Tag Archives: criminal justice

An Armed Robbery in Tupelo

Here’s another recent police report for you to evaluate. On October 29, police responded to an armed robbery at a shoe store inside a mall in Tupelo, Mississippi. You can read the police report at this link.

My evaluation: The report is objective and professional. The officer uses everyday language – a big plus.

I have several suggestions. First, I think portions of the report could be written more efficiently. For example:


I would omit “I made my way to the business” and “I then noticed.” If you state what you saw and heard, it’s obvious you were at the scene in person and asking questions.

Another suggestion: You can save time by listing the information a witness or victim tells you. Of course you can’t write an entire report as a list! But lists are timesavers, and they should be used more often in police reports.

Here’s the victim’s original statement:


And here’s the same information in list format:

XX told me:

she was cleaning up and came to the register area to get trash bags

– then she went back to the restroom

– when she opened the door, the male was standing there

– he came out and started beating her on the head with a gun

 -he caused a cut on her finger

One more thing: The original report says that the suspect “drug her” into the bathroom. No! He dragged her into the bathroom. “Drug” is a pharmaceutical product. The past tense of drag is dragged.



Police and corrections reports have to be complete. It sounds easy – just write down everything that happened, right? But surprisingly often, 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 asks 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.

Note that “solid reason” means something specific that you saw, heard, smelled, touched. It’s not enough to say that a suspect was “behaving suspiciously.” What did he do? The classic example is a person carrying a wire hanger who’s looking into parked cars on a quiet street after dark. But a person who’s simply walking down a street in an expensive neighborhood after dark isn’t “behaving suspiciously,” even if you suspect that she doesn’t live there.

 4. Start every sentence with a person, place or thing, and use active voice. These practices ensure that you’ll be documenting who performed every action at the scene. You don’t want to write a sentence like this one:

Kettleman was transported to the county jail.  PASSIVE VOICE

WHO transported him? The sentence doesn’t say. Omitted that essential piece of information can be embarrassing if later on there are questions about that ride to the county jail. Active voice eliminates the problem:

Officer Jay transported Kettleman to the county jail.  ACTIVE VOICE


Deleting Information from a Police Report

Another update to the story below:  State police Col. Richard McKeon – the official who ordered the state trooper to alter the arrest report – is retiring. Gov. Charlie D. Baker has ordered the force to review its procedures for handling how it logs arrests. You can read more here.

Update to the story below: State Trooper Ryan Sceviour is suing top commanders of the State Police, charging that they punished him and forced him to falsify records. You can read more at this link.

Is deleting information from a police report ever permissible? That question has been raised in connection with the arrest of a judge’s daughter in Worcester, Massachusetts, on October 13. (You can read an article about the arrest below.)

A police report on the arrest of a local judge’s daughter was altered as part of “appropriate revisions” that can be made by State Police supervisors.

Alli Bibaud is the daughter of Court Judge Tim Bibaud. When she was arrested on charges that included heroin possession. she told state troopers, “Do you know how many people I had to [sexual act deleted] to get that?”

A spokesperson for Massachusetts State Police issued a statement about the police report. He explained, “The removal of the inflammatory and unnecessary quotation did not change the substance of the trooper’s narrative, did not remove any elements of probable cause from the report, and, most importantly, had no impact on the charges against the defendant.”

He also noted that both versions of the report – cut and uncut – were submitted to the court.

Questions often arise about a citizen’s right to privacy vs. the public’s right to information about an arrest. Do you know your agency’s policies about including and excluding information from police reports?

State Police: Arrest report of judge’s daughter revised


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


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


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.



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.


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?


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.
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.)


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?


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?