Category Archives: What’s New

Corey Coleman

The NFL season is over, but maybe we can take a moment to look at a police report concerning Cleveland Browns wide receiver Corey Coleman. On December 31 four black men attacked a man named Adam Sapp in the lobby of a Cleveland condominium. Corey Coleman was named as one of the attackers. Police later said Coleman was not involved, and no charges were filed.

The police report has been posted at this link. It’s an effective report, but it includes some of the unnecessary wordiness that wastes so much time – and appears in so many police reports. The report keeps repeating “he stated” and the building address: 701 W. Lakeside “The Pinnacle.” (After you’ve put the location in your report, why keep repeating the address?)

SAPP THEN STATED THAT HE IS UNCLEAR OF WHAT HAPPENED NEXT, BUT HE WAS WOKEN UP BY NINA HOMAN IN A STAIRWELL LOCATED INSIDE OF 701 W. LAKESIDE “THE PINNACLE.” SAPP STATED THAT HE DID NOT KNOW/RECOGNIZE ANY OF THE 4 MALES WHO HE HAD THE CONFRONTATION WITH, BUT NINA HOLMAN KEPT YELLING “THAT WAS HIM! THAT WAS COREY COLEMAN! I CANT BELIEVE HE DID THAT TO YOU! I KNOW THAT’S HIM! SAPP STATED HE ASKED “WHO IS COREY COLEMAN?”

Why do so many officers waste time on unnecessary repetition? Officers have told me that they think repetition could be helpful if the case goes to court.

Not true!

Your report should demonstrate that you’re a professional who thoroughly knows the business of a police officer. You need to document exactly what you saw, heard, and did at the scene. Any defense attorney should be able to tell that there’s no point trying to embarrass you or persuade you to back down about what you wrote. It’s all there in your report.

Now think about this. Suppose you were careless, distracted, or forgetful. You made mistakes, either in the way you handled the situation or when you tried to remember what happened for your report How can you salvage the situation?

Will writing “he said” over and over be helpful?

Will repeating the address convince a defense attorney that you’re an officer to be reckoned with?

I think the answer is obvious. Unnecessary repetition is a waste of time that doesn’t solve anything.

Here’s a suggested rewrite of the paragraph you read earlier:

SAPP THEN STATED:

  • HE IS UNCLEAR ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED NEXT.
  • HE WAS WOKEN UP BY NINA HOMAN IN A STAIRWELL IN “THE PINNACLE.”
  • HE DID NOT KNOW OR RECOGNIZE ANY OF THE 4 MALES HE HAD THE CONFRONTATION WITH.
  • NINA HOLMAN KEPT YELLING “THAT WAS HIM! THAT WAS COREY COLEMAN! I CANT BELIEVE HE DID THAT TO YOU! I KNOW THAT’S HIM.”
  • HE DIDN’T KNOW WHO COREY COLEMAN WAS.

                Cleveland Browns

 

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How Good Does a Police Report Need to Be?

I’m always looking for police reports to discuss on this blog. Here’s one I came across recently. What’s your opinion? (My comments appear below.)

On the above t/d/l, def did have a large knife in his hand and was threatening to kill himself and officers with that knife also stated had a gun but no gun was recovered def did refuse to drop the knife and did start coming towards officers in an aggressive manner. SWAT was called out.

I found this report odd. One feature that caught my eye was the unnecessary “did”: “def did have a large knife….” “def did refuse to drop the knife and did start coming….”

I was also puzzled by the lack of periods and capital letters. The repeated “def” (short for “defendant”) suggested that the officer was in a hurry to submit the report.

Most seriously, I wondered about the lack of consistent sentence structure: “…was threatening to kill himself and officers with that knife also stated had a gun but no gun was recovered def did refuse to drop the knife….”

I wish I knew the backstory here. Perhaps the officer was unusually busy and didn’t have time to use professional practices. The unnecessary “did” may be a leftover from school days and an old-fashioned teacher.

What are your agency’s policies about police reports? If you were a supervisor, would you insist on a rewrite – or let this one go?

One concern I have is about this wording: “coming towards officers in an aggressive manner.” That’s too vague for a police report, and it opens the door to a challenge from a defense attorney. One person’s “aggressive manner’ could be another person’s normal behavior. (I’m from New York, so my threshold for “aggressive” may be different from someone else’s.)

But let me go back to my earlier point. Does your agency have consistent policies about the minimum standards for a report? Who makes those decisions? And if follow-ups are needed, who deals with them?

The time to make these decisions is before a problematic report is submitted. Every officer should know beforehand what the standards are – and where to go if there are questions or problems.

 

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How California Handles Requests for Police Reports

In an October post I encouraged agencies to review how they handle citizens’ requests for police reports. I noted that California requires agencies to provide reports promptly, free of charge, to victims of domestic violence, elder abuse, and a number of other crimes.

The Emanuel Law Group has posted California Family Code Section 6228 online. If your agency is reviewing its policies about victims’ requests for police reports, you might find California’s statute useful as a starting point for discussion. You can read it here.

 

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If You’re a Supervisor

The January 1 edition of the 60 Minutes TV show included a discussion about the rising rates of violence in Chicago. (You can read a complete transcript at the link.) One of the issues raised on the show has a direct bearing on police reports everywhere: How do you define – and document – “probable cause” and “reasonable suspicion”?

Here’s some background: The Chicago Police Department was found to be conducting too many “investigatory stop reports” (also called “street stops,” “stop and frisk” or “Terry stops”). Those stops decreased dramatically when officers were required to fill out a two-page form. (Click here for more background.)

Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo favors a return to the briefer contact cards that officers formerly filled out for these “street stops.” Here’s how he explains what police are up against:

You have a corner loaded with guys you know are up to no good and have historically been up to no good, because you’ve been working the same beat for…years. They’re in the same spot every day. If they’re out there throwing narcotics or involved in gang activity or intimidation or street robberies, we know these individuals.

You [need to] ask them if they’re there for a lawful purpose, if they’re wanted on warrants or in possession of narcotics or weapons. You need to make sure you’re safe, they’re safe and the community is safe. Then, you ask them to kindly continue on their way so you don’t give up the corner. If you lose the corner, you lose the block. If you lose the block, you lose the community and you’re gonna see an uptick in violence.

Reactions to Angelo’s views vary, even within the Chicago Police Department. What is your position? Here are some questions that you, as a supervisor, might want to think about:

  • Does your agency have specific policies that cover stops and searches?
  • Is every officer up to date with those policies?
  • Do officers know how to document stops and searches so that they meet legal requirements?
  • Officers often say that “If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen.” Do you believe that’s true? Why or why not?
  • How does your jurisdiction define the terms “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause”?
  • What kinds of questions and searches are permitted if an officer has “reasonable suspicion”? And how are they different if an officer can show “probable cause”?

Before we leave, it might be useful to spend a moment considering a specific situation that Angelo cited: “guys you know are up to no good” are hanging around at a street corner. An officer has a hunch and orders them to move on.

  • Should a report be written?
  • Does the “hunch” require documentation?
  • Does the officer have a legal right to order citizens to move on?
  • If so, what statute should be cited?

This blog is often concerned with details about English usage, sentence structure, wordiness, and other details concerning police reports. It’s easy to lose sight of the larger picture: Police reports are legal documents that reflect not only on the officer who did the writing, but on the entire agency.

Supervisors have the final responsibility for ensuring that officers are familiar with policies and practices – and that they’re being followed. Take a moment to ask yourself whether now might be a good time to look at the policies established in your agency – and to review them with your officers. That extra effort now might save you from messy and time-consuming legal problems later on.

 

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A Shoplifting Report

Yesterday (December 29), the Virginia Tech Hokies defeated the Arkansas Razorbacks from the University of Arkansas at the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, North Carolina.. The final score was 35- 24.

Arkansas tight end Jeremy Sprinkle didn’t play in that game, which was supposed to be his last as a Razorback. Here’s what happened: two days before the game, each Razorback player was given $450 to spend at the Belk store in SouthPark Mall. Not satisfied with his $450, Sprinkle tried to shoplift eight items from the store. Charlotte police officers arrested him at the mall and then released him.

I was impressed by the reporting form used by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. There’s a space for relevant information about each stolen item, with no need for a lengthy narrative. Here’s what the officer wrote:

On 12/27/2016 1948 hours, the reporting person stated that suspect concealed the merchandise in one of his shopping bags and did not pay for the merchandise at 4400 Sharon Rd. The suspect was cited on scene.

The incident occurred in the SouthPark Mall.

I do have a few suggestions. There’s no need to repeat the date and time, since there are spaces  for both on the form. (See below.)

I would have inserted SouthPark Mall in the box labeled “Location Description” instead of in the narrative – but each agency has its own reasoning and preferred practices.

I also would have included the name of the reporting person, since it might be useful information if there’s a court case. But again, the agency might have good reasons for omitting it.

Bottom line: It’s refreshing to see such an efficient report!

 

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A Missing Police Report

On December 8, two officers from the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC responded to a report of an attempted break-in. Jean Darlington is a mother of two who’s also caring for her blind mother.

After that initial police response, Darlington waited in vain for six days for a follow-up visit from police to recover surveillance video footage of the break-in. Frustrated, she finally called the FOX 5 TV station. You can read the story here. 

FOX 5 verified that two officers really did come to her home on December 8 – they can be seen on the surveillance video. But no police report had been filed. (It showed up shortly after the reporters came to the police station – dated six days after the attempted break-in.)

The police department issued this statement:

Following the call for service, a report was not taken. Once this was brought to our attention, an officer responded to the location and a report was subsequently taken for the offense. This case remains under investigation. Furthermore, the initial responding officer’s actions are currently under review.

No arrest has been made in the case.

This incident is a useful reminder about the importance of thorough and timely police reports. You never know when what seems to be a routine incident will become national news.

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Questions for Supervisors

Michael Floyd is the wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals. On December 12 he was arrested for DUI after a highway patrol officer found him passed out behind the steering wheel of his SUV. You can read the story here, and you can read the police report here.

Today’s post is especially directed to supervisors who set agency standards for reports. I want to raise some important questions about efficiency.

Law enforcement officers are busy men and women who play a vital role in protecting public safety. How do you determine what information belongs in a report? Do you insist on documenting everything, just in case there are questions later? Or do you encourage officers to focus on the essential facts in their reports?

My own take on this is that police officers should be as efficient as possible, with only the necessary facts.

The question, of course, is which facts are necessary.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the Michael Floyd report. Which information could have been omitted? Opinions will vary, of course – but this is a useful discussion that can have major impact on how officers in your agency spend their time. I’ve made some observations of my own below.

My questions:

  • What is the difference between “I was in uniform” and “I was in full SPD regulation uniform”?
  • Is the information about the patrol vehicle and uniform even relevant?
  • Does the report need to document details about what the officer’s car was doing ?
  • Is it appropriate for a report to record the officer’s thinking? (“I thought that the vehicle was not moving due to the c/b traffic….”)

I would encourage officers to record only the relevant information:

On 12/12/16 at approximately 0248 hours, I was driving toward the intersection of E. Camelback Road and N. Goldwater Bl. I saw a black Cadillac Escalade (tag XXXXX) stopped as the lead vehicle in the left turn lane. The car did not move when the traffic signal turned green. The car remained stopped as the traffic signal went through another cycle. I parked my vehicle and walked to the driver’s side of the Escalade.

Original version: 384 wordsRevised version: 71 words.

 

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Another Story from Portland

Williamette Week is a news publication that serves Portland, Oregon, and the Williamette Valley. A recent feature makes an important point about police reports.

The Portland Police Bureau is experiencing unusual delays in delivering copies of police reports to citizens who request them. The delays are due to budget problems, a new records management system, and a personnel shortage, and the PPB is working hard to solve the problem.

What’s especially interesting are the comments that readers have posted in response to the news story. One citizen needed a report to complete an insurance form that would reimburse his medical expenses after a bicycle accident. Another needed a police report as evidence in a divorce case.

If you’re a police officer, those comments offer a useful reminder about the importance of police reports. There’s nothing glamorous or exciting about writing police reports! But those reports can make a huge difference to a citizen who’s struggling with a difficult situation.

If you handle required paperwork in a professional manner, take a moment right now to congratulate yourself. You’re providing a vital service to your community.

 

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Police Reports from Portland, Oregon

Last month in Portland, Oregon, peaceful demonstrations against the election of Donald Trump turned into violence. The Portland Police Bureau has released the police reports that document the use of force. You can read them here.

Today I’d like to comment about some features I noticed in the beginning of the first report. (Suggestion – read the excerpt below and see what you think before you go to my comments. This is a great way to sharpen your own writing skills.)

On today’s date and listed time I was tasked to Delta squad with Sgt Mooney and Ofc Mawdsley who were also tasked with Delta squad on listed date and time. During this time Sgt Mooney explained there was probable cause to arrest one of the main aggressors who was telling the crowd where to go by way of a mega phone. This included blocking traffic on the Burnside bridge which is public right of way and both lanes of traffic causing the traffic to become clogged. This was a dangerous time because at this time of year it becomes dark early it also made me extra alert because I was watching the male with the mega phone directing this group of about 100 or more kids to sit in traffic and place themselves into direct danger. It was dark enough that even the street lights were on.

We followed and assisted the crowd with it’s movements into downtown Portland. The march eventually lead to SW 5th/SW Salmon St where Sgt Mooney said if the opportunity presents its self then myself and Ofc Mawdsley would affect the arrest of the main aggressor. The main aggressor made his way South on SW 5th in front of the crowd and we were given the go ahead to make the arrest on him. As we walked up to him to arrest him he was immediately grabbed onto by a female later identified as STEVENS.

STEVENS grabbed the male we were trying to arrest as if she was hugging him but when we ordered her back and to let go of the male she refused and visibly tightened her grasp onto him….

My comments: Much of this report is excellent. It’s thorough, and the sentence structure is excellent. I was especially impressed by the absence of jargon. For example, the officer simply used “I” instead of outdated expressions like “this officer.”

But…the report is much longer than it needed to be. You’re an officer, not a novelist. Get to the facts – quickly. Get done!

Here’s a suggested rewrite. Notice that this version is a fraction of the length of the original – 277 words reduced to 61.

Sgt. Mooney, Ofc Mawdsley, and I were dispatched to arrest a protestor who was obstructing traffic on the Burnside Bridge.

At SW 5th/SW Salmon Street we approached the aggressor. As we walked up to make the arrest, a woman (later identified as Stevens) grabbed the aggressor as if she was hugging him. Instead of letting him go, she held him tighter.

Additional comments:

  • Don’t waste time on the date and location if you’ve already recorded them elsewhere on the form.
  • This officer deserves credit for writing in active voice through much of the report. But passive voice crept in to one sentence: “…we were given the go ahead to make the arrest on him.” Who authorized you to make the arrest? That might be critical if there’s an investigation later on (which is exactly what happened in this situation).
  • Officers should be ruthless about avoiding time-wasting words. Notice this wording: “visibly tightened her grasp onto him.” If you saw her tighten her grip, of course it was visible! Better wording would be simply “she tightened her grasp onto him.”
  • Like many writers, this officer has difficulty with the word it. (You can read some tips about using it/it’s/its correctly at this link.) Take a look at this sentence:

We followed and assisted the crowd with it’s movements into downtown Portland.  INCORRECT

It’s means it is. Use its here instead:

We followed and assisted the crowd with its movements into downtown Portland.  CORRECT

Here’s a useful trick: Substitute his (which also doesn’t have an apostrophe).

his movements (no apostrophe) √

its movements (no apostrophe) √

Boarded-up Store after Anti-Trump Rioting

            Boarded-up Store after Anti-Trump Rioting

 

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Police Reports about Scott Greene

Scott Greene is the accused killer of two Iowa police officers who were murdered in Iowa on November 2.

You can read a series of incident reports about Greene’s encounters with police before the fatal shootings by clicking here.

These reports are worth reading and thinking about. Incident reports tend to be overlooked when criminal justice experts are talking about police recordkeeping. Here’s why: incident reports document situations when no laws were broken and no arrests were made. Often they’re placed in a file and forgotten.

But the Scott Greene case reminds us that incident reports can provide an important paper trail later on, when a series of minor events becomes connected to a major new story – especially a sad one, like the deaths of the two Iowa police officers.

I encourage you to click on the link and spend a few minutes reading the Scott Greene incident reports, especially if you’re new to police writing. I found them to be well written and professional.

I have a few suggestions, however. The writers tend to overuse “advise,” which should be saved for giving actual advice. Use “said” or “told”:

At this time Steven advised me that Scott has mental issues. X

Steven told me that Scott has mental issues. 

Another issue is that these incident reports are sometimes more wordy than they need to be. Busy police officers sometimes need to be reminded to write efficiently. Expressions like “upon my arrival” and “at this time” don’t add any useful information and should be avoided.

Here’s an example of a sentence that could be simplified:

When running Scott’s information through dispatch I was advised of an Officer Safety flag as Scott has hatred for all law enforcement. WORDY

Here’s a more efficient version:

Dispatch told me about an Officer Safety flag noting that Scott hated all law enforcement.  EFFICIENT

police-death

 

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