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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When Is a Report Necessary?

Not every call or traffic stop results in an arrest or citation. You might settle a neighborhood dispute without arresting anyone or decide to warn a motorist about a violation. Sometimes officers are called to deal with situations that don’t warrant a police response – a child who speaks disrespectfully to a parent, for example.

Is documentation required in those situations? Opinions vary. Some officers belong to the “write it down, just in case something happens later” school of thought. Others say that just-in-case record keeping doesn’t qualify as a law enforcement concern.

A police chief in La Crescent, Minnesota recently weighed in on this issue. His department provides a weekly police blotter to the local newspaper, and Chief Doug Stavenau decided to include warnings to motorists even though no citation was issued. (Not surprisingly, some of those motorists wondered why their names were printed in the newspaper!)

Chief Stavenau issued a statement (which you can read at this link) explaining the department’s policy about the police blotter. He noted that each warning is a “teachable moment” that’s relevant to the department’s mission, which includes educating citizens about public safety.

Another factor is the department’s acquisition of what Chief Stavenau called “a more technologically advanced software system.” Every contact with the public automatically generates a report that eventually goes into the police blotter.

 

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A Misplaced Modifier

On July 10, 2016, a 27-year-old man named Seth Conrad Rich,was fatally shot in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Rich was an employee of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

On May 15 of this year, a private investigator named Rod Wheeler told Fox News that Rich’s death may have been politically motivated. Wheeler has since said there is no evidence for that claim, but conspiracy theories have been swirling nevertheless.

The police report (which you can read here) contains a sentence that has some grammatical interest for us. Here’s the sentence: can you spot the problem?

Upon arriving to the scene the decedent was laying in the Southwest corner of the intersection of W St. and Flagler Pl. NW.

Here’s the problem: the sentence sounds as if the deceased man arrived at the scene – which couldn’t have happened because, sadly, he was already dead. The person who arrived was the officer.

This mistake is called a dangling or misplaced modifier. You can fix it easily by making sure you state who was arriving at the scene:

Upon my arrival at the scene, the decedent was laying in the Southwest corner of the intersection of W St. and Flagler Pl. NW.  BETTER

 

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The Aaron Hernandez Police Report

On April 19, former NFL star Aaron Hernandez hanged himself in a prison cell in Massachusetts. This is a sad story for Hernandez, his family, and his friends. Hernandez, who used to be a tight end for the New England Patriots, was serving a life sentence in the 2013 murder of a man who had been dating his fiancee’s sister.

You can read more at this link: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/aaron-hernandez-suicide-state-police-report. The investigative report is posted here: https://cbsboston.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/state-police-report-aaron-hernandez.pdf.

Anyone who’s planning on a criminal justice career could benefit from reading this investigative report: some day you may find yourself having to complete a task like this one. The report is painful to read, of course, but it is a professional document – objective and factual.

I have only one question. I wonder why the trooper who wrote the report kept calling himself “the undersigned” instead of simply using “I.” Is that a Massachusetts policy? If so, what is the reason?

Overall the report is excellent. Most of the writing uses plain, everyday language. Well done.

     Aaron Hernandez

 

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The Vincent Viola Incident Report

Because my husband is a huge hockey fan, Vincent Viola’s name is very familiar to us. Viola owns the Florida Panthers, an NHL team that won the Stanley Cup in 1996.

Recently President Trump nominated Viola to serve as Secretary to the Army. But Viola subsequently withdrew his name when questions arose about his business dealings. You can read more here: http://wapo.st/2l7nmCT?tid=ss_tw-bottom

Media interest in Viola led to the discovery of an incident report related to a punching incident at a Saratoga Springs racetrack. You can read the actual report here: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/18/us/politics/document-Vincent-Viola-Police-Report.html

(I hope you will click on the link and evaluate the report before you read my comments below. Putting yourself into the role of a supervisor like this is great preparation for future career challenges – and an effective way to sharpen your own writing skills.)

My reaction: This is a professional report. I particularly noticed one detail that suggested the writer had been to college: The victim “sustained a bloody, swollen lip as a result of the alleged punch.” Most writers don’t bother with that comma between bloody and swollen. Well done!

But I would recommend some changes.

If I were this officer’s supervisor, I would ask that future reports be written more efficiently. Here’s an example of inefficient writing:

I initially spoke with Vincent Viola and requested he come down to the first floor because it was loud upstairs and very difficult to hear. Vincent advised that prior to the incident occurring, he was notified by his wife, Theresa that a man who worked for the food service at the horse sales had pushed her after she tried to get some water from the kitchen area for a woman who had just fainted in the building.

These sophisticated sentences are more evidence that this officer may have been to college. But I would have preferred a more straightforward version. You don’t need “initially” or “prior to the incident occurring.” They don’t add any information. Nor do you need “spoke with Vincent Viola and requested.” Doesn’t requesting automatically involve speaking?

Here’s a better version:

I asked Viola to come down to the first floor because it was loud upstairs.  BETTER

Now I’d like you to read the sentences below (taken from the report) and see if you notice anything:

The subject advised that there was a verbal dispute in progress between two male subjects on the second floor inside the pavilion. 

X was advised by Mazzone Catering Security Supervisor Chris Cole to go home for the rest of his shift.

Here’s what I noticed: In the first sentence, advised clearly means “told.” But in the second sentence you can’t be sure what advised means. Did the supervisor suggest that X go home – or order him to leave?

Advised is a confusing word that does not belong in police reports. If I were the supervisor, I would advise this writer to break his “advised” habit.

On second thought, no. I would tell him to stop using this word.

                 Vincent Viola

 

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DeKalb County Sheriff Arrested for Indecency and Obstruction

On May 6, DeKalb County Sheriff Jeff Mann was arrested in Georgia for indecency and obstruction. You can read more about the arrest at this link: http://www.mdjonline.com/neighbor_newspapers/details-emerge-from-police-report-on-dekalb-sheriff-s-arrest/article_28feff06-33f7-11e7-b8e2-6bba06e88f2f.html

You can read the police report at the same link. Overall it is an excellent report – thorough and objective.

I have a few recommendations:

  •  The officer used “told” and “stated” in the report – but much of the time“advised” keeps appearing in the report…and in one sentence, that ugly “advised” causes a potential problem:

I advised the male to get on the ground and to put his hands behind his back while on the ground.

Notice that the officer seems to be counseling or suggesting that the man lie on the ground. That sentence could cause a problem in a court hearing, with a defense attorney arguing that the officer didn’t really tell a suspect what to do.

The report should say “I TOLD the man to get on the ground….” or “I ORDERED the man to get on the ground.”

  • I was pleased to read this sentence:

“He then started to walk towards me at some point.”

But sometimes the report is wordy. The officer kept writing “the male,” “the male,” “the male,” “the male,” and so on. There’s nothing wrong with the words he and him!

  • The report mentions “following my verbal commands.” The word needed here is oral. Verbal means “using words” and can also refer to writing.
  • Overall the sentences are strong and concise. But there’s one section that could have been more efficient:

The male told me to call my supervisor, Major Peek. I advised the male that Major Peek was not my supervisor. I then asked if he would like to speak to a supervisor. The male stated “Yes”. I then advised the dispatcher of the male’s request.

Here’s a recommended rewrite:

The male told me to call my supervisor, Major Peek. I said Major Peek was not my supervisor. I asked if he would like to speak to a supervisor. The male said “Yes,” and I told the dispatcher about the request.

And here’s an even shorter version. (Some agencies require a great deal of detail in police reports; other agencies want efficient reports with only essential facts.)

The male said he would like to speak to a supervisor. I told the dispatcher about the request.

Overall, though, this is a professional and effective report.

 

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A Missing Incident Report

Suppose you interview a victim of a crime who decides not to press charges. Should you file a report?

YES. You can file an incident report even if there’s no arrest – and you should.

A recent story about a victim of sexual harassment is a good illustration of the importance of documenting everything – and saving those reports in case they’re needed later.

In November 2015, Jodi Grunvold – a principal in Reeds Spring, Connecticut – called the Stone County Sheriff’s Department to report suggestive behavior from Superintendent Michael Mason.

She did not press charges, but she wanted the report on file in case she pursued legal remedies later. There’s a good reason why: Sometimes victims of sexual harassment or sexual assault are asked why they didn’t tell anyone about the problem at the time it happened. Having an official record of a talk with a police officer can make a huge difference for the victim later on.

Eventually Grunvold did file a lawsuit, and the Title IX coordinator learned that other employees had made similar charges. The case was eventually settled, and Grunvold received $500,000. Nevertheless the school district denied any wrongdoing, and Mason’s contract was renewed. Grunvold herself was required to resign. You can read more about the case at this link: http://sgfnow.co/2pv2Uio

Here’s where it gets complicated. The Springfield News-Leader decided to investigate the story and was able to get a copy of the incident report. But the official word from the agency is that no report was filed. Sheriff Doug Rader said that he had interviewed Grunvold – but no report was taken.

Eventually a report was found, but the reporting deputy was identified as an “Officer Smith,” not Doug Rader. The handwriting does not match Sheriff Rader’s handwriting.

Confusingly, the sheriff’s office continues to deny that any report was ever taken. Meanwhile, a petition against Superintendent Michael Mason is circulating in Reeds Spring.

Bottom line: Document everything you do. You never know when something that seems routine will turn into a news story. Careful record keeping will mean that your agency is always prepared if questions arise.

 

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