Sharpen Your Skills

Experienced police officers have an astounding ability to pick up a clue that a situation that isn’t quite right long before anyone else notices. “I just had a hunch,” they’ll say. Or they’ll mention something they saw that nobody else paid attention to.

Where does that intuition come from? Training and experience. Over time, the neurons in an officer’s brain reorganize  themselves in response to the challenges of a criminal justice career.

You can encourage your brain to undertake a similar process to sharpen your writing skills. Ever notice how quickly an English teacher or editor can scan and evaluate a composition or article? Again, it’s the result of training and experience.

Here are some practical ways to improve your skills:

1.  Read. It doesn’t have to be professional material. Anything that’s well-written will improve your vocabulary, punctuation, and sentence structure. And anything NOT well-written will sharpen your ability to correct errors.

2.  Listen. Start noticing the speech patterns of people you talk to. What conclusions can you draw about their backgrounds and experience? What verbal habits do you admire?

3.  Write. Moving a pen across a piece of paper or tapping a keyboard instantly activates the language capabilities of your brain. The more time you spend at it, the better you’ll get.

4.  Stay grounded. Some officers – alas – give up any hope of becoming better writers because they think they need to stuff their brains with abstract grammar theory. Not true! Good English usage doesn’t require a lot of fancy terminology. Most rules are easy to learn. (You can find jargon-free explanations and examples right on this website.)

 Go for it! Spending just a few minutes a day thinking about language and practicing your skills will pay off handsomely – and in much less time than you think.

Checklist with "excellent" on top

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Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

In my files I have a probable cause affidavit about a couple who attacked a coffeeshop employee over an incorrect order. (The wife requested vanilla latte, but she got caramel instead.) It’s a well written document, but there’s some repetition that could have been avoided, saving time for both the writer and the eventual readers.

Here’s what I mean:

– “initially went in the drive thru” – you could omit “initially.” It doesn’t add any useful information.

-“Co-defendant Longo then aggressively approached victim Hall and attempted to strike him at which point the incident became physical.” All you need here is “Co-defendant Longo attempted to strike victim Hall.”

-“several witnesses attempted to break up the fight and separate the parties involved.” You can omit “break up the fight and.” Separate the parties involved says it very well.

Brevity is a virtue – especially in report writing!

Cup of foamy vanilla latte

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 Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from Amazon.com for $17.95. For a free preview, click on the link or the picture below.

Updated, with a new chapter on Writing Efficiently

“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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Quoting Yourself

Here’s an interesting question: Can you quote yourself in a report? You already know that it’s important to document statements from victims, suspects, and witnesses. But is it ever necessary to write down your own words?

The answer is yes: Officers often quote themselves in police reports. For example, you might record a question you asked, and then write the response. When I worked in the prison system, I sometimes recorded conversations with inmates to show that they had reacted aggressively to something I asked them to do.

Remember not to record your own statements unnecessarily. For example:

“I asked Johnson what time he’d left for work that morning. He told me he’d left at 7:45. I asked if he’d noticed anything unusual. He said everything was normal.”  REPETITIOUS

That’s repetitious and time consuming. Just write what Johnson told you:

“Johnson said he’d left at 7:45 and didn’t notice anything unusual.”  BETTER

On the other hand, there are a number of reasons you might want to record someone’s response to something you said.  Here’s an example:

I said to George, “What were you and Sarah arguing about?” He said, “It’s none of your damn business, you nosy bitch.”

One more point: In the US, periods and commas always go inside quotation marks. There are no exceptions. Take a look at these examples:

Praeter told me he’d been to a bar with friends and had “one or two drinks.”  CORRECT

“I never touched her,” Winkens said.  CORRECT

Male figure holding up quotation marks

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Jussie Smollet

Jussie Smollet is an actor who’s been charged with making himself the victim of a fake crime in order to gain publicity.

Some of the reports in his case have been made public. You can read them here:

https://www.scribd.com/document/403352188/CPD-releases-Jussie-Smollett-case-files-PART-1#from_embed?campaign=SkimbitLtd&ad_group=76112X1526402X3afa64efd5f15e08f73e6d9d6982c2bb&keyword=660149026&source=hp_affiliate&medium=affiliate

The reports are professional, detailed, and well written…but wordy. For example, sentences often begin with “R/D asked” and “R/D learned.” Perhaps the officer has been told not to use the word “I” because it might compromise the report.

If you think about it, though – wouldn’t you use “I” in court? I and me are fine professional words.

Efficiency is another issue. Officers often need to decide how much detail is needed in a report. For example, I would omit the sentence in red:

After a quick search of TCF Bank, R/D learned that TCF Bank was closed for Washington’s Birthday. X and X stated they would go with R/D and Det. Theis to the TCF Bank on 19-Feb-2019 when the bank reopened.

Busy officers can streamline reports by omitting repetitious questions (in red below). 

R/D asked and where and when they received and spent the $100 bill tendered to MI SMOLLETT, which was provided to them to buy the rope, masks and hat for this incident. X stated he was pretty sure he received the $100 bill from SMOLLETT on 25-JAN-2019. X stated he was not sure when and where the bill was used. R/D asked how payment was made for the rope, masks and hat and if any receipts were kept for these items. X stated he used loose cash to purchase at the items and kept no receipts.

You can include the rope, masks, hat and receipts in the witness’s answer. Here’s my version:

X stated he was pretty sure he received the $100 bill to buy the rope, masks and hat from SMOLLETT on 25-JAN-2019 . He was not sure when and where he spent the bill. He used loose cash and kept no receipts.

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How to Make a Report Better

Here’s a police report that needs improvement. What changes would you recommend? Scroll below for a list of problems with the report and some recommendations for fixing them.

This officer was dispatched to a report of criminal mischief at 315 Cooper Lane. Upon arrival the victim related a fence was damaged by what appeared to be a vehicle that was southbound on Cooper Lane. The vehicle left the roadway and after hitting the fence continued northbound. No evidence was left from the vehicle.

First, let’s look at a few problems with wording:

  • “This officer” is old-fashioned police jargon – it makes you sound outdated, and it doesn’t enhance the report. Use “I.”
  • “Upon arrival the victim…” is a dangling modifier. The victim didn’t arrive: You, the officer, did. Better wording: “Upon my arrival, the victim…”
  • “related…” What’s wrong with “said”?

Now let’s look at wording that could cause problems if this report becomes part of a prosecution later on. The officer wrote that the fence “was damaged by what appeared to be a vehicle…” Why did it “appear” to be a vehicle? If the victim doesn’t know what it was, how can she be so sure it traveled southbound after damaging the fence?

The victim seems to have seen something happen to her fence – or perhaps a neighbor saw the incident and told the victim about it. As the investigating officer, you need to be clear about who saw what. Who spoke to you, and what did they say? That could be important in court later on.

The report states “no evidence was left from the vehicle.” What evidence did the officer look for? It would be much better to state that there were no tire tracks on the ground and no paint chips on the broken length of fence. Reporting these details show that you are an effective officer who knows what to look for.

The words Write, Review, Submit

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Getting Either-Or Sentences Right

There’s a special subject-verb agreement rule that you should use in either or sentences. (Click on the link and read Rule 3, or just keep reading below.)

Here’s the rule: Pretend the “either” part of the sentence isn’t there. Look only at the or part.

Here’s an example:

Either several cars or a mini-bus (is/are) needed to transport the officers to the parade.

Skip “Either several cars” and go straight to “a mini-bus.” The correct word will be is.

Either a several cars or a mini-bus is needed to transport the officers to the parade.  CORRECT

(Incidentally, this is one of very few times you don’t look at the beginning of a sentence to get the verb right.)

Here’s another one for you to try. The answer appears below.

Either Mrs. Jones or her children (was/were) probably home when the burglary occurred.

Skip “Either Mrs. Jones” and go straight to “her children.”

 Either Mrs. Jones or her children were probably home when the burglary occurred.  CORRECT

One more thing: Neither/nor sentences work the same way.

well done

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Was It an Accident or a Collision?

My background is English, and I’m especially interested in some philosophical issues we run into when we use language. I sometimes talk to real-world writers (like police officers!) who wonder if all this theoretical stuff really matters.

Yes, it does – and here’s an example. You may be aware that some jurisdictions have improved their procedures for dealing with vehicle accidents. The NYPD is a good example.

Some time ago, the NYPD instituted a number of changes in the way it investigates and documents vehicular crashes. Case in point: The word “accident” has been replaced with “collision.”

The reason? The word accident evokes something unfortunate that happened on its own. But the word collision suggests that something went wrong. It feels more like a police matter. (You can read about the NYPD policy changes here.)

Paul Steely White is the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a cycling and pedestrian advocacy group. He said the changes constitute “a very significant step toward a safer, more humane city.”

Words matter! “An accident is when a meteor falls through your house and hits you in the head,” he said. “Collisions can be prevented.”

Two cars that collided

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A Misplaced Modifier

Here’s a summary of a police report. Can you spot the misplaced modifier ?

Officers are looking into a burglary in the 1800 block of 16th Street. A property manager told police that sometime between 10:30 p.m. Tuesday and 2:30 p.m. Wednesday someone broke into a duplex residence he manages by unknown means. The manager said about 70 feet of copper pipe were taken from the basement of the duplex.

Here it is:

...someone broke into a duplex residence he manages by unknown means.

“By unknown means” refers to the break-in. But the sentence sounds as if he manages the property “by unknown means.”

Here’s how the sentence could be rewritten:

A property manager told police that sometime between 10:30 p.m. Tuesday and 2:30 p.m. Wednesday someone used unknown means to break into a duplex residence he manages. 

Problem solved! (Incidentally, a “modifier” is a description. A “misplaced modifier” is simply a description in the wrong place.)

a break-in

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Comma Rule 1

Do commas worry you? Many writers say they worry more about commas than any other punctuation mark.

Actually commas aren’t that hard. Most professional sentences are based on just three comma rules. Today we’re going to review and practice Comma Rule 1.

Here it is: Use a comma when a sentence begins with an extra idea.

Everything you say or write is either a sentence (beginning with a person, place, or thing) or an extra idea. Take a look at these examples:

We need additional security for tonight’s concert.  SENTENCE

Because we need additional security for tonight’s concert.  EXTRA IDEA

I can trade shifts with Kenny.  SENTENCE

If I can trade shifts with Kenny.  EXTRA IDEA

Notice that looking at the first word usually tells you whether you have a sentence or an extra idea.

Here is Comma Rule 1 again: Use a comma when a sentence begins with an extra idea. If the extra idea is in back, don’t use a comma.

Take a look at these examples (the extra idea is in green):

We’ve had a shortage of officers for the past three years.  NO COMMA

For the past three years, we’ve had a shortage of officers.  COMMA NEEDED

Get into the habit of listening for sentences and extra ideas. You’ll soon hear the difference. Then check the beginning of each sentence, and you’ll know immediately whether you need a comma.

You can watch a short video by clicking here.

Comma Rule 1

Click here to download a free, printable copy of Commas Made Simple, a handout that explains all three comma rules.

Male figure holding up a comma

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Buy Me Some Peanuts and Cracker Jack

Baseball’s spring training season is underway! Today I’m going to use a police report about a 2013 baseball game to make a point about facts and opinions.

First I need to remind you that police writing has its own special requirements. The dull, short sentences that your English teacher complained about are ideal for a police report:

I saw a baseball bat propped near the kitchen door.

Lacey Collins was trembling when she answered the door.

I’m about to send you to read a police report that really is fun. First, though, you have to promise not to imitate the style, which clearly won’t work in a real police report.

Ready? Click here to read a wonderful account of a Blue Jays baseball game that included an unauthorized walk-on by an overenthusiastic fan.

Why am I encouraging you to read a police report that doesn’t meet the requirements for criminal justice writing? To make an important point. If you spotted the words and phrases that don’t belong in the report, you’ve just proved that you’re a true professional.

Let’s look at one of the paragraphs in this report. Can you see where the officer stopped reporting and started commenting?Blue Jays

 Problem wording includes “surprisingly,” “underrated,” “hapless,” and the background information about the Jays’ prospects this season. In addition, the suggestion that we can “almost forgive” the fan clearly doesn’t belong in a report.

Let’s rewrite the report to make it more professional. Here’s a suggested revision:

On May 5, 2013 at approximately 3:18 pm, a Toronto Blue Jays fan, Joe Smith, left his seat at level 100 and ran onto the baseball field. I arrested him and transported him to 52 Division. He was released on a Form 10/11.1.

baseball

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