When Police Reports Are Challenged

Two recent news stories underline the importance of effective report writing. (Academy instructors may want to discuss these cases with their classes.)

On June 21, police in Daytona Beach, Florida, removed seven children from a filthy apartment and charged the two mothers with one count of felony child abuse. You can read more about the case here: http://theledger.com/news/20170622/7-children-removed-from-filthy-apartment-2-moms-charged

In his report, Officer James Thomas wrote: “Immediately upon entering the apartment, I noticed an infant running barefoot on carpet that was supposed to be brown in color but was matted, thick, clumpy, and covered wall to wall with black mold.”

The report also noted:

  • the smell was so pungent that it burned his eyes, and he had to wash them afterwards
  • fleas were everywhere
  • the only food was an open jar of jelly, a small jar of peanut butter, and a jar of mayonnaise
  • the only furniture was two broken chairs
  • the children were lying on a “severely stained” mattress and wearing dirty diapers
  • the unflushed toilet was filthy with urine, feces, and soiled paper
  • there were no signs of “anything related to child care”

Officer Thomas took photographs of the children and their surroundings.

Melinda Jenkins, mother of two of the children, argued that “everything…was false in that report.” She said the apartment management was responsible for the filth, and she and her sister were in the process of moving.

The other police report concerned actor Miles Teller, who recently appeared in the boxing movie Bleed for This. Teller was arrested for public drunkenness. On June 19 Teller challenged the arrest report with this Tweet:”Went down to SD to see my buddy before he deployed. I wasn’t arrested I was detained bc there was no evidence to charge me with a crime.” You can read more at this link: https://usat.ly/2tG6MOD.

The police report tells a different story: Officer Billy Hernandez wrote that Teller was “swaying side to side, slurring his speech and had bloodshot eyes.” At one point Teller “lost his balance and almost fell into the street.” Police officers arrested Teller and transported him to a detox center.

Police statements quoted in both newspaper stories show that the investigating officers were thorough, objective, and detailed.

Whose accounts do you think are more believable: Police – or the three people who were arrested?

My money is on the police officers.

   Miles Teller in “Bleed for This”

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Sentence Quiz

What do these three sentences have in common?

I looked into the closet, it was empty.

Krepps jerked his head from side to side, then he ran across the parking lot.

We were worried about rain, however, the weather was beautiful for our open house.

Answer: They’re all run-on sentences. (Other names for this error are fused sentence and comma splice.)

Here are a few principles to live by. (They’re easy to learn, and they can save you from many errors!)

  1. Don’t use a comma to join two sentences.
  2. Here’s how to tell if you have two sentences: Look at the beginning. If it starts with a person,  place, or thing – it’s a sentence. Use a period.
  3. There are only seven words that you can use with a comma to join sentences: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So (the FANBOYS words)
  4. In real-world writing, most people use only two of these words: And, But.

Let’s fix today’s sentences. (It’s easy – just use a period!)

I looked into the closet. It was empty.  CORRECT

Krepps jerked his head from side to side. Then he ran across the parking lot.  CORRECT

We were worried about rain. However, the weather was beautiful for our open house.  CORRECT

You can download and print a free handout explaining comma rules at this link: http://bit.ly/EasyCommas

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How Police Departments Solve Crimes

Police reports that are well written and professional shine a light not only on the officers who write them, but on the agency they work for.

Here’s a recent headline in the Portland Press-Herald

Unusually detailed report on shooting offers rare glimpse into police work

According to the newspaper story, police reports filed in criminal court tell an impressive story. They reveal – step-by-step – how officers followed what they called a “bread-crumb trail” to identify and apprehend the transient who shot Portland resident Russell Solak.

You can read the story at this link: http://www.pressherald.com/?p=1207570

                             Portland, Maine

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The Tiger Woods Police Report – Updated

The Golf Channel has obtained an unredacted copy of the Tiger Woods police report. This version of the report is much longer than the previous one, which I wrote about at this link. The newer version notes that Woods said he’d been taking Xanax. You can read the latest news about the Tiger Woods arrest – along with the entire report – at this link.

The report is thorough and would make a useful teaching tool for recruits who are learning about DUI stops and arrests. The report covers various sobriety tests in detail, and the descriptions of Woods’ behavior are clear and specific. Instead of saying that Woods failed the sobriety tests, the report shows exactly what happened. Here’s one example:

Woods then began to lose his balance and placed his right foot behind in an effort to maintain his balance.

[I was impressed that the report spelled lose correctly! “Loose” is a common misspelling.]

I do have some suggestions. The report is much longer than it needs to be. Here are some sentences that could have been written more efficiently:

Upon arrival I made contact with officers on scene who stated that a black Mercedes…. WORDY

I talked to officers at the scene. They said a black Mercedes…. BETTER

While speaking with Woods I observed his slow mumbled and slurred speech. I asked Woods where he was coming from to which he stated “LA” and then I asked where he was coming from tonight to which he stated LA again and that he was on his way down to Orange County.  WORDY

Woods spoke slowly. He mumbled and slurred his words. He told me he was coming from LA and was on his way down to Orange County. BETTER

The disposition (end) of the report contains many passive voice sentences. Ironically, the officer is careful to note the attention to Woods’ safety – for example, he was secured with a seatbelt. But the report never mentions who did the handcuffing, who put Woods into the car, and who read his Miranda rights. For example:

Woods was placed into handcuffs….  [Who put him there?]

Woods was later placed into the backseat of my patrol vehicle and was secured with the seatbelt.  [Who put him there and buckled the seatbelt?]

Overall this is an effective report with a number of features that would make it an excellent teaching tool.

Tiger Woods

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Two Sentences, Not One

How about a quick writing lesson?

Here’s your challenge: read the following sentence (it’s from an actual police report) – and decide how it can be improved. (Hint: there are no grammar problems.)

Vehicle #1 was traveling in the left lane of Route 95 North in the City of Providence when at a point 500 feet south of Route 195 East operator lost control.

Answer: Although this sentence is correct, it’s too complicated. Police reports need to be crisp and efficient.

Here’s a recommended rewrite:

Vehicle #1 was traveling in the left lane of Route 95 North in Providence. The operator lost control 500 feet south of Route 195 East.  BETTER

Notice:

  • Two short sentences are easier to write (and read!) than one longer one
  • You don’t need to write “the City of Providence” – the name of the city is enough

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Brittany Simpson

On May 9, a murder took place in an upscale home in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Brittany Simpson, 31, shot and killed her father, apparently because he had taken steps to evict her.

Police reports show that officers had been called to the home nearly three dozen times over the past 10 years. Father and daughter had fought, and there had also been a drug arrest when Simpson – naked in a car – was tossing neighbors’ mail into their yards.

You can read more about the case by clicking here

Police officers who are new to law enforcement sometimes wonder why all the paperwork is necessary.  The Brittany Simpson case is a useful reminder about two important points:

  1. Police reports can reveal a pattern that becomes more meaningful as time goes by.
  2. Apparently routine police reports can become part of a major news story later on.

          Mount Pleasant, South Carolina

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All about Intuition

Many officers say that as their experience grows, so does their intuition. Out of nowhere comes a warning, a suspicion, or a hunch that can alert them to danger or help solve a crime. Sometimes there’s a dramatic flash; at other times it’s a gut feeling or a hunch. Some officers even say that they owe their lives to a sudden intuition that something serious was about to happen.

But when the incident is over and the suspect has been apprehended, there’s a report to be written – and a problem. Hunches, intuition, and experience can’t be documented. Police paperwork has to focus solely on hard facts. Here are some statements that can’t be used in police reports:

I had a hunch…

He looked suspicious…

I could tell that he was about to…

I had a funny feeling…

I had an intuitive sense that…

Something seemed odd…

I knew she was thinking about…

To put it another way: Police reports are limited to data that comes to you through your five senses. It’s odd but true: You learn a lot through years of policing, but you can’t say “based on experience” or “I had a hunch” when you’re writing a police report.

As Sgt. Joe Friday used to say: “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

So what should you put into your police report? The answer comes from a deeper understanding of where those sudden flashes and unexpected hunches are coming from. Psychologists say that they can be traced to an unconscious two-step process that happens so quickly that we don’t notice it.

While you’re thinking about other things – perhaps concentrating on driving safely – some hidden part of your mind 1. sees something amiss (or smells it or hears it) and 2. races through a reasoning process to figure out what it might mean. Result: a hunch, a fast reaction on your part, and a risky situation averted.

For example, you’re walking along a sidewalk on your way to a local business to investigate a theft. As you’re walking along, you  have a hunch that one of the passersby is up to no good. You react. After it’s all over, you realize he was dressed too warmly for the weather, and his eyes were showing the results of an illegal substance.

But you weren’t looking for danger while you were walking – you were thinking about that theft you were going to investigate. So how did you pick that suspect out of the crowd?

We usually credit our intuition or sixth sense, but experts say it’s actually a highly trained response – and mostly unconscious – response to potential danger. Psychologists explain that those hunches and flashes can always be traced back to one of your five senses.

If you reflect on what happened, you’ll usually discover that something specific – a sight, sound, or smell – tipped you off – and that’s what goes into your report: He was trembling, even though there seemed to be no reason for nervousness. She was holding onto her purse too tightly. The bumper on the car was out of alignment. He was walking too quickly.

But will you be able to recreate what happened when you have to write your report? This is where practice come in. Officers who’ve had long experience with hunches and intuition recommend practicing recall throughout the day. After a friendly conversation or a business transaction they try to remember – in detail – what just happened. What was the person wearing? What color were his eyes? What kind of voice did she have? What breed of dog was she walking? And so on.

Training yourself to observe and remember gives you some powerful tools that ordinary citizens don’t have. Add them to the lessons you learn through experience, and you’re equipped to deal with many emergencies – and write a thorough report afterwards.  

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The Tiger Woods Police Report

Early this morning, police officers in Jupiter, Florida found golfer Tiger Woods asleep behind the wheel of his Mercedes-Benz. Woods was strapped into his seat belt. The engine was running, and the brake lights and right-turn blinker were on. You can read the full story here.

You can read the entire report here: http://www.tmz.com/2017/05/30/tiger-woods-dui-arrest-drugs-field-sobriety-police-report/. It’s objective, efficient and professional, and there’s no police jargon or passive voice.

The breathalyzer results were recorded as zero. Woods has apologized for what happened, saying he had “an unexpected reaction” to the prescribed medications he’d been taking.  

The report might be an effective teaching tool for recruits who are learning how to conduct and document DUI stops. The report lists the field sobriety tests used by the police and provides an objective description of Woods’ behavior during each one. The sobriety tests included the following:

  • Horizontal gaze nystyagmus
  • Walk and turn
  • One leg stand
  • Finger to nose
  • Romberg alphabet

A court appearance is scheduled for July 5.

 

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The Philadelphia PD Report

Newcomers to law enforcement sometimes wonder why all the paperwork is necessary. With time and experience, though, a bigger picture emerges. Officers begin to see that what might look like routine recordkeeping can take on much larger significance.

A new statistical study coming out of Philadelphia is a good example. The study – compiled by the ACLU and released on May 23 – examines the racial implications of police actions in the second half of 2016. (You can read more here, and you can read the entire report here). The Philadelphia Police Department is compiling its own statistical study, and the results are expected soon.

Whether you’re a recent recruit or a long-time officer, the report is worth reading and discussing. Here are some issues raised by the study that have implications for the kinds of reports that officers write every day:

  • How would you define the terms “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause”?
  • What documentation is needed in a police report?
  • What legal issues come to mind when an officer makes a “reasonable suspicion” stop and search? A “probable cause” stop and search?
  • What agency policies apply to these terms?

Supervisors might want to consider an additional issue: About 25% of the reports included in the study failed to provide a legal reason for the stops.

  • What are some possible reasons for those omissions?
  • Should the Philadelphia PD be concerned about that statistic?
  • Do officers need additional training and support?
  • Are there implications for other agencies?

Often it takes time for new officers to fully grasp the role of police reports in the overall functioning of an agency. Supervisors, instructors, and FTO’s can fill in some of the gaps and help these new officers write reports that are professional and complete.

 

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Quiz: Writing Sentences for Police Reports

Here’s a quiz for you! Modern police reports require sentences that are objective, concise, straightforward, free of jargon, and written in active voice. Do your reports meet these standards? 

Instructions: Read the sentences below. Mark each effective sentence with a √, and each ineffective sentence with an X. Scroll down for the answers.

  1. The suspect was transported to the county jail.
  2. I was suspicious of what Barton told me and decided to look for signs of forced entry.
  3. The car turned into the Circle K parking lot, and upon observing this, I activated my flashers and siren and followed it.
  4. I asked Novak how she knew that it was 2:19 AM when she heard the banging noise, and she responded that she’d looked at the clock in her bedroom.
  5. Upon observing Filton’s aggressive body language, I advised him to place his hands on the hood of the car.

ANSWERS

  1. X  This sentence omits an essential piece of information: the name of the officer who transported the suspect. Always use active voice. BETTER: I [or the name of the officer who did the driving] transported the suspect to the county jail. 
  2. X This sentence doesn’t contain any useful information and needs rewriting. First, the statement that you were “suspicious” about Barton lacks objectivity. Second, it’s a waste of time explaining what you’re planning to do and why. Instead you should write about you did and what you found. BETTER: I looked for signs of forced entry and found none. OR I found splintered wood and a hole approximately four inches in diameter near the lock on the rear door.
  3. X Omit “upon observing this” – it’s empty filler and inefficient. Better: The car turned into the Circle K parking lot. I activated my flashers and siren and followed the car.
  4. X Omit your questions and just record what suspects, victims, and witnesses tell you. BETTER: Novak said she’d looked at the clock in her bedroom and knew it was 2:19 AM.
  5. X This sentence has two problems. First, “Filton’s aggressive body language” lacks objectivity. What seems aggressive to you might look like normal behavior to someone else. You need to describe Filton’s behavior: “I saw Filton’s balled fists….” Second, advised is a poor word choice because it can mean “counseled” or “suggested.” If Filton refused to obey you, his attorney could say that you were only making a suggestion about his hands. BETTER: I saw Filton’s balled fists and told him to place his hands on the hood of the car.

 

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