The Jussie Smollett Case

Some newspapers are wishing that they followed police guidelines about objectivity. Some media reports on January 29 and 30 said that actor Jussie Smollett was attacked by two men near his Chicago apartment building.

Thanks to an extensive police investigation, we now know that the attack was staged. The media should have been more objective in their initial reporting: “Jussie Smollett told police that two men attacked him near his Chicago apartment building.”

There’s a huge difference between “Jussie Smollett was attacked” (a conclusion) and “Jussie Smollett said he was attacked” (a fact). It’s the reason news reporters are supposed to say “the alleged assault” and “the suspected assailant.”

And it’s the reason police officers record only facts – not hunches or conclusions – in their reports. A police investigation or court hearing might bring information to light that discredits police thinking at the scene. But if a report sticks only to facts, there’s little chance that the report will be challenged later.

 *  *  *  *  * 

The initial Jussie Smollett police report below is objective and professional. I have two suggestions: 

  • The report should omit “at above listed location”  – it doesn’t give any useful information
  • “He said” is more natural than “he related,” which appears in the report several times
  • Jussie Smollett Police Report

Jussie Smollett

 
 
 

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The Plain Writing Act Part 2

In my previous post, I talked about the Plain Writing Act of 2010. All federal employees are required to write government documents in everyday language. Although police departments aren’t bound by this law, it makes sense to write plainly and clearly.

Today I’m going to offer three tips for writing plainly, clearly, and efficiently.

1.  Use ordinary language rather than jargon. For example, when a citizen gives you information, “said” or “told” is a better word choice than “advised,” which should be saved for actual advice:

Johnson told me she locked the door before she went to bed.  CORRECT

I advised Wilson to discuss her son’s behavior with the school guidance counselor.  CORRECT

Similarly, “I saw” or “I heard” is a better choice than “I ascertained,” which doesn’t document how you acquired the information. Time-wasting and awkward words like “respective,” “above mentioned,” and “being that” can often be replaced with timesaving word choices—or eliminated altogether:

Jones and Chumley returned to their respective offices and then came back with the registration numbers.  WORDY

Jones and Chumley returned to their offices and then came back with the registration numbers.  BETTER

The abovementioned witness said she called 911 because she feared that Faulkner would seriously harm his wife.  AWKWARD

Zoe Collins said she called 911 because she feared that Faulkner would seriously harm his wife.  BETTER

Being that Todd’s shirt was covered with blood, I called for an ambulance.  AWKWARD

Because Todd’s shirt was covered with blood, I called for an ambulance.  BETTER

2.  Use active voice rather than passive voice. In the past, some officers mistakenly believed that passive voice guaranteed objectivity and integrity. Not true! Similarly, writing “this officer” or “the undersigned” does not ensure accuracy. (If only life were that simple!)

Smoke was detected inside the bathroom.  UNCLEAR

I smelled smoke as I walked past the open bathroom door.  BETTER

3.   Be specific. Details and descriptions are often much more useful than vague generalizations:

Lafferty took an aggressive stance and tried to intimidate me with coercive gestures and threats.  VAGUE

Lafferty stepped in front of me.  He raised his right fist to my face and said, “I’m done with you messing with us. Leave us alone.” BETTER

The Plain Writing Act is good news for busy government workers, even those not whose jobs aren’t covered by the new guidelines. You can learn more about Plain Writing at www.PlainLanguage.gov. A chalkboard that has "plain language" written on it

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The Plain Writing Act Part I

In 2010 the Plain Writing Act became a law. It declares that “Government documents issued to the public must be written clearly.” According to Annetta Cheek, a retired federal worker, “Government is all about telling people what to do. If you don’t write clearly, they’re not going to do it.” Wise words!

Only federal government agencies are legally bound by the Plain Writing Act. But the thinking behind the law makes sense to every government worker – including police officers.

Here’s an example from a government pamphlet written before Congress passed the Plain Writing Act:

Winter Preparedness Safety Tips Timely preparation, including structural and non-structural mitigation measures to avoid the impacts of severe winter weather, can avert heavy personal, business and government expenditures. Experts agree that the following measures can be effective in dealing with the challenges of severe winter weather.  WORDY

Now look at this Plain Writing Act rewrite:

Severe winter weather can be extremely dangerous. Consider these safety tips to protect your property and yourself.  BETTER

The advantages to government bureaucracies are obvious: Clear, simple writing minimizes confusion and saves time and money. Plain Writing guidelines make reports easier to write, read, and review – a boon to busy officers and their supervisors, especially when preparing for a court hearing.

Another advantage is that modern writing practices make a positive impression on judges, attorneys, media representatives, and community leaders who read reports.

The Plain Writing Act is good news for busy government workers, even those not whose jobs aren’t covered by the new guidelines. You can learn more about Plain Writing at www.PlainLanguage.gov.

The next post will discuss three writing guidelines that many agencies have adopted. Stay tuned!

A chalkboard that has "plain language" written on it

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Your Ear Can Fool You!

It’s a common mistake: Because we don’t hear certain letters when we’re speaking, we assume we don’t have to use them in writing.

Wrong!

Probably the most common error is leaving out verb endings. Listen to yourself say these sentences aloud:

Coppin used to work with domestic violence victims.

We’re supposed to be in court at 9:30.

The memo lists everyone who’s going to the meeting.

What you probably noticed is that you couldn’t hear the d in “used to” and “supposed to”: It blends with the t in “to.” And most people don’t say the final s in “lists.”

Writing is different. You absolutely have to include those d and s endings.

Here’s a practice activity: Can you find and fix the errors in these sentences? Scroll down for the answers.

1.  I’m suppose to meet with the chief at 10:30.

2.  Before that park was cleaned up, drug sellers use to hang out there.

3.  A visit to the emergency room cost $250 before the doctor even sees you.

4. After Joe list the changes, I’ll make sure the staff knows about them.

ANSWERS

1.  I’m supposed to meet with the chief at 10:30.

2.  Before that park was cleaned up, drug sellers used to hang out there.

3.  A visit to the emergency room costs $250 before the doctor even sees you.

4. After Joe lists the changes, I’ll make sure the staff knows about them.

How did you do?

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What Should Be Left Out?

Officers are often concerned (as they should be) with completeness when they’re writing a report. But it’s also important to know what you should leave out.

Here’s a challenge for you: Read the news summary below. Note that this is NOT an actual police report. If you were the officer, what information would you leave out when you wrote your police report?

A 51-year-old Milwaukee man was arrested for attempted burglary after he was seen on security cameras at Currie Park Golf Course, 3535 N. Mayfair Road, at 12:10 a.m. June 9. A clubhouse window had been broken, causing $300 damage, but nothing appeared missing. When officers arrived, the man ran around the fairway until he gave up near the park entrance. Officers don’t believe he acted alone. The man was on probation violation, and the Jeep he had arrived in was stolen.

What would you have omitted?

Here’s my answer: I would omit “Officers don’t believe he acted alone” and “nothing appeared missing.”

Hunches, guesses, and theories are tremendously useful in police work, but they don’t belong in a report. What you could write, though, would be details that show how you came to that conclusion.

For example, you might have interviewed a security guard who reported seeing three men on the golf course shortly before midnight. Perhaps you talked to an official from the clubhouse who told you that nothing seemed to have been taken.

What you don’t do is draw your own conclusions: “Obviously all three were planning to burglarize the clubhouse.”

A man thinking

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Writing an Objective Report

Suppose you saw a driver cross the double line three times in two minutes. She staggered out of her car when you asked her to perform a sobriety test. Your immediate conclusion was that she was driving under the influence.

But professional criminal justice practices require you to omit these categories and conclusions. You state only facts and details, leaving it to your reader to draw conclusions.

These requirements seem to defy common sense – but there are good reasons for them. Facts and details can be useful in three ways:

  • They facilitate follow-up investigations
    Crimes often happen in patterns. Recording exactly what a suspect or witness says can be a huge help to an investigator who’s looking for habits and repeated behavior.
  • They prevent challenges
    An inmate can’t argue that you jumped to conclusions if you list the behaviors that indicated defiance: “Johnson clenched his fists, took two steps backward, and said, ‘You’re not my boss, and I ain’t taking any orders from you.’ Then he turned, walked through the doorway, and slammed the door.”
  • They help you avoid embarrassment
    If you announce in a report that you found the point of entry, or you knew a suspect was dangerous, a defense attorney might point out errors in your reasoning.
    Just state the facts: Describe the broken window and the footprints in the flowerbed, or list the behaviors that prompted you to call for a backup when dealing with the suspect: The threats against you (write them down, word-for-word), the weapon he was waving from side to side, the loud voice and flushed face.

Here’s a comparison of generalizations you should avoid and details you could use instead:

  • confused (Better: could not state her name and address)
  • afraid (Better: whispered the answers to my questions, her hands were shaking, twice said “What if he comes back?“)
  • reckless (Better: clocked at 50 mph in a 30 mph zone, crossed the double line while making a left turn)

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The Antonio Brown Police Reports

Antonio Brown is a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers. On January 18, the mother of one of his children told police about a fight between her and Brown the day before. No charges were filed. You can read the reports at this link: https://deadspin.com/here-are-the-police-reports-from-the-domestic-disturban-1832400256

I always encourage officers to read as many reports as possible. Ask yourself these questions: What parts of this report are effective? Would I suggest any changes?

I’m going to make two comments about this report.

1.  The paragraph below includes the officer’s thinking and conclusions – something not ordinarily permitted in a police report:

Antonio Brown

The officer explains why he couldn’t act on the allegation of battery – it had happened the day before. Usually an officer won’t give a reason for a decision. He also says that the woman admitted that Brown asked her to leave. Admitted is an admission of wrongdoing. Said would be a more objective word.

Perhaps there’s a good reason for the subjective language in this report. In general, though, reports need to be as objective as possible

2. The report is sometimes too wordy. Here’s an example: “By the complainant’s own volition, she stood in the doorway.” The report could simply say, “She stood in the doorway.”

Here’s another paragraph that could be more efficient:

The complainant then stated she wished to ‘cancel’ her report and stated she just wanted to leave without creating the complaint,” the report said. “The complaining was advised that Hollywood police would be authoring a report. The complainant left the police department at that time.

Here’s a more concise version:

The complainant said she wished to cancel her report and leave. I told her Hollywood police would be writing a report. She left.

Overall, though, this report is a detailed and accurate account of what happened. It shows that the situation was handled with courtesy and professionalism.

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Commas in Police Reports

Do you worry about commas? They’re not as tricky as you probably think. You can use commas confidently in almost any sentence by learning just three rules:

1.  Use a comma when a sentence starts with an extra idea:

Wilson had been drinking before he left for work that morning.  NO COMMA

Before he left for work that morning, Wilson had been drinking. COMMA

2.  Use a comma when you join two sentences with and or but:

I saw blood on the sleeve of Cameron’s shirt and called an ambulance. ONE SENTENCE – NO COMMA

I saw blood on the sleeve of Cameron’s shirt, and I called an ambulance.  TWO SENTENCES – COMMA REQUIRED

3.  Use two commas when you drop your voice and raise it again in a sentence:

Burton Memorial Park, which used to attract prostitutes and drug pushers, is now a safe place for children to play.

You can learn more about these comma rules by clicking here.

a red comma

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Try This Quiz

Here’s a quiz for you to try. (Answers are provided below.) Can you spot the common mistakes in these sentences?

1.  If you have alot to do next week, we can postpone the project.

2.  Superintendent Jones asked Officer Payne and I to meet with him tomorrow morning.

3.  There’s several messages from reporters who want to talk with you.

4.  The visiting room is busy today, it was unusually quiet yesterday, though.

5.  The staff canteen is expanding it’s hours of operation.

 ANSWERS

1. If you have a lot to do next week, we can postpone the project. (A lot is always two words – no exceptions.)

2.  Superintendent Jones asked Officer Payne and me to meet with him tomorrow morning.  (Think: “asked…me” = “asked Officer Payne and me.” To learn more, click here.)

3.  There are several messages from reporters who want to talk with you.  (Think: “several messages are there” = “there are several messages.” To learn more, click here.)

4.  The visiting room is busy today. It was unusually quiet yesterday, though. (Any idea that starts with it is a sentence: Use a period and a capital letter.)

5.  The staff canteen is expanding its hours of operation. (The possessive of its has no apostrophe – compare his, another possessive word with no apostrophe. To learn more, click here.)

the word "quiz"

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The Wayne Rooney Report

Wayne Rooney plays soccer for Major League Soccer’s DC United. On December 16 he was arrested at Dulles International Airport for public intoxication. You can read the full story at this link.

Here’s the report:

Wayne Rooney Police Report

Some comments:

  • This is a professional police report – objective, accurate, grammatical.
  • It could be more concise. You don’t need to repeat the date and time – you’ve already entered that information into the form on your laptop.
  • “Individual” is vague. Rooney is a man.
  • Many details could be condensed. Here’s a wordy excerpt from the report:

I approached the individual and asked what happened, and in his broken English he stated he went through the door at the bottom of the stairs because he thought it was a lift. The subject provided a United Kingdom passport and the the individual was identified as Wayne Mark Rooney.

Here’s a suggested rewrite:

The man told me his name was Wayne Mark Rooney. He showed me his passport. He told me that he went through the door at the bottom of the stairs because he thought it was a lift.

The first version is 50 words; the second is 37. That doesn’t sound like much – but when you think about all the reports you write in a year, those unnecessary words add up!

  • Some of the language in the report is old-fashioned police jargon: the individual, subject.
  • There are three instances of passive voice:

Mr. Rooney was placed under arrest for public intoxication

the individual was identified as Wayne Mark Rooney

Mr. Rooney was transported by Cpl. Spina

It’s more professional to write “Wayne Mark Rooney gave me his name” and “Cpl. Spina drove Rooney to….” The “was placed under arrest” sentence is a particular problem. Who arrested him? What if there are questions about the arrest in a future court case? The officer’s name should be included in the report.

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