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.



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



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



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



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.



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.



Another Look at the Friendly Skies

On April 14 I discussed a letter written by the United Airlines CEO, and I said it has a useful lesson for law enforcement officers: Make sure your reports are thoroughly objective. I listed some of the subjective words and expressions that CEO Munoz used in his letter, such as “belligerent” and “disruptive.”

(To refresh your memory: United Airlines needed extra seats for UA employees who showed up at the last minute. A passenger was told to give up his seat, but he insisted on staying on the plane. The passenger – Dr. David Dao – was removed and suffered a broken nose.)

Now – thanks to the Internet – we can look at a thoroughly objective account of what happened on that UA flight. It was written by…(drum roll!)…a police officer. Click the link below to read it:

READ: David Dao United Airlines Chicago Police Reports

The officer patiently explains, step-by-step, what happened on that plane. At no time does the officer state an opinion. It’s all observable facts, and for each one there’s a source. The officer explains where each piece of information came from (such as “a passenger in Seat 16B” or from Dr. Dao himself). (For comparison, you can read the CEO’s  letter here. You’ll see immediately that it’s full of generalizations with few objective facts.)

The quality of the writing in this report is excellent. There’s no jargon. For example, the report uses the everyday word “told” instead of the jargonish “advised.” Everything is written in active voice.

Although the report is handwritten (so that no spellchecker was available), every word is spelled correctly – even received, a word even I sometimes struggle with. Sentences are sophisticated but clear.

The incident on that United Airlines flight was a huge embarrassment for the airline. But the police officer who wrote that report has reason to be proud – and so does the agency.



Update about Caleb Brantley

Recently I discussed a police report about Caleb Brantley, a football player who was involved in a controversial incident in Gainesville, Florida. (You can read my original post at this link.). Brantley was allegedly struck in the jaw by a woman who admitted she had hit him. Brantley decided not to press charges.

Now Brantley is claiming that the original police report was falsified. A new police report alleges that Brantley was the attacker. Very likely there will be a legal hearing to straighten out the confusion. Which report is correct – the first or the second?

From our vantage point, of course there’s no way to know who’s telling the truth. But if you read the second police report, you’ll notice immediately that it lacks objectivity. There are no sources for the details in the report. If this case goes to court, the officer at the scene may be subjected to tough questioning by the defense attorney: Who made these allegations?

Here are two examples:

The DEF responded by striking the VIC in the face knocking her unconscious. [Who saw this happen? The officer? Probably not – he arrived later. A witness? But the first report says there were multiple witnesses. The victim? Why not say so?]

Additionally, the intensity of the DEF’s force far exceeded what was reasonable or necessary. [This is an opinion, not a fact. What looks violent to one person may seem normal to another. Facts are needed: Was there redness? Bleeding? Did the victim fall to the ground? Did the suspect use an open hand or a closed fist? And so on.]

The confusion around the Brantley incident illustrates once again the importance of carefully following guidelines for writing police reports. Suggestion: Use the links to read both reports, and ask yourself how you would have handled this writing task.



The Gareon Conley Police Report

Gareon Conley is a former Ohio State cornerback who’s expected to be a first round pick. He has been named as a suspect in an alleged rape in a Cleveland hotel on April 9.

You can read the complete police report at this link. It is exceptionally well written. Sentences are short, objective, and free of jargon. There is no passive voice.The report uses everyday language.

Here are a few sentences that impressed me. Notice the use of “said” and “told” – normal words that should appear in every police report (rather than the annoying “advised” that so many officers use):

(The victim) said while they were in the bathroom she began to hear some commotion going on. At the same time, Conley asked (Redacted) it she wanted to have a foursome with the couple in the bathroom. She told Conley she wanted to watch the couple in the bathroom.  

This police report is worth reading. It could serve as a model for officers who are trying to improve their writing skills.



The Easter Ham

On April 15 – the day before Easter – a Pennsylvania couple had a serious argument about how to cook a ham. When the woman swung a steak knife at the man, someone called the police. The woman was arrested for felony assault. You can read the police report here.

Overall it’s an effective report. Sophisticated sentences featuring embedded clauses make me think that the officer has been to college. Here’s an example, with the embedded (“inserted”) clause in green:

The victim related that for unknown reasons, as he was putting the ham in the oven, the defendant grabbed an 11 inch steak knife from the top of the oven and began swinging it at him. 

But fancy writing isn’t really necessary in a police report. Even though this one is professional and objective, it could have been written more efficiently. Result: Less time typing on a laptop, and more time available for active policing!

(And there’s another problem: the word related. “Said” is a perfectly normal word and more appropriate for a police report.)

Compare the two versions and see what you think. Here’s an excerpt from the original report:

The victim related that he and his girlfriend, the defendant, who have been dating and living together for approx. 3 ½ years, entered into a verbal argument in the kitchen over how to cook a ham. The victim related that for unknown reasons, as he was putting the ham in the oven, the defendant grabbed an 11 inch steak knife from the top of the oven and began swinging it at him. The victim related that as the defendant was swinging the knife he was able to avoid being seriously cut except for a small cut on his chest.

And here’s a suggested rewrite.

The victim said:

  • he and his girlfriend, the defendant, have been dating and living together for approx. 3 ½ years
  • they argued in the kitchen over how to cook a ham
  • as he was putting the ham in the oven, the defendant grabbed an 11 inch steak knife from the top of the oven
  • she began swinging the knife at him
  • he didn’t know why she swung the knife
  • he was able to avoid being seriously cut except for a small cut on his chest

Notice that the information in both versions is the same – but the second version is easier to read and write.

Some officers mistakenly believe that “more words” = “better reports.” Not true! Saying “the month of December” does not contain any more information than the single word “December.”

The men and women who write – and read – reports are busy people. Everyone wins when officers write clear, efficient, professional reports.