”)
    Better:  I took him into custody and began Baker Act proceedings
    Better: I read him his rights from my Miranda card
    Better: I examined the front and back doors. I found pry marks by the outside door handle on the back door.
  • Unnecessary repetition
    You don’t need to write down everything you said when you’re questioning a witness or a suspect. Omit “Then I asked him,” “I followed up with,” “My next question was.”
    Compare these two versions:


    I asked what time she got home from work. She said 5:20 p.m. I asked what happened. She said she noticed the open window and got worried. I asked if she was sure it had been closed when she left that morning. She said yes, she was sure it had been closed. REPETITIOUS

    I asked what happened. She said she got home from work at 5:20 p.m. She saw the open window and got worried. She was sure it had been closed when she left that morning. BETTER

A concise and objective report saves time and shows off your professionalism. Make it your goal to write an excellent report every time.

 

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Two Sentences from Police Reports

Here’s a challenge for you (a quick one, for a change!). Pretend you’re a supervisor, and read these sentences from actual police reports. What would you say to the officers who wrote them? (My comments appear below.)

The first sentence is from a report about a victim of domestic violence:

While waiting for rescue, I asked what had happened, if there were any witnesses and how long ago had it occurred.

The second sentence is from a report about an attempt to serve a warrant:

We continued to ask her where Quincy was, and she stated he was not home.

My comments:

  • I would tell the officer who wrote #1 that this sentence should never have been written at all – and I would have done some counseling about efficiency. There’s no need to record your questions – write down only what the victim, witness, or suspect tells you. Police officers are busy men and women. Get your paperwork done and go on to the next task!
  • Excerpt #2 impressed me, and I would have congratulated the officer on a professional report. (Of course I’m assuming the rest of the report was just as good!). It’s clear, efficient, and written in active voice. There’s no need to write your repeated questions: We asked her where Quincy was, and she stated he was not home. We asked her again where Quincy was, and she again stated he was not home. We asked her another time where Quincy was, and she once again stated he was not home.

And there’s something else I would have been happy about: that word stated. It’s wonderful to read a police report written in normal English! (Too many officers are still using advised when they mean said or stated. Weird!)

How did you do?

 

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