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 MADE MY WAY TO THE BUSINESS, WHERE I IMMEDIATELY SAW A WHITE FEMALE, THAT APPEARED TO HAVE DUCT TAPE AROUND THE BACK OF HER HEAD AND AROUND ONE OF HER ANKLES. I THEN NOTICED ANOTHER FEMALE LAYING FACE DOWN, IN ONE OF THE ISLES. I THEN STARTED TO ASK WHAT HAPPENED.

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:

XX STATED THAT SHE WAS CLEANING UP AND CAME TO THE  REGISTER AREA TO GET TRASH BAGS AND THEN WENT TO THE BACK TO THE RESTROOM.  XX STATED THAT WHEN SHE OPENED THE DOOR TO THE RESTROOM, THE MALE WAS STANDING THERE. XX STATES THAT THE MALE CAME OUT AND STARTED BEATING HER IN THE HEAD WITH A GUN, CAUSING A CUT ON HER FINGER.

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.

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Completeness

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

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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

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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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