The LeSean McCoy Police Report

Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy has been in the news in connection with a home invasion, a jewelry theft, and an assault on his former girlfriend – but no charges have been filed.

Several police reports have released in connection with the story. You can read them here. Today I’d like to discuss two excerpts from one of them. The report is exceptionally well written (jargon-free, active voice, thorough, objective). Still, I would recommend a few changes. Read the excerpts below and see if you notice anything:

1.  Cordin called dispatch to report that people were taking belongings from the home and she saw them through her Ring doorbell camera. She stated that there was not supposed to be anyone at the home. She stated that she was out of town in Virginia and her boyfriend and owner of the home, LeSean McCoy was out of town as well. She stated that she saw a moving truck in the driveway along with several people.

Here’s what I thought: this paragraph is actually a list, and you’ll save time if you write it that way. (Officers are busy!). There’s no need to keep repeating she stated…she stated…she stated.

Cordin called dispatch and said:

  • people were taking belongings from the home
  • She saw them through her Ring doorbell camera
  • No one was supposed to be  at the home
  • She was out of town in Virginia
  • Her boyfriend and owner of the home, LeSean McCoy was out of town as well
  • She saw a moving truck in the driveway along with several people

2When myself and Sergeant Baronian arrived on scene there were several people removing bags and furniture from the home.

I would have used Sergeant Baronian and I. There’s nothing wrong with the word I! Myself is pompous and awkward. Use it only for emphasis: “When Jane didn’t show up for the meeting, I presented the report myself.”

 *  *  *  *  *  *  

I have one more question for you. Can you figure out why I cheered when I read this sentence from the report?

I informed her that since LeSean and Delicia shared the home, they would have to go to civil court to divide the items.

Here’s why I was so happy about this sentence: The officer used informed (correct!) instead of the jargonish advised that’s I see so frequently in police reports. (If you read the entire report, you’ll notice that the officer correctly used advised to mean “counseled” – every time.)

I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read the report yourself! It’s a great way to develop your reading and writing skills.

LeSean McCoy in his football uniform

 

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Solving Verb Problems in Police Reports

Verbs are action words (like goworkhelp, and run). Most of the time verbs are easy to use correctly. You should be aware, though, of common verb problems that can mar your professional image.

Here are a few errors to watch for:

  • Using seen without a helper:
    Carruthers seen him with his sister several times. WRONG
    Carruthers had seen him with his sister several times. CORRECT  (“had” is a helper”)
    Carruthers saw him with his sister several times. CORRECT (when you’re not using a helper, “saw” is the correct word)
  • Omitting the “d” ending with supposed to and used to:
    Wilson use to fix cars before his arrest. WRONG
    Wilson used to fix cars before his arrest. CORRECT
    We’re suppose to attend a training session next Tuesday.  WRONG
    We’re supposed to attend a training session next Tuesday. CORRECT
  • Placing the apostrophe in the wrong place in contractions. Remember that the apostrophe takes the place of a missing letter: Do not becomes don’t; is not becomes isn’t; was not becomes wasn’t; and so on.
    Farris was’nt on duty yesterday. WRONG
    Farris wasn’t on duty yesterday. CORRECT
    I’am thinking about getting a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. WRONG
    I’m thinking about getting a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. CORRECT

If you’re writing on a laptop, a PC, or a Mac, the spellchecker or grammar checker may warn you that you’ve made an error. ALWAYS check your reports before you submit them, and ask a friend or co-worker to read your reports as well.

It’s much better to catch and correct errors before your report is seen by a supervisor, media reporter, or attorney!

a fat pencil

 

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Use Pronouns Correctly

Pronouns are little words like I, me, he, she, him, and her. Using pronouns in police reports requires attention to a few easy rules.Here are some tips:

  • I” and “me” are perfectly appropriate in criminal justice reports. Calling yourself “this officer” instead of “I” does not automatically make you objective and professional. (If only it were that simple!)
  • Don’t use “she” when there are two females: It’s too confusing. Similarly, don’t use “he” when there are two males. Give names or revise the sentence for clarity.Here are two examples:

Mrs. Brown called her mother after work. She thought she heard a noise outside. UNCLEAR: Which woman heard the noise?

Mrs. Brown thought she heard a noise when she called her mother after work. BETTER

Be careful not to confuse “she” and “her” (and “he” and “him”). Note these examples:

He lived in the apartment upstairs. CORRECT

His wife and he lived in the apartment upstairs. CORRECT

His wife and him lived in the apartment upstairs. INCORRECT  [You wouldn’t say “Him lived,” would you?]

He told me about the break-in. CORRECT

He told my partner and me about the break-in. CORRECT

He told my partner and I about the break-in.  INCORRECT  [You wouldn’t say “He told I,” would you?]

To learn more, click here and read about Pronoun Rule 2. You can download a free pronoun handout at bit.ly/PronounsMadeSimple.

a checkmark

 

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How to Quote Suspects, Witnesses, and Victims

Police and correctional officers often have to quote suspects, witnesses, and victims. Getting their statements right is important. It can mean the difference between an acquittal and a successful prosecution.

Knowing how to punctuate statements from suspects, witnesses, and victims is just as important. That means you need to know how to use quotation marks (“like this”).

In today’s post you’ll review how to quote suspects, witnesses, and victims – and you’ll learn how to use quotation marks.

Here are two tips for getting the words right:

1.  Concentrate. Most people spend most of their time thinking about their own lives and their own problems. In a conversation, they’re usually thinking about what they’re going to say next. As an officer, you need to redirect your thinking to the situation at hand, observing and retaining everything that’s said.

2.  Develop your ability to remember. When you watch TV or listen to the radio, try to repeat exactly what you heard. Keep practicing, and strive to increase the number of words you can retain in your memory. After a conversation or a meeting, see if you can repeat what each person said.

And here are suggestions for writing down what you hear when you talk to witnesses and suspects:

1.  Be specific. “Inmate Jones threatened me” isn’t good enough. You need to record exactly what he said and did:

Inmate Jones took two steps forward, made a fist, and said, “You’d better watch your back, because I’m not gonna quit until I get you for this.”  CORRECT

2.  Don’t shy away from blasphemy, indecent words, and racial slurs. Record what the person said, word-for-word.

3.  Don’t comment or editorialize about what was said. Observations like “I was shocked” or “I knew she was lying” don’t belong in a professional report.

4.  Use standard punctuation. In the United States, periods and commas always go inside (before) quotation marks. There are no exceptions. (Canada and the UK use a different system.) You can see how commas and periods work in the US by looking at the quotations in today’s post (in blue).

Note these examples:

Linda said, “I checked the nightstand for his revolver. It was gone.”

“Put down that knife,” I told Wallace.

“When did you come home from work?” I asked Lewis.

5.  Use quotation marks only for a person’s exact words. If you change the words in any way, omit the quotation marks.

Linda said, “I checked the nightstand for his revolver. It was gone.” QUOTATION MARKS NEEDED

Linda told me she checked the nightstand for his revolver, but it was gone. NO QUOTATION MARKS

Male figure holding up quotation marks

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How Many Words Do You Need?

Former Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel is back in the news. After a two-year-absence from professional football, there’s talk that he might return to the NFL. (You can read more here.)

Manziel’s time with the Browns was marred by personal problems, and eventually he sought treatment in a rehab center. One difficulty was an alleged domestic incident in 2016. According to Manziel’s ex-girlfriend, he threatened to kill her and end his own life. Because she was unwilling to file charges, he was never arrested.

You can read the story and police report hereThe report is detailed, professional, and worth a look, especially if you’re an officer who writes reports about domestic incidents.

There’s another reason why you might want to read the report: to develop an eye for unnecessary words. Take a look at the excerpts below. Can you find any words that could be omitted? (My comments appear below each one, in blue.)

At this time, Colleen reported that Johnathan began xxxx and aggressive towards her.

[Omit at this time. Be specific: “aggressive” might not hold up in court. Did Manziel ball his fists, shout threats, kick, or hit?]

Colleen and Johnathan arrived back at her apartment located at 2101 Park Hill Dr some time in the early morning hours but Colleen informed that she does not have an approximate idea of what time it was.

[Colleen and Johnathan returned to her apartment at 2101 Park Hill Drive. She didn’t remember what time it was.]

Officers asked Colleen if there was any further assault that occurred once they were back at her apartment in Fort Worth and she began to become irritated with officer’s questioning.

[Be specific: how did she show her irritation? If she spoke to them angrily, what did she say? The first part of this sentence can be simplified: Colleen would not say if there was another assault at her apartment.]

Colleen did not know the address where Johnathan’s parents reside.

[Colleen did know where Johnathan’s parents live.]

Police officers are busy men and women. Police reports should be thorough but efficient. Don’t clog your reports with unnecessary words!

Johnny Manziel at Browns training camp

 

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Rape Report Withheld

Many police reports are quickly filed away and forgotten. But sometimes a police report can trigger a court case long after the alleged crime took place. Soon the Circuit Court in St. Louis, Missouri, will be considering a thorny question: is an alleged rape victim entitled to read her own police report?

The unnamed victim says she was raped by a St. Louis police officer in April 2008. He was never charged and remains on the force.

Now the woman wants to see the report – but the police department says witnesses could be endangered if the report is released. The victim’s attorney counters that the report could be released safely if the witnesses’ names are redacted.

You can read about the case at this link: https://www.riverfronttimes.com/newsblog/2018/05/11/st-louis-police-fight-to-withhold-report-from-rape-victim-who-filed-it

The #MeToo movement is raising awareness of sexual assault – and more and more victims are demanding justice. Agencies can expect to see more requests for police reports about rape cases. It’s important to have policies and practices in place before a particular case goes to court.

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A DWI Police Report

On April 28, State Rep. Rene Oliveira of Brownsville, Texas was charged with drunk driving after he left the scene of a car crash. You can read more at this link: http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/news/local/police-reveal-dwi-report-documents-detail-officers-encounter-with-oliveira/article_342efd2e-52d5-11e8-ae60-13c4d28fa39c.html

The news story includes several excerpts from the police report (reproduced below in green). You’ll see that this is sophisticated writing – factual, objective, and professional. But it could be intimidating to an officer who isn’t used to packing so much information into each sentence.

My suggestion would be to write short, crisp sentences that focus on only one fact. If there’s a series of facts, I recommend a timesaving list. I’ve put my suggested rewrites in blue.

1.  She [the driver of the other car] stated that she observed the defendant stumble out of his vehicle and approach her. She stated that after checking if she was okay, he told her that he would take care of everything, and for her to contact his insurance, giving her his business card with only his name and business address.

She [the driver of the other car] told me that the defendant did the following:

  • stumbled out of his vehicle and approached her
  • checked to see if she was okay
  • told her that he would take care of everything
  • told her to contact his insurance
  • gave her his business card with only his name and business address.

2.  I asked the defendant if he could describe the circumstances under which the accident took place, to which he stated that he was driving did not see the cars stopped in front of him causing him to strike one.

The defendant told me that he struck a car because he didn’t see the cars stopped in front of him, causing him to strike one.

3. She [the driver of the other car] stated that the vehicle did not appear to be slowing down and that she was expecting to be struck.

She [the driver of the other car] stated that the vehicle did not appear to be slowing down. She expected to be struck.

4.  I asked the defendant if he could recall how the Cadillac had been damaged on both the right side wheels and tires, to which he stated that he could not recall.

The defendant told me he couldn’t recall how the Cadillac had been damaged on both the right side wheels and tires.

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A Use of Force Report

Chief Ramon Batista from the Mesa Police Department in Arizona has released body cam videos and a report related to a violent arrest that he called a “mistake.”

On May 23, Mesa resident Robert Johnson, Jr. was arrested and taken into custody. A group of white officers punched Johnson repeatedly (he is black). You can read more and watch the video at http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/mesa-police-release-report-body-cam-videos-arrest-black-man-10494818. An investigation is under way.

You can read the report at this link:  http://images.phoenixnewtimes.com/media/pdf/johnson_arrest_partial_report.pdf 

The report is lengthy, and it repeatedly tries to justify the use of force against Johnson. But specific graphic details are missing. Here’s how the report describes Johnson’s behavior:

“Johnson appeared to be confrontational and verbally defiant.”

“Robert continued to be completely belligerent towards us yelling and cursing.”

“continuous aggressive demeanor”

“Due to his aggressive behavior and refusal to calm down….”

“constant threats towards officers”

What did Johnson actually do that made the use of force necessary? The report doesn’t say.

What’s really regrettable is that much of this report is excellent. The writing is detailed, grammatical, and well-organized. Often the style is sophisticated and professional. Overall, it is an example of excellent police writing – with one huge exception: the lack of specifics.

Supervisors and administrators often bemoan the poorly written reports that come across their desks. It’s important to remember that there’s more to police writing than grammar and sentence structure: The facts have to be there, spelled out in detail.

 

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Semicolons!

Officers who are moving into administrative positions in criminal justice often ask how they can make their writing more sophisticated. Semicolons are one answer. They are wonderful punctuation marks that writers should use more often, for two reasons:

1.  They’re impressive.

2.  They’re easy.

Maybe you’re doubting me about #2. Semicolons look fancy, so they have to be difficult, right?

Wrong. Semicolons are just like periods. That’s it!

Take a look at these examples:

Patterson walked back to his car. The hood was up, and his battery was gone. CORRECT

Patterson walked back to his car; the hood was up, and his battery was gone. CORRECT

We continued the count. Bradley’s cell was empty. CORRECT

We continued the count; Bradley’s cell was empty. CORRECT

By now you’ve probably figured out how to use semicolons. Just change the period to a semicolon, and lower-case the next letter (unless it’s a word that’s supposed to be capitalized, like Bradley or September).

Semicolons allow you to sound sophisticated while you’re writing short sentences. Many officers already use them; they add a professional touch to reports. (Did you notice the semicolon?)

Try them yourself! And here’s a good rule of thumb: One semicolon per paragraph. If you’re writing something very short, stick to one semicolon per page.

 

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The Reuben Foster Police Report

On February 11, 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster was arrested and charged with felony domestic violence. You can read more here. Elissa Ennis, the alleged victim, later said Foster never hit her, but the DA is still prosecuting Foster for domestic violence and other charges.

Below is a paragraph from a police report released by the Los Gatos-Monte Sereno Police Department. Today I’m going to ask you three questions about this paragraph.

 1. What is your opinion of this paragraph?

Upon arriving at the scene, police took photos of Ennis’ injuries, which included a swollen right lower lip, scratches and a cut on the back of her neck and a scrape on her left knee. She also complained of ringing and poor hearing in her left ear, which subsequently was diagnosed as a ruptured ear drum.

My answer: I’m impressed. This is sophisticated writing! The vocabulary (subsequently) and complex sentences (two which clauses and an embedded list) suggest that it was written by an officer who’s taken some college writing courses.

2. Could you write the same information without the elaborate sentences?

My answer: yes, of course. Here’s my version:

Police arrived at the scene and took photos of Ennis’ injuries. They included a swollen right lower lip, scratches and a cut on the back of her neck and a scrape on her left knee. Ennis also complained of ringing and poor hearing in her left ear. Later doctors said she had a ruptured ear drum.

3.  Which version is better: the first – with complex sentences – or the second – with simple sentences?

My answer: this is a trick question. Both versions are fine. Your goal is to record what happened at the scene and what you learned from your investigation. If you like to write sophisticated sentences, that’s great – as long as they’re clear and correct.

It’s also fine to write short, straightforward sentences…and there are important advantages to writing simply. You’re less likely to make mistakes, and your report will probably be easier to read.

I always tell officers to go for plain-and-straightforward writing. After a long and tiring shift, there’s no need to make your report sound like a bestselling novel! Just get the facts down.

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