Tag Archives: criminal justice

Identifying Passive Voice

Passive voice often causes problems in criminal justice reports. (Here’s a typical passive voice sentence: The vehicle was searched.) It’s easy to see how passive voice can cause problems, especially in an investigation or court hearing: The sentence doesn’t tell who performed the search.

In general, you should avoid using passive voice in your reports. Be careful, however, not to be fooled into “correcting” sentences that were right in the first place. Make sure a sentence is really passive before you change it.

Here are two examples of what I’m talking about:

The suspects were questioned.  PASSIVE VOICE

While we were questioning the subjects, Officer Brown arrived at the scene.  ACTIVE VOICE

“We were questioning” is active voice (OK to use) because you know that we were doing it.

Now let’s look at a series of sentences. Can you see which are passive and which are active? Scroll down for the answers.

Jones was seen running away from the convenience store.

Jones was carrying a six-pack of beer and a bottle of white wine.

Three sobriety tests were administered.

Patterson was looking in his wallet for his driver’s license.

Both witnesses were questioned.

Finch was having difficulty answering the questions.

Here are the sentences again, with the passive sentences labeled:

Jones was seen running away from the convenience store.  PASSIVE  (Who saw him?)

Jones was carrying a six-pack of beer and a bottle of white wine.  √

Three sobriety tests were administered.  PASSIVE  (Who administered them?)

Patterson was looking in his wallet for his driver’s license.  √

Both witnesses were questioned.  PASSIVE  (Who questioned them?)

Finch was having difficulty answering the questions.  √

Reminder: Passive voice is acceptable only when you don’t know who performed an action. Otherwise, use active voice.

The two passive voice sentences below are acceptable because the officer writing the report doesn’t know who broke into the store and who took the money and liquor:

The store was broken into at around midnight.  [PASSIVE – OK]

Fifty dollars and five bottles of liquor were taken.  [PASSIVE – OK]

passive voice test

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Oral or Verbal?

You probably hear it as often as I do: “I verbally told him to….” The command might be to get out of the car, open her purse, hand over his driver’s license, or something similar.

But verbal is meaningless in sentences like this. Verbal means “using words.” It’s not a synonym for oral. Verbal communication can include writing, texting, emailing, and writing in chalk on a sidewalk.

When you’re careful to use oral for spoken commands, you portray yourself as a professional – a good thing!

write in blank notebook

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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. When you sit down to write your report, however, 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 mindread. 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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Test Yourself

Here’s a short quiz based on Part I of the 10 Top Grammar Mistakes that officers make. Click on the link for a review, and then try this quiz. Scroll down for the answers.

1.  The door was open, we heard a woman scream.

2.  The Powells’ house is located on a busy downtown street.

3.  The Powells’ have lived there for five years.

4.  I set up a time to talk to he and she about the break-in.

5.  I walked up to the car, it looked abandoned.

ANSWERS

1.  The door was open. We heard a woman scream. OR The door was open; we heard a woman scream. [Sentences end with periods or semicolons, not commas. If you use a semicolon, lower-case the next letter unless it’s a capitalized name.]

2.  The Powells’ house is located on a busy downtown street. [Correct: Think house of the Powells.]

3.  The Powells have lived there for five years. [No apostrophe: There’s no “of” idea.]

4.  I set up a time to talk to him and her about the break-in.

5.  I walked up to the car. It looked abandoned. OR I walked up to the car; it looked abandoned. [Sentences should end with periods or semicolons, not commas. Here’s a handy rule of thumb: It starts a new sentence. Semicolons are followed by lower-case unless it’s a capitalized name.]

How did you do?

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Apostrophes Practice

Today’s quiz will help you review apostrophes. Scroll down for the answers. (To read an explanation about placing apostrophes correctly, click here. To view a video about apostrophes, click here.)
1.  I saw scratch marks near the lock on the front door of the Browns house.
2. Officer Lewis investigation was thorough and efficient.
3.  The Browns were out of down all weekend.
4.  A TV in the childrens bedroom was missing.
5.  Mrs. Browns jewelry box was still in its usual place, undisturbed.
ANSWERS
1.  I saw scratch marks near the lock on the front door of the Browns’ house.  (house of Browns)
2. Officer Lewis’ investigation was thorough and efficient.  (investigation of Officer Lewis – “Lewis’s” is also correct)
3.  The Browns were out of down all weekend.  (no apostrophe: there’s no “of” idea)
4.  A TV in the childrens bedroom was missing.  (bedroom of the children)
5.  Mrs. Brown’s jewelry box was still in its usual place, undisturbed.  (jewelry box of Mrs. Brown) (For more apostrophes practice, click here.)

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Using Word Endings in Police Reports

Speaking is not the same as writing, even though we use the same words for both activities. So making the transfer from talking to writing can create difficulties, especially if you’re new to report writing.

Difficulties in transferring from one to the other especially show up in word endings. When we talk, we naturally run sounds together, and we tend to omit letters. When you’re talking, that’s not a problem. But those omitted letters will detract from the professionalism of a report you’re writing.

For example, listen to yourself while you read this sentence aloud:

Bill tried to find the source of the contraband.

Chances are you ran the “d” in “tried” together with the “t” in “to.” Everyone does it!

Here’s the problem, though: Are you going to remember to write that -ed ending, since you don’t hear it? All too often, officers write sentences like this: Bill try to find the source of the contraband.  INCORRECT

Here’s another one. Again, listen to yourself read this sentence aloud:

The memo lists the days and times for next month’s meetings.

Chances are you omitted the final “s” in “lists”: It’s difficult to say correctly, especially when you’re talking fast. Unfortunately, the sentence may look like this when an officer writes it: The memo list the days and times for next month’s meetings. INCORRECT

Let’s try two more. Here are phrases that often omit the -ed ending: supposed to and used to.

I used to work every holiday. CORRECT

We’re supposed to receive a raise next month. CORRECT

Professional writers are careful to use that final “d.” Are you?


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Completeness

Police and corrections reports have to be complete. It sounds easy–just write down everything that happened, right? Surprisingly often, though, officers forget to record a piece of essential information. Problems can arise later on when an investigation stalls or a court hearing has to be postponed because important facts are missing.

Here are some tips to ensure your report is complete:

1.  Make an extra effort to get contact information from anyone who might assist in an investigation, especially in a major case. If you suspect you might have difficulty reaching a victim or witness, ask for a backup telephone number for a friend or family member.

2.  Always include the results of an investigation, even if the results were negative. It’s embarrassing not to have an answer ready if a defense attorney ask about the results of a sobriety test.

Here are some examples of things you might look for that should be documented in your report, no matter what results you get:

  • point of entry or exit
  • missing or damaged items
  • vehicular damage
  • signs of trauma
  • signs of chemical abuse
  • evidence of a break-in
  • fingerprints
  • results of a sobriety test
  • evidence of vehicular damage
  • blood and other bodily fluids

3.  Be particularly careful to document evidence that establishes probable cause, especially in a Type 4 report (when you, the officer, set the case in motion–a traffic stop, for example). Even a strong case against a suspect can be thrown out of court if you can’t establish a solid reason for your initial involvement.

 

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Plain English, Please

Congress just passed a bill requiring federal agencies to use plain English in documents and publications. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every agency followed their example?

Try your hand at it. How could you rewrite this announcement to make it shorter and simpler? When you’re finished, scroll down to compare your version to mine.

Chief Anna Brown and Assistant Chief Carl Summers have been looking for opportunities to increase community awareness of services our agency provides to the public. It has been decided to hold a one-day Citizens’ Academy on Saturday, November 14, from 9 to 4 in the Community Room. Participants will learn about the department’s policies and procedures. There is no charge. Interested citizens should preregister by calling 555-1212 or clicking the appropriate link at our website at www.SmithvillePolice.org.

Here’s my revision:

You’re invited to a free Citizens’ Academy on Saturday, November 14, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in our Community Room. Here’s your chance to learn firsthand how our agency works. Please register by calling 555-1212 or visiting www.SmithvillePolice.org.

How did you do?


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Online Resources for Report Writers

The Internet provides many resources for officers who write criminal justice reports. The websites listed here will prove useful throughout your career, so it’s a good idea to bookmark and use them often. All are free!

1.  The Universal Crime Reporting Handbook from the FBI.

You’re probably familiar with this handbook already. You can download it as a .pdf at www.fbi.gov/ucr/ucr.htm (scroll down to find the Handbook link). Here’s how the FBI describes the UCR:

The UCR Handbook outlines the classification and scoring guidelines that law enforcement agencies use to report crimes to the UCR Program. In addition, it contains offense and arrest reporting forms and an explanation of how to complete them. The Handbook also provides definitions of all UCR offenses.

Even if you’re not filling out statistics reports, the UCR is invaluable: It clarifies criminal justice terminology, provides scenarios to discuss, and explains how professionals classify various crimes.

2. www.Dictionary.com

Besides offering definitions, this website compares what various dictionaries say about a particular word or phrase, and it sometimes offers usage note. I go to this website often when I’m unsure how to spell or use a particular word or expression.

3.  www.PlainLanguage.gov

Jargon and gobbledygook waste time, create confusion, and make a bad impression on your readers. This government-sponsored website provides many easy-to-use resources to help you write more clearly and efficiently.

 

4.  www.flipdrive.com

Here’s another career-building website. You can securely store documents and photographs here. If you move to another computer, just log on to access a report you’re working on. There’s no need to carry a flash drive around.

5.  www.evernote.com

Good-bye, Post-It notes! This free, privacy-protected website sorts and stores any information you want to save. You can access the information from any computer with Internet access. You can clean out your desk and set up a quick, reliable system to find important information.

6.  www.Passpack.com

This isn’t really a writers’ website, but it’s been such a lifesaver for me that I wanted to include it. You can securely store passwords here, free of charge, and access them from any computer with Internet access. This is a great website if you have accounts with many websites, and it’s especially useful if you travel often: You don’t have to worry about carrying (and possibly losing) a list of passwords.

 

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The Dangling Modifier Problem

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 description. So 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 adangling 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 hearing, 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.

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