Category Archives: What’s New

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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Three Tips for Solving Writing Problems

What should you do if you’re an officer who has an uneasy feeling that your writing needs improvement? Or if you’re an instructor or a supervisor who’s worried about a recruit or officer’s writing?

Many times the solution is simpler than you might think. Here are three pieces of advice that can go a long way to solving writing problems:

  1. Slow down.
  2. Simplify.
  3. Seek out a writing partner.

Can these simple steps really make a difference? Yes. I’ve seen for myself how they can turn an officer’s writing around.

Still skeptical? Read on as I explain these three steps.

1.  Slow down.

Many writing mistakes are the result of carelessness. I’ve read breathless reports with missing periods and capital letters. Reports written in a hurry are full of garbled sentences, spelling errors, and diction problems (“I seen blood on her blouse and called for a EMT”).

When I meet with the officers who make these errors, it’s obvious that they know better. Often there’s an embarrassed laugh when they see for the first time the kinds of reports they’ve been writing. Could those officers have caught – and fixed – the mistakes before submitting those reports? In most cases, the answer is yes.

Whenever possible, type your reports first in a word processor that can check your spelling and grammar. Use a dictionary if you get confused by word pairs like your/you’re, it’s/its. NEVER submit a report until you’ve checked to make sure it’s right. So…slow down!

2.  Simplify

You’re not in English class any more! Forget about the advanced vocabulary words and complicated sentences you tried to write in school. Police reports are supposed to be efficient and straightforward. That means short sentences that start with a person, place, or thing. You won’t need fancy punctuation, and you’ll avoid clumsy sentences and awkward syntax. Plain writing can help you avoid countless errors.

3.  Seek out a writing partner.

A second pair of eyes can help you ensure an error-free report almost every time. Your writing partner doesn’t have to be an English whiz. Choose someone you trust who has a commitment to professionalism.

Writing partnerships are especially important if English isn’t your first language. Writing well isn’t just about rules: you need to master all the quirks that make English such an interesting language – and such a difficult one.

You’ll also need a writing partner if you had difficulty with writing assignments in school. Many people – not just officers! – find it hard to make the transfer from conversation to writing. A partner can show you how to fix awkward wording and how to avoid common mistakes.

And that’s it! Any officer can apply these three steps immediately – and quickly see a big improvement. Are you going to get started today?

 

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Writing a Complete Report

Below are excerpts from two versions of the same police report. (To save time, I’m not using the entire report.) Which one is more complete? (Think of an officer answering questions at a court hearing. Which version is more likely to be challenged by a defense attorney?)

Version 1:

I was dispatched to Lindsey’s Bar & Grill on 30 Jefferson Road to deal with a fight in progress. I went inside and saw a man (Juan Garcia, DOB 8/23/1995) pinned against the wall.  Another man (Paul Winston, DOB 3/14/1993) had positioned his hands around Garcia’s neck. I told Winston to let Garcia go, and I told the two men to sit down in opposite sides of the room. I talked to the bartender (Janice Fields), who told me she had called 911 when the fight started.

Garcia told me he arrived at the bar at about 7:30 pm. Several patrons were complaining about immigrants. Garcia became angry because he’s an immigrant himself. Winston was talking loudest, so Garcia told him to “shut up.” Winston grabbed him by the neck and held him against the wall. Bar patrons saw it all happen but did nothing.

Version 2:

I was dispatched to Lindsey’s Bar & Grill on 30 Jefferson Road to deal with a fight in progress. I was wearing full uniform and driving a marked vehicle. I parked on the west side of Lindsey’s Bar & Grill. Upon my arrival I went inside and saw a man (Juan Garcia, DOB 8/23/1995) pinned against the wall.  Another man (Paul Winston, DOB 3/14/1993) had positioned his hands around Garcia’s neck. Upon seeing this, I advised Winston to let Garcia go, and I advised them to sit down in opposite sides of the room. After I had told the two abovementioned men to sit down, I talked to the bartender (Janice Fields), who told me she had called 911 when the fight started.

I questioned Garcia first. I asked him when he arrived at the bar. He replied that he had arrived at about 7:30 pm. I asked him what happened next. He advised me that  several patrons were complaining about immigrants. Upon hearing what they were saying, he became angry. During the conversation he noticed that Winston was talking loudest, whereupon he he told Winston to “shut up.” Winston became incensed, grabbed Garcia by the neck and held him against the wall. During this incident patrons of Lindsey’s Bar & Grill saw Winston grab Garcia but did nothing.

_________________________________________________________

Version 2 is longer than Version 1 – about 50% longer, in fact (219 words versus 145 in Version 1).

But does Version 2 contain 50% more information? No. the facts and details in both versions are exactly the same. You would think that a longer report might plug some holes that a defense attorney could use to his or her advantage. But that’s not true in this case.

The real difference between the two versions is empty, time-wasting filler:

  • If you were dispatched to a call, obviously you were in uniform and driving a service vehicle.
  • In this situation, it doesn’t matter where you parked.
  • Transitional words like “whereupon,” “during the conversation,” “abovementioned,” and “during this incident” don’t add anything useful.
  • There’s no need to state your questions. In most situations, all that’s needed is the information you heard from a suspect, victim, or witness.

And here’s something that might surprise you: Version 2 actually gives a defense an opportunity to challenge the officer’s handling of the case. The problem is the word advise (beloved of police officers, who mistakenly think it makes them sound smart and professional):

Upon seeing this, I advised Winston to let Garcia go, and I advised them to sit down in opposite sides of the room.  MISUSE OF ADVISE

Advised means “suggest” or “counsel” (even though cops insist on using it as a synonym for “told”). So a defense attorney could argue that you only suggested that Winston let go of Garcia…with serious results if a suspect refuses to obey your orders.

_________________________________________________________

Let’s go back to my earlier point: Version 2 is 50% longer than Version 1. Think of all the reports you write in a week – a month – a year. Can you justify making your reports half again as long for no purpose? Or…do you want to start thinking about ways to write more efficiently?

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How to Use “However” in a Sentence

I see lots of mistakes in sentences with however. In fact I’m always tempted to send a congratulatory email when I spot a correct “however” sentence in a police report – it’s that unusual.

Take a look at this paragraph from a recent report:

Wichita Police say recent posts on social media reporting alleged kidnapping attempts are not valid, however confusion over the social media posts led to confrontation that happened around 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 4 at Towne East Mall, located in the 7700 block of east Kellogg.  22-year-old woman recognized a 37-year-old woman who had been accused on Facebook of kidnapping. Police urged the public to check with law enforcement before sharing and acting on Facebook accounts of alleged crimes.

We’re going to focus on this sentence:

Wichita Police say recent posts on social media reporting alleged kidnapping attempts are not valid, however confusion over the social media posts led to confrontation that happened around 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 4 at Towne East Mall, located in the 7700 block of east Kellogg.

That’s a long sentence, and it’s crammed with information – too much information. “One idea per sentence” is a good rule for any writer, and it’s especially appropriate for police reports. Give up the idea of writing like Charles Dickens! Short, crisp, and clear sentences are the order of the day.

But what interests me most is the word however. Here’s a simple principle for you: Use a period and a capital letter. (NEVER use a comma.)

Wichita Police say recent posts on social media reporting alleged kidnapping attempts are not valid. However confusion over the social media posts led to confrontation that happened around 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 4 at Towne East Mall, located in the 7700 block of east Kellogg.  CORRECT

If you really want to write like a pro, put a comma after however:

However, confusion over the social media posts led to confrontation that happened around 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 4 at Towne East Mall, located in the 7700 block of east Kellogg.  CORRECT

Let me make one more suggestion. I’ve rarely use however in my own writing. It’s a stuffy word. I find that sentences with but are more natural and easier to read:

But confusion over the social media posts led to confrontation that happened around 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 4 at Towne East Mall, located in the 7700 block of east Kellogg.  BETTER

But can you start a sentence with but? Yes. Despite what you may have been told, there is not and never has been a rule against starting a sentence with but. It’s an urban myth. If you look at the books, magazines, and newspapers in your home, you’ll find that they all feature sentences starting with but. You can read more about but (you might be surprised!) at this link.

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Matthew Kennedy, Part 2

In yesterday’s post, I discussed an excellent police report that could – however – have been written more efficiently. Today I’m going to suggest ways to make the report (about a recent noisy party in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts) more objective.

See what you think of these excerpts:

I attempted further conversation with this male, but was unsuccessful.

He became even more irate with me.

A male, later identified as Matthew Kennedy, came to the door and immediately became angry with me. He gave me little opportunity to explain our presence.

All of those statements are opinions that a defense attorney could challenge in court. Because it’s impossible to look inside a person’s brain to see what they’re thinking, there’s no way to prove that Kennedy was angry or irate. An attorney could argue that Kennedy is always abrupt or brusque, for example.

And “unsuccessful”can be just as slippery. Maybe the conversation was stymied by outside noise.

So the report needs to give any specific evidence that the conversation was “unsuccessful” or that Kennedy was irate, angry, and uncooperative. Here are some objective statements:

I repeated the question three times, but Kennedy did not answer.

Kennedy shouted [record his exact words]

Kennedy told me that I was [record his exact words]

Kennedy came to the door, and I explained I was a police officer responding to a noise complaint. Kennedy said, [record his exact words] and closed the door.

* * * * * *

Before I go, I want to point out one more persistent problem with police reports: the ever-present advised. Somehow, when recruits enter a police academy, they stop using the words “tell” and “told.” I picture an officer at a restaurant with friends saying something like, “I advised Julie that the Italian food here is wonderful.” Ridiculous isn’t it?

Advise means “suggest” or “counsel.” If you give information or a warning to a citizen, use tell or told.

I advised Kennedy (whom I have never encountered or recognized) that I needed to speak with the owner or person in charge of the home.  CONFUSING

I told Kennedy that I needed to speak with the owner or person in charge of the home.  BETTER

I advised both parties of the Noise by-law violation.  CONFUSING

I told both parties about the noise by-law violation.  BETTER

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The Matthew Kennedy Police Report

It’s rare for me to read a truly efficient police report. Because so many officers say they dislike paperwork, you’d expect them to try to write as concisely as possible. Let’s get it done! But the opposite is true. Most reports are swollen with unnecessary words that don’t do any work and waste time for both the writer and anyone who reads them.

Here’s what’s really strange: many of those reports – despite their excessive length – omit some of the details needed for a thorough, objective, and totally professional report.

Today we’re going to look at a recent example of an effective police report that could – however – have been better. On August 20, neighbors reported a noisy party at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. Matthew Kennedy and his daughter Caroline (son and granddaughter of Robert F. Kennedy) were arrested for disturbing the peace and violating a noise ordinance. The Boston Globe published the police report, which you can read here.

Here are my comments:

  1. Many sentences begin with phrases that don’t add any useful information:

At this time

Once there

Upon walking up

Upon my arrival

Here’s an example:

Upon my arrival on Irving Ave., I shut down my cruiser approximately 200-300 feet before Iyanough Ave. I could clearly hear loud music and loud music coming from the corner house. I also observed several people walking up the road carrying coolers. I also observed Hyannisport Security off at the intersection.

If you were 200-300 feet away and you shut down your cruiser, it’s obvious that you had arrived. (Incidentally, the detail about 200-300 feet away is useful because you’re dealing with a noise complaint. If you could hear the music that far away, the noise complaint was justified. As I said, in many ways this is an excellent report.)

“At this time” is just as unnecessary. What other time would it have been? In many years of reading reports, I’ve noticed that officers always do a good job of recording events in the order they happened. (Would you put the arrest before the investigation? I’ve never seen a report do that.) You don’t need “at this time,” “whereupon,” and similar expressions. Just record – in order – what happened.

2. Sometimes the report takes a roundabout route to recording a simple fact. Here’s an example:

I asked the above-referenced unidentified male for identification.

How about: “I asked Kennedy for identification”? And see what you think of this sentence:

I observed Kennedy to have noticeably blood shot and glassy eyes and he was sweating profusely during our conversation.

“Saw” is a perfectly respectable word. And why “noticeably”? How could you have known that his eyes were bloodshot if the redness hadn’t been noticeable? And there’s no need to write “during our conversation.” The report just pointed out that the officer was questioning him.

Here’s a more efficient (and perfectly professional) sentence:

I saw that Kennedy’s eyes were bloodshot, and he was sweating profusely.  EFFICIENT

In tomorrow’s post I’ll discuss some details that were omitted from this report. Meanwhile, you might want to read the report yourself and see what you think.

Matthew Kennedy

 Matthew Kennedy

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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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