Syntax Problems

I often hear from academy instructors and agency officials who worry about the poorly written reports that come across their desks. What is to be done with a cadet or officer who writes a sentence like this one?

Four CDs were recovered from the defendant, which he had conceal those items by stuffing them inside his jacket.

This sentence (it’s real, by the way) is disastrously wrong.  It’s hard to believe this person is capable of ever writing a competent report. So: what advice would you give the person who wrote it – and the concerned instructor or supervisor who read it?

Here’s my advice. First – and this may surprise you – there’s no need to panic. Very likely the writer was trying too hard to sound smart and sophisticated.

Second, there’s a cure: Write short, straightforward sentences. I have never – in all my years of experience – met a cadet or officer who couldn’t meet that requirement. Forget about trying to impress others with complicated syntax. Make each fact a separate sentence, like this:

I recovered four CDs from the defendant. He had stuffed them inside his jacket.  CORRECT

or

I found four CDs stuffed inside the defendant’s jacket.  CORRECT

So here’s my recommendation to anyone who’s nervous about report writing: Write shorter sentences. Start each one with a person, place, or thing. (In a police report, it’s usually best to start with a person.)

 

Share

The Deondre Francois Police Report

On January 24, Tallahassee police were called to an alleged domestic violence incident involving FSU Quarterback Deondre Francois. After an investigation, police decided not to charge Francois. 

You can read more here, and you can read the incident report here. It is well written, objective, and thorough. (To download a more readable version, click here. My thanks to Thomas Hagle!)

But I would recommend against two writing practices in the report. Take a look at the  excerpt below. (“White” is FSU running back Zaquandre White, who was at the apartment with Francois and Lindsey.)

I made contact with White, who advised the following: White and Francois were hanging out in the residence when Lindsey came home and began arguing with Francois. Lindsey was upset and began throwing glasses everywhere and broke a vase. Lindsey then locked herself in Francois’ room and tried to break a television.

Sentences are crisp and efficient. The vocabulary is plain and direct (though I would have used “the home” instead of “the residence”).

But there are two problems: “I made contact” is vague. Did the officer phone White? Talk to him in person? Send texts back and forth?

And “advised” is the wrong word. White did not “advise” (“counsel”) the investigating officer. He told the officer the facts.

Overall, though, this is an excellent report.

 

                          Deondre Francois

Share

The Robby Anderson Police Report

On January 19, Jets wide receiver Robby Anderson was arrested in Florida for driving violations. It was Anderson’s second arrest in Florida. You can read the story here. Last May he was arrested at a music festival for pushing a police officer. 

The entire report is posted here. It’s worth reading: concise, objective, thorough.

Here’s an excerpt:

The vehicle then slowed down to approximate 45mph at the red light for SR 84 Westbound before proceeding to run the red light. He then got into the left turn lane under the 595 overpass to go East on WR 84 which was also a red light. Once again he ran the light before continuing Eastbound on SR 84. Once eastbound the driver started to slow to a crawl, but then accelerated again to nearly 45mph.

I have a few quibbles. “Eastbound” should be lower case – it’s a direction, not the name of a specific place. There should be a space between 45 and mph. And passive voice found its way into the end of the report, as often happens: “Robert was arrested” (who arrested him?). “He was transported to BSO Jail” (who drove him there?). 

But there is much to admire here. Almost every sentence starts with a person (“He”) or thing (“The vehicle”), so it’s usually clear who did what. The attention to detail is impressive. When an officer can describe an offense so accurately, a defense attorney may be reluctant to challenge the arrest.

Well done!

 

Share

What’s a Hate Crime?

Police reports can play an essential role in prosecuting hate crimes.

In recent years, most jurisdictions have established a separate hate crime category. These are criminal acts such as murder, arson, vandalism, and other crimes against people and property that are partly or wholly motivated by bias. Demonstrating hatred towards minorities, gays, Jews, or other groups is not sufficient: The bias must be the motivation for the crime.

Prosecuting a hate crime can be difficult: Hate in itself is not a crime, and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects free speech even when it is offensive.

Another problem is that some alleged hate crimes are actually hoaxes. In 2009, for example, McCain supporter Ashley Todd falsely claimed that she’d been robbed by a Barack Obama supporter who cut a B on her right cheek. Investigators noted that the cuts were superficial, Todd refused medical attention, and – most telling – the “B” was backward, as if it had been done in front of a mirror.

If you suspect a hate crime, be sure to record details in your report that will be helpful to the prosecutor. Here are some possibilities:

  • Relevant information about the offender’s and victim’s race, religion, ethnic/national origin, sexual orientation, or disability
  • Suspect’s oral statements indicating bias
  • Bias-related drawings, markings, symbols, or graffiti
  • Objects (like white sheets with hoods or a burning cross) indicating bias
  • Membership in a significant group (such as the NAACP or a white supremacy organization)

Remember too that the term “hate crime” includes minority attacks on mainstream groups.

The officer at the scene will not be the person who decides how to prosecute the crime. But your observations and detailed reporting can be the deciding factors in a successful prosecution.

Share

An FBI Report

On January 4, a woman passenger on a Spirit Airlines flight reported that she was sexually assaulted while the plane was in the air. She immediately told flight attendants what had happened.

Federal agents met the plane when it landed and took the suspected assailant into custody. You can read the story here: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/documents/revolting/another-in-flight-attack-149527

It’s worth taking a few moments to visit the link and read the affidavit posted there. The FBI agent who handled the case is an excellent writer. The affidavit features normal, straightforward language. Special Agent Kyle Dodge used “I,” “me,” “she,” “her,” and other ordinary words, and he wrote in active voice. Here’s an example:

She fell asleep leaning against a window. She woke up to a hand in her pants and noticed that her pants and shirt were unbuttoned.  EXCERPT FROM THE AFFIDAVIT

It’s not difficult to write the kinds of sentences required for police reports if – and it’s a big if! – you care about writing clearly. Trouble begins when you decide that everyday language isn’t good enough. The more you try to puff up your sentences, the more writing problems you’re going to have.

Congratulations to Special Agent Kyle Dodge for an excellent affidavit. 

 

Share

Advise or Tell? A Quiz for You

Which word is correct: advise or tell?

In just a few moments you’ll have a chance to take a short quiz on the difference between advise and tell. (The answers are provided at the bottom of this post.)

First, though, let’s talk about why you should care about the difference.

Many officers mistakenly use “advise” as a synonym for “tell”: Barlow advised me that he’d been at work when the break-in occurred. It’s a longstanding criminal justice habit.

You’re thinking no problem, right? Other officers know you mean “Barlow told me.”

But what happens if you use advise this way when you’re not writing a police report? For example, suppose you’re writing a research paper for college, or an article for a police publication, or a press release for a local newspaper, or a supervisory report. Everyone who reads your work is going to wonder why on earth you don’t know how to use advise correctly.

And here’s another potential problem. Suppose you’re an administrator who orders an officer to correct a behavior that’s causing problems. After you talk to her, you put a document into her file that includes this statement:

I advised Officer Blaine to follow agency guidelines when questioning suspects.

That “advised” could cause trouble for you later if Officer Blaine claims that you only suggested (“advised”) that she change her behavior.

Advise doesn’t mean “tell” (check the dictionary!) “Tell” means “tell,” and “advise” means “to give advice.”

(Can you tell that I just read a college paper full of misused “He advised” and “I advised” sentences? Guess who wrote it: a police officer who’s working toward a college degree. Sigh.)

Here’s a little quiz to make sure you know how to use advise correctly. Change advised to told where necessary. Answers appear below.

1.  I advised Inmate Jones that he was assigned to the morning shift.

2.  I advised Inmate Jones to improve his negative attitude.

3.  I advised Mary Smith to see a doctor about the cuts on her arms.

4.  Smith advised me that her ex-boyfriend was responsible for the cuts.

5.  Chief Simmons advised us that he would be on vacation the first half of July.

6.  Officer Donaldson’s doctor advised him to limit his cholesterol intake.

7.  I already advised the Assistant Warden about the broken alarm in Baker Dorm.

8.  I’m glad I listened to Chief Johnson when he advised me to continue my education right after high school.

9.   The chaplain advised us that there would be a special religious service Sunday evening.

10. I’m glad my guidance counselor in high school advised me to take a keyboarding course.

Here are the answers:

X 1.  I told Inmate Jones that he was assigned to the morning shift.

X 2.  I advised Inmate Jones to improve his negative attitude.  (giving advice)

3.  I advised Mary Smith to see a doctor about the cuts on her arms.  (giving advice)

X 4.  Smith told me that her ex-boyfriend was responsible for the cuts.

 5.  Chief Simmons told us that he would be on vacation the first half of July.

6.  Officer Donaldson’s doctor advised him to limit his cholesterol intake.  (giving advice)

X 7.  I already told the Assistant Warden about the broken alarm in Baker Dorm.

8.  I’m glad I listened to Chief Johnson when he advised me to continue my education right after high school.  (giving advice)

X 9.   The chaplain told us that there would be a special religious service Sunday evening.

10. I’m glad my guidance counselor in high school advised me to take a keyboarding course.  (giving advice)

 

Share

Is it “There is” or “There are”?

You need to be extra careful with sentences that begin with there is or there are. Which one should you use – and how can you be sure you’re right? And what about there go and there goes?

There’s a trick! All you have to do is to reverse the sentence (switch it around). For example, “There is” becomes “is there.” Luckily this is easy to do, making it simple to get the verb right.

Take a look at these examples. The reverse is in brackets:

There is a reason assaults are down in that neighborhood. [Think: a reason is there = there is a reason]  CORRECT

There go two fine officers. [Think: two fine officers go there = there go two fine officers]  CORRECT

Try these:

There was/were two messages for you this morning.

Here is/are the receipt you were looking for.

There go/goes my chance for a transfer.

Here are the correct answers:

There were two messages for you this morning. [Think: two messages were there]  CORRECT

Here is the receipt you were looking for. [Think: the receipt is here]  CORRECT

There goes my chance for a transfer. [Think: my chance goes there]  CORRECT

You can download a free handout about Subject-Verb Agreement at this link: http://bit.ly/SubVerbAgreement

well done

Share

Find and Fix Dangling Modifiers in Police Reports

The term “dangling modifier” may sound like English teachers’ jargon to you, but it points to a real-world writing problem you should avoid in your reports.

“Dangling” means hanging, and a “modifier” is a descriptionSo a “dangling modifier” is a description in the wrong place.

A dangling modifier is usually easy to spot because it sounds ridiculous! Take a look at these examples:

Spattered around the room, Jones photographed the blood.  DANGLING MODIFIER

I spotted broken glass searching for evidence.  DANGLING MODIFIER

I saw a bloody knife walking through the bedroom.  DANGLING MODIFIER

Here are the corrected sentences:

Jones photographed the blood that was spattered around the room. CORRECT

While searching for evidence, I spotted broken glass . CORRECT

Walking through the bedroom, I saw a bloody knife. CORRECT

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sometimes a dangling modifier is harder to spot. To most people, this sentence probably looks correct on first reading – but it isn’t:

Questioning inmate Kelly, he said his sister had bought the watch for him.  DANGLING MODIFIER

There are two problems with the sentence. First, Kelly didn’t do the questioning. Second, the sentence doesn’t specify who did. The omission might create a problem in a disciplinary, when it’s important to identify all the parties involved.

Here’s the corrected sentence:

When I questioned inmate Kelly, he said his sister had bought the watch for him. CORRECT

Be careful when you start a sentence with an -ing word: Often it will contain a dangling modifier. If you do start a sentence with an -ing word, reword it to make sure it’s clear who did what.

Checklist with "excellent" on top

Share

Subjective or Objective?

Here are two words that every officer should know: subjective (related to an opinion) and objective (factual).

Simply stated, there’s no place for opinions in a criminal-justice report. If you’re new to report writing, this may take some getting used to.

Of course you want to state that the man in the red plaid jacket was behaving suspiciously or seemed inebriated. It’s tempting to write that the kitchen window was probably the point of entry in the break-in. You’ll want to say that the inmate was disrespectful when you confronted him about disrupting the count.

Don’t do it.

Subjective (based on opinion) reports label you as unprofessional. Even worse, they can get you into trouble in court.

A skillful attorney can use vague descriptions (“The suspect was nervous”) to cast doubt on your judgment, trip you up on the witness stand, or convince a judge that you did not have probable cause for getting involved in the first place.

Objective (factual) reports make you look professional, and they’re especially useful in court. After a long time has passed, you may not remember details about what you saw.

If they’re plainly stated in your report, you’ll have no problem testifying. And many officers say that good reports can help keep a case from landing in court. An attorney who sees that you’ve convincingly stated the facts may decide not to challenge what you did.

Start thinking about ways you can describe rather than label a person who is nervous, inebriated, sarcastic, belligerent, aggressive, disrespectful, frightened, or disoriented. For example, instead of writing “Jones was disrespectful,” you could write this:

Jones told me, “If you knew what you were doing, the count would be finished by now.” OBJECTIVE

Practice thinking of objective ways to describe everyday things you see and hear. The extra effort now will pay off throughout your criminal justice career.

Share