One Idea Per Sentence

Are long sentences bad – or good? It’s a question many officers wonder about, especially if they mistakenly believe that a long sentence is a good sentence.

That’s a question that might also be important if you move into an administrative position. Are long sentences better?

No. (Does that surprise you? It’s true!)

If you’re aiming to become a topnotch criminal justice writer, you would be wise to adopt a rule that many professional writers follow: One idea per sentence.

Shorter sentences bestow several advantages. First, they’re easier to read – a huge advantage when you’re busy preparing for a court or disciplinary hearing. Second, they have greater clarity than longer sentences, which can be confusing.

Most important, shorter sentences have fewer errors. As sentences get longer, the likelihood of subject/verb errors, parallelism mistakes, and dangling modifiers increases.

Compact sentences don’t have to be choppy and juvenile. You can always join two short sentences with a semicolon (be sure to skip the second capital letter).

I searched the suspect. He had five hundred-dollar bills in his right pocket.

I searched the suspect; he had five hundred-dollar bills in his right pocket.

You can also use who or which to join sentences.

I searched the suspect. He had five hundred-dollar bills in his right pocket.

I searched the suspect, who had five hundred-dollar bills in his right pocket.

And if you know your comma rules (they’re not difficult!) you can choose from a variety of sentence patterns.

One of the best ways to write a sophisticated report without sacrificing clarity is to employ bullet style whenever you have a list of information. (Don’t try to write an entire report in bullets!) Here’s a paragraph in conventional sentence style:

I searched Dickert’s locker. I found three $20 bills between the pages of a Sports Illustrated magazine. There was a pair of dice in the pocket of a uniform shirt. I found five $10 bills between the pages of his Bible. I found three unopened decks of cards at the bottom of a laundry bag.

And here’s the same information in bullet style. (Each item begins with a “bullet”).

I searched Dickert’s locker and found:

  • three $20 bills between the pages of a Sports Illustrated magazine
  • a pair of dice in the pocket of a uniform shirt
  • five $10 bills between the pages of his Bible
  • three unopened decks of cards at the bottom of a laundry bag

Much better, isn’t it? (You can watch a free video about advanced career writing by clicking here: Getting Promoted.)

 

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Interviews and Police Reports

Interviews are a normal – and important – part of your job. The way you talk to the public creates an image of you and your agency that’s likely to stick permanently. Even in a correctional institution, the way you question inmates creates an impression that can work to your benefit (or harm) later on.

Effective interviews can go a long way toward providing the information you need for the report you’ll be writing.

Here are a few tips for interviews:

1.  Deal with emotions first. A citizen who’s frightened or angry may not be able to give coherent answers to your questions. Reassurances (“You’re safe now”) and empathy (“I can understand how frightening that must have been”) can help citizens get past their feelings to answer your questions.

2.  Stay focused. Citizens quickly pick up on your actions and distractions – if your eyes are darting around and you’re jumping from one topic to another, for example. Moving logically from one point to another can do a great deal to calm a situation and get good information from the person you’re interviewing.

3.  Control the interview. Gently interrupt tangents and bring the conversation back to the issue at hand. In a frightening scenario, citizens gain security when they know a competent officer is in charge.

4.  Close the interview graciously. Thank the citizen for the information. Show that you’ve taken the situation seriously and will be following up, if necessary.

5.  Make sure you’ve covered every angle before you finish. Will the citizen need a victim’s packet, your business card, medical attention, or a follow-up phone call? Tying up all the ends thoroughly leaves a good impression of both you and your agency.

6. When you write your report, make a separate paragraph for each person you interviewed. That’s an easy way to organize your report – and it’s easier for anyone who reads your report as well.

7. To avoid time-consuming repetition, consider listing facts rather than writing long sentences:

Gollard told me:

  • he came home at 5:15
  • he saw the broken living-room window
  • he called 911
  • he didn’t notice anyone unusual in the neighborhood

 Use these tips to make interviews proceed more smoothly, and you’ll see improvements in your reports as well!

A free video – Interviewing Victims – is available for personal, classroom, and agency use.

notebook and pen

       Vital Law Enforcement Tools

 

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Your Eyes and Ears

Most people learn languages by hearing other people speak and trying to imitate them. We learn written languages much later, when we go to school and learn how to read.

It’s an efficient system that works well most of the time – but it can also create problems when we have to write letters and endings that our ears don’t notice.

Here are a few examples:

Many people forget the s in lists, firsts, firsts, and similar words. (Say them aloud and you’ll hear what I’m talking about!)

The latest newsletter lists several job openings that interest me. CORRECT

And many people forget theed in supposed to and used to. (Again, listen to yourself say them aloud.)

Although we used to discourage women from applying, we’re supposed to actively recruit them now. CORRECT

Your ear can create other kinds of difficulties too: Misspelling words (many people forget the middle c in Arctic and the i in foliage); punctuation errors (often you can’t hear the difference between a comma and a period), and sophisticated usage that you don’t often hear in everyday conversation–agreement issues for pronouns and verbs, for example.

Bottom line: Educate yourself. Reading is a wonderful avenue to better writing, and you don’t have to limit yourself to grammar books. Any good magazine or book will expand your knowledge of language.

Seeing and Hearing

       Seeing and Hearing

 

 

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The Brett Kavanaugh Police Report.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh has been under a great deal of scrutiny as Congress debates his nomination to the Supreme Court.

A police report from September 26, 1985 involving Judge Kavanaugh has come to light. Kavanaugh allegedly was involved in a dispute in a New Haven bar.

No one – including Brett Kavanaugh – was charged. You can read more about the incident at this link: https://www.nhregister.com/news/article/New-Haven-police-Kavanaugh-interviewed-after-13275247.php

Here are a few excerpts from the report (you can read it here: https://nyti.ms/2xUsgvG). I’ve followed each excerpt with a comment from me:

At the above date these officers responded to the above location in regards to an assault.

[From me: this sentence is unnecessary. It repeats the information the officer already recorded. Officers are busy!]

Upon our arrival we met Mr. Cozzolino, he stated that a very tall subject hit him in the ear with a glass.

[From me: Omit “Upon our arrival.” And “subject” isn’t precise. The person who was hit was male. The report should say so. Put a period after “Mr. Cozzolino.”]

He also stated that he was in a verbal altercation with an unknown male.

[From me: “verbal altercation” is too wordy. “Argument” is more clear.]

At 1:20 AM Det. Reynolds was notified of the incident.

[From me: I was pleased that the officer wrote this report in active voice. But passive voice crept in at the end – as it so often does. (Sigh.) Who notified Detective Reynolds? If you thought that fact was worth recording, you also need to say who did the notifying.]

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Learning from Sherlock Holmes

The year was 1903, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had just published another Sherlock Holmes story: “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder.”

It’s fun to read, but it certainly isn’t relevant to today’s police officers, right? After all, most modern forensic techniques hadn’t been discovered yet. Fingerprinting was brand new then and makes only one brief appearance in the story.

But maybe there’s something in the story for officers today. Let’s take a closer look.

The story is about a homicide, and for once the police were smarter than Holmes–or so they thought. Detective Lestrade, triumphant with the discovery of a bloody fingerprint on the wall, crows, “you must acknowledge that we have been a little in front of you this time, Mr. Holmes.”

Later, though, in a private moment with his friend Dr. Watson, Holmes says, “The fact is that there is one really serious flaw in this evidence to which our friend attaches so much importance.”

“Indeed, Holmes! What is it?”

“Only this: that I know that that mark was not there when I examined the hall yesterday.”

Gulp. At the end of the story Holmes once again finds the true killer. The thumbprint was a red herring, planted there to implicate the wrong man.

What’s the message for today’s officers? Here it is: Always document not just what you did, but what you found (or didn’t find). Writing “I looked for fingerprints” is meaningless unless you add “and found none.” Sometimes – as Holmes knew very well -what you don’t see is more important than what you do see. Write it down so that you’ll have evidence if you need it.

 a silhouette of Sherlock Holmes

 

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Think about a Courtroom

When you’re coping with a crisis on the street or in a correctional facility, you’re unlikely to stop and think about a courtroom or hearing room.

But when you sit down to write your report, you should mentally take yourself there. If you’re reporting a crime, legal considerations should shape what you write and how you write it.

What you need to remember is that your report can either support or weaken a case in front of a judge and jury.

Here are a few points to remember:

  • Be accurate. An attorney can do serious damage to your credibility if you’ve made mistakes. For example, don’t say “10 feet” unless you’re sure of the distance: “About 10 feet” is better – or “8 to 12 feet.”
  • Don’t mind-read. You can’t know for sure what an offender was thinking, planning, or trying. Write down only what you saw: “Inmate Farrell picked up a chair and ran to the table where Hawkins was eating.” You can’t prove that Farrell intended to hit Hawkins with the chair, so don’t insert that information into your report.
  • Know your agency’s or institution’s policies. Should you save your notes, for example, or it is ok to destroy them? (Notes can be subpoenaed for court hearings.)
  • Make your report clear and readable so that it’s easy to refresh your memory if you have to go to court. Use names, not confusing terms like Victim 1, Suspect 2, and Witness 3. Use active voice so that it’s always clear who did what: A statement like “A baseball bat was found under the table” isn’t much use if you don’t know whether it was you or your partner who found it.

Think about these principles often, and make them a regular part of your writing process. 

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The Bill Murray Incident Report

On August 10, police were called to a club in Martha’s Vineyard to deal with a dispute between Bill Murray and photographer Peter Simon (brother of Carly Simon). (No charges were filed.) You can read the report below.

The report is thorough and professional – but wordy. It rambles, and that’s not an efficient way for busy police officers to write reports. You need to use your critical thinking skills to decide which information is relevant to the matter at hand. For example, it might not be necessary in this report to say that Simon was sitting in his car. (In a different situation that might be important information.)

Here’s a sample from the report:

The RP, Peter Simon, claimed that he was harassed by Bill Murray. I, Sgt. Curelli responded and located Simon seated in his vehicle in the parking lot. Simon advised that he was “on assignment” taking pictures for the MV Thus at Lola’s. Simon advised that he was taking pictures of the people in the restaurant and was accused by Bill Murray. Simon advised that Murray was irate that Simon was taking picture.

Here’s a more concise version:

Sgt. Curelli and I talked to Simon in the parking lot. Simon told us he was on assignment taking pictures for the MV Thus at Lola’s. Bill Murray became angry and poured a drink on Murray’s shirt. Simon told me that he didn’t recognize Murray. Simon told me that shortly thereafter, Murray grabbed him and poured a drink on his shirt. Simon told me that he was not injured but he didn’t think it was right and he wanted an apology.

You could also save time by writing Simon’s statement as a list:

Sgt. Curelli and I talked to Simon in the parking lot.

Simon told us:

  • he was on assignment taking pictures for the MV Thus at Lola’s
  • Bill Murray grabbed him and poured a drink on Simon’s shirt
  • Simon didn’t recognize Murray
  • Simon wanted an apology

Other suggestions: Don’t begin your report with “On the above date and time” – it doesn’t add anything useful. Avoid advise (police jargon) unless you actually give someone advice. Told and said are better choices. Often you can omit thereafter and other pompous words.

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The Perils of Mindreading

It happened to all of us when we were kids: During a tense moment, some adult (Mom, Dad, a teacher, a principal, or someone else in authority) ordered us to “Take that look off your face!”

What look? I was trying as hard as I could to be completely expressionless. And, since of course I couldn’t see myself, I had no idea (and still don’t, to this day) what that person saw. Defiance? Mockery? Anger? I’ll never know.

Incidents like that one teach a useful lesson: Don’t try to guess at another person’s intentions.

That principle is especially important to report writing. Labeling a person as “belligerent,” “hostile,” “confused,” “helpless,” or some other mental state is risky. In a court or disciplinary hearing, the person might come up with a totally different description and explanation, damaging your credibility.

The rule for report writing is the same one that professional writers use (and you are a professional writer, after all!): Show, don’t tell.

So, instead of writing that she was “driving erratically,” write down what she did: Crossed the center line three times in less than a minute, or braked five times while approaching a stop sign.

Don’t write that he was “belligerent”: Record exactly what he said to you. Note the signs that signaled to you that a witness was frightened: darting eyes, trembling lips, shaking hands.

Train yourself to notice and remember what people around you are doing. That kind of practice will help you develop the descriptive skills needed for effective reports.

 Police officer makes an arrest at a traffic stop

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The Beto O’Rourke Police Report

Beto O’Rourke is a Texas Democrat who’s running against incumbent senator Ted Cruz in the November election. In 1998, when O’Rourke was 26, he was arrested for drunk driving and trying to leave the scene of an accident. That accident has become an issue in the senatorial campaign.

You can learn more and read the police report at this link.

I always encourage officers to read actual reports with a critical eye. What does the report do well? Is there anything that could have been written differently?

Here’s an excerpt from the Beto O’ Rourke report for you to read and think about. My comments are below.

I met with the reporter who said he was traveling west bound on I-10 and observed a black in color Volvo traveling the same direction at a high rate of speed. The driver then lost control of the vehicle and struck a truck traveling the same direction sending the defendants vehicle across the center median and pointing eastbound. The driver attempted to leave the accident but was stopped by the reporter. It was then determined after a brief interview that the defendant/driver was intoxicated. The defendant was then transported the El Paso Police West side Sub Station Where he was given the Breath Test, subject failed.

My comments:

1.  Overall, it’s an excellent report: concise, objective, professional. There are a few capital letter issues, probably because the officer had a limited amount of time for writing.

2.  To make the report more efficient, I would have used bullet style:

I met with the reporter, who said he was traveling west bound on I-10. He saw a black Volvo traveling fast in the same direction.

The reporter told me the following:

  • the driver lost control of the vehicle
  • it struck a truck traveling the same direction
  • it crossed the center median and pointed eastbound
  • the driver tried to leave the accident 
  • the reporter stopped him

2.  The report would be more likely to hold up in court if there was specific evidence that O’Rourke was intoxicated:

It was then determined after a brief interview that the defendant/driver was intoxicated.  VAGUE

I smelled liquor on the driver’s breath. When I asked his name, his speech was slurred.  SPECIFIC

3. The report omits two important pieces of information: who drove the defendant to the substation, and who administered the breath test. That information could be important if there’s a court hearing later, and the judge wants to ask questions about the trip to the substation or the breath test:

The defendant was then transported the El Paso Police West side Sub Station Where he was given the Breath Test, subject failed.  PASSIVE VOICE

Officer Jones transported O’Rourke to the El Paso Police West Side Substation and administered the breath test, which O’Rourke failed.  ACTIVE VOICE

4. “Black in color” is wordy and unnecessary. Just say “a black Volvo.”

Seal of the US Senate

 

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Plurals of Names

As a police or corrections officer, you’re going to be writing people’s names in almost every report – an easy skill for most officers until they encounter plurals.

It’s easy to write down what Cynthia Santos said or did. But what if you interview the whole family? There’s already an “s” at the end of Santos.

And simpler names can also present difficulties. How do you form the plural of Smith, Clark, Patterson, and similar names?

Help is on the way…along with a memory device.

Let’s start with words (not names) that end with “s” and see how they’re done:

boss     gas     kiss     virus     witness     iris

To form the plural, just add -es:

bosses     gases     kisses     viruses     witnesses     irises

Now let’s do the plurals of names ending in “s.” They’re done the same way: Just add –es.

Santos     Jones     Reynolds     Willis     Thomas     Lewis

Santoses     Joneses     Reynoldses     Willises     Thomases     Lewises

What about ordinary names that don’t end in “s”? Well, how do you form the plural of an ordinary word? You just add “s,” of course. Names work the same way:

Smith     Clark     Patterson     Riley     Brown

Smiths     Clarks     Pattersons     Rileys     Browns

For good measure, here are two tips:

  • If “Reynoldses” sounds odd to you (it does to me, even though it’s my family’s name!), just use the Reynolds family.
  • Don’t use an apostrophe to mean more-than-one. Apostrophes are for “of” expressions:

Mr. Riley’s car was found in an empty lot two blocks away. CORRECT

We asked the Rileys if they’d seen or heard anything unusual.  CORRECT

well done

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