Tag Archives: objectivity

The Jussie Smollett Case

Some newspapers are wishing that they followed police guidelines about objectivity. Some media reports on January 29 and 30 said that actor Jussie Smollett was attacked by two men near his Chicago apartment building.

Thanks to an extensive police investigation, we now know that the attack was staged. The media should have been more objective in their initial reporting: “Jussie Smollett told police that two men attacked him near his Chicago apartment building.”

There’s a huge difference between “Jussie Smollett was attacked” (a conclusion) and “Jussie Smollett said he was attacked” (a fact). It’s the reason news reporters are supposed to say “the alleged assault” and “the suspected assailant.”

And it’s the reason police officers record only facts – not hunches or conclusions – in their reports. A police investigation or court hearing might bring information to light that discredits police thinking at the scene. But if a report sticks only to facts, there’s little chance that the report will be challenged later.

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The initial Jussie Smollett police report below is objective and professional. I have two suggestions: 

  • The report should omit “at above listed location”  – it doesn’t give any useful information
  • “He said” is more natural than “he related,” which appears in the report several times
  • Jussie Smollett Police Report

Jussie Smollett

 
 
 

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Writing an Objective Report

Suppose you saw a driver cross the double line three times in two minutes. She staggered out of her car when you asked her to perform a sobriety test. Your immediate conclusion was that she was driving under the influence.

But professional criminal justice practices require you to omit these categories and conclusions. You state only facts and details, leaving it to your reader to draw conclusions.

These requirements seem to defy common sense – but there are good reasons for them. Facts and details can be useful in three ways:

  • They facilitate follow-up investigations
    Crimes often happen in patterns. Recording exactly what a suspect or witness says can be a huge help to an investigator who’s looking for habits and repeated behavior.
  • They prevent challenges
    An inmate can’t argue that you jumped to conclusions if you list the behaviors that indicated defiance: “Johnson clenched his fists, took two steps backward, and said, ‘You’re not my boss, and I ain’t taking any orders from you.’ Then he turned, walked through the doorway, and slammed the door.”
  • They help you avoid embarrassment
    If you announce in a report that you found the point of entry, or you knew a suspect was dangerous, a defense attorney might point out errors in your reasoning.
    Just state the facts: Describe the broken window and the footprints in the flowerbed, or list the behaviors that prompted you to call for a backup when dealing with the suspect: The threats against you (write them down, word-for-word), the weapon he was waving from side to side, the loud voice and flushed face.

Here’s a comparison of generalizations you should avoid and details you could use instead:

  • confused (Better: could not state her name and address)
  • afraid (Better: whispered the answers to my questions, her hands were shaking, twice said “What if he comes back?“)
  • reckless (Better: clocked at 50 mph in a 30 mph zone, crossed the double line while making a left turn)

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The Challenge of Objectivity

Officers sometimes ask wonder how the objectivity requirement can be met in an actual police or corrections report.

Here’s an example from my own experience:

I was teaching in a correctional institution. (This was years ago, when the phone company still had human operators). One morning while I was eating breakfast, my phone rang. When I answered it, a woman said, “I have a collect call from John Thompson” [not the inmate’s real name].

I said, “I’m refusing the call” and hung up. I was shaken. “John Thompson” was an inmate in a class I was teaching. How did he get my number? What did he want? Was there trouble ahead?

As soon as I arrived at work, I wrote a report. Notice the challenges facing me: I couldn’t be sure the caller was an operator: I couldn’t see her. Nor was I sure that “John Thompson” was the person who tried to call me. I couldn’t see him either.

Most important, I knew that guesses, hunches, worries, and conjectures have no place in a criminal justice report.

Here’s what I wrote:

At approximately 0725 hours on [the date], my telephone rang. When I answered it, I heard a female voice say, “I have a collect phone call from John Thompson. Will you accept the charges”? I said “no” and hung up the phone.

Of course I was unhappy that an inmate apparently knew my home phone number and had tried to call me. But that information does not belong in an objective report.

I never did find out if “John Thompson” was the actual person making the call. I did, however, hear from the lieutenant that I had written an excellent report. Even better, there were no more collect calls.

 

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