Tag Archives: police reports

Tips for Taking Notes for a Report

Taking notes that are accurate and complete is an important step when you’re preparing a report. Here are a few tips:

1.  Be prepared.

Of course you have writing paper (and perhaps a laptop). But what if you jump out of your patrol car to deal with an emergency? It’s embarrassing to be caught without writing materials. Go to the Dollar Store and buy a few tiny notebooks. Keep one in a pocket just in case you need it.

2.  Think about categories.

Train yourself to think in five categories: yourself, victims, witnesses, suspects, evidence, and disposition. You won’t necessarily organize your report in these categories. But thinking about them will ensure that you don’t overlook anything important.

3.  Think about the type of report you’ll be rewriting.

There are four basic types of reports that you’ll write over and over.) Click here to learn more about them.) If you’ve thoroughly familiarized yourself with the types of reports and their special requirements, you’re more likely to cover every angle. For example, a Type 4 report (officer sets the case in motion) may have to deal with probable cause issues in some detail.

3.  Control the interview.

Talking to witnesses, suspects, and victims can present challenges: Stress levels are likely to be high, and you may be listening to a jumble of relevant and irrelevant information.

One useful practice is to deal with emotions first. Reassure the person you’re talking to (“You’re safe” or “We’ve got the situation under control”). Then explain that you need the person’s help in order to follow up. If you’re calm and professional, the person who’s talking is more likely to cooperate and answer your questions. Don’t hesitate to break in, gently, if a witness goes off on a tangent.

4.  Record the information promptly and thoroughly.

Don’t rely on your memory to add details lately. It’s embarrassing to be caught with an inaccurate or incomplete report. Discipline yourself to write a complete set of notes as soon as possible.

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Updated, with a new chapter on Writing Efficiently

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Criminal Justice Report Writing is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.

 

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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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Matthew Kennedy, Part 2

In yesterday’s post, I discussed an excellent police report that could – however – have been written more efficiently. Today I’m going to suggest ways to make the report (about a recent noisy party in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts) more objective.

See what you think of these excerpts:

I attempted further conversation with this male, but was unsuccessful.

He became even more irate with me.

A male, later identified as Matthew Kennedy, came to the door and immediately became angry with me. He gave me little opportunity to explain our presence.

All of those statements are opinions that a defense attorney could challenge in court. Because it’s impossible to look inside a person’s brain to see what they’re thinking, there’s no way to prove that Kennedy was angry or irate. An attorney could argue that Kennedy is always abrupt or brusque, for example.

And “unsuccessful”can be just as slippery. Maybe the conversation was stymied by outside noise.

So the report needs to give any specific evidence that the conversation was “unsuccessful” or that Kennedy was irate, angry, and uncooperative. Here are some objective statements:

I repeated the question three times, but Kennedy did not answer.

Kennedy shouted [record his exact words]

Kennedy told me that I was [record his exact words]

Kennedy came to the door, and I explained I was a police officer responding to a noise complaint. Kennedy said, [record his exact words] and closed the door.

* * * * * *

Before I go, I want to point out one more persistent problem with police reports: the ever-present advised. Somehow, when recruits enter a police academy, they stop using the words “tell” and “told.” I picture an officer at a restaurant with friends saying something like, “I advised Julie that the Italian food here is wonderful.” Ridiculous isn’t it?

Advise means “suggest” or “counsel.” If you give information or a warning to a citizen, use tell or told.

I advised Kennedy (whom I have never encountered or recognized) that I needed to speak with the owner or person in charge of the home.  CONFUSING

I told Kennedy that I needed to speak with the owner or person in charge of the home.  BETTER

I advised both parties of the Noise by-law violation.  CONFUSING

I told both parties about the noise by-law violation.  BETTER

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Harassment vs. Stalking

A recent UK study of stalking and harassment reports came to some alarming conclusions. Although the report concerns British policing, US agencies might find it a useful tool for reviewing their own policies and practices.

Here are some questions that agencies can ask:

  • Do officers know the difference between harassment and stalking (which is a much more dangerous crime)?
  • Do officers take steps to make harassment and stalking victims feel more safe – or do they blame victims?
  • Do officers ever tell victims that it’s up to them to take steps to protect themselves?

Most important (our focus here):

  • Do officers file reports for every harassment and stalking case?

The UK study, which looked at a sample of 112 stalking and harassment cases, found that:

  • none of the cases were handled well
  • fewer than 40% showed that victims were provided with a risk-management plan
  • some victims were told the problems were their fault because they used Facebook and other social media
  • only one-fourth of the cases were handled by detectives
  • in a number of cases, police took no legal action despite victims’ repeated requests for help

An article at this link includes useful information about the differences between harassment and stalking.

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Conflicting Police Reports

An article in today’s Lakeland Ledger illustrates the importance of promptly filing a thorough police report, even if you’re convinced no crime has happened. A grand jury is investigating a Lakeland police officer who did not file a timely report about a domestic disturbance. Complicating the investigation are conflicting accounts from a neighbor and another officer about what happened at the scene. The issue is homicide.

The story began at 5 a.m. on October 12, when four officers responded to a domestic disturbance at the home of Virginia Varnum and Monday Demarsh. According to Officer Edwin Lett, Virginia Varnum insisted that she hadn’t called the police and didn’t need their help.

But a neighbor, Victoria Elizabeth May, insists that Varnum had pleaded for help and was terrified of her boyfriend. And May insists she told police about those fears and begged them to jail the boyfriend.

Nevertheless, the officers left without filing any charges. On November 5, after Varnum’s body was found in a wooded area, Demarsh was charged with homicide.

Officer Jett’s report presents problems for the grand jury. Why did he wait two weeks to file his report? (It was written after Varnum was reported missing.) And why does he quote neighbor May as saying “these things happen all the time,” with no mention of her fears for Varnum?

And there’s conflicting testimony from a fifth officer, Kevin Fullenkamp, who also went to the home and talked to Varnum. He claims she told him she was “a little scared that [Demarsh] might do something.”But Fullenkamp didn’t file a report and didn’t talk to the other officers about Varnum’s fears.

Now Officer Lett is facing both a grand jury and an internal affairs investigation.

Complete, thorough, accurate, prompt: Every officer is familiar with those guidelines for writing a report. It’s not just that you want to write a professional report: Your career or a human life can be at stake.

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Do You Know These Confusing Words?

Today we’re going to look at three confusing words that are often used incorrectly. To begin, read the sentences below and decide whether they’re correct:

Disinterested in the speech, several citizens wandered over to the refreshment table.

A full compliment of officers attended the funeral.

The committee is comprised of officers, citizens, and local officials.

ANSWERS: All three are wrong. Here are the corrected sentences, along with explanations:

Uninterested in the speech, several citizens wandered over to the refreshment table. (Disinterested means impartial.)

A full complement of officers attended the funeral. (Compliment means praise.)

The committee is composed of officers, citizens, and local officials. (Or: The committee comprises officers, citizens, and local officials. Comprise means include.)

How did you do? These are three words that every professional should know.

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Interviews for Criminal Justice Reports

Interviews are a normal–and important–part of every officer’s job. The way you talk to the public creates an image of you and your agency that’s likely to stick permanently. Even in a correctional institution, the way you question inmates creates an impression that can work to your benefit (or harm) later on. Effective interviews can go a long way toward providing the information you need for the report you’ll be writing.

Here are a few tips for interviews:

1.  Deal with emotions first. A citizen who’s frightened or angry may not be able to give coherent answers to your questions. Reassurances (“You’re safe now”) and empathy (“I can understand how frightening that must have been”) can help citizens get past their feelings to answer your questions.

2.  Stay focused. Citizens quickly pick up on your actions and distractions–if your eyes are darting around and you’re jumping from one topic to another, for example. Moving logically from one point to another can do a great deal to calm a situation and get good information from the person you’re interviewing.

3.  Control the interview. Gently interrupt tangents and bring the conversation back to the issue at hand. In a frightening scenario, citizens gain security when they know a competent officer is in charge.

4.  Close the interview graciously. Thank the citizen for the information. Show that you’ve taken the situation seriously and will be following up, if necessary.

5.  Make sure you’ve covered every angle before you finish. Will the citizen need a victim’s packet, your business card, medical attention, or a follow-up phone call? Tying up all the ends thoroughly leaves a good impression of both you and your agency.

 Use these tips to make interviews proceed more smoothly, and you’ll see improvements in your reports as well!

Today’s Quiz ANSWER

The sentence is incorrect. Sentences must end with periods, NOT commas.

Here’s the corrected sentence:

I checked his registration. It had expired last month. CORRECT

Here’s a handy rule to remember: “If it starts with it, it’s a sentence.”

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More about Apostrophes

You probably know that you should avoid using apostrophes to signify that you’re writing about more than one person or thing. It’s incorrect, for example, to write “The Johnson’s are on vacation this week.” The correct version is “The Johnsons are on vacation this week.”

But there’s an exception: Plurals of numerals and single letters use apostrophes. Here are some examples:

  • The 4’s in your reimbursement request look like 9’s.
  • The computer turned all the x’s in the report into t’s.
  • I found an envelope stuffed with 10’s and 20’s.

Using apostrophes correctly showcases you as an officer who takes writing seriously. Start today!

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Practice with Commas

Many officers (and supervisors!) say that commas and apostrophes are the most troublesome punctuation marks. Help is on the way! I’m going to start posting mini-quizzes regularly to provide plenty of practice.

Here’s today’s comma quiz. Not every sentence requires commas. Scroll down for answers. Click here for a review of the three most important comma rules.

1.  As I approached the house I heard a woman scream.

2.  Linda grabbed her son’s hand and they ran down the street.

3.  Linda grabbed her son’s hand and ran down the street.

4.  Paul who just graduated from the academy is planning to go back for a degree.

5.  I went back to Porter Street because I had more questions for Mrs. Smith.

Here are the answers. (Numbers refer to rules on Commas Made Simple.)

1.  As I approached the house, I heard a woman scream. (1 – comma is needed because the sentence begins with an extra idea)

2.  Linda grabbed her son’s hand, and they ran down the street. (2 – comma is needed because there are two sentences joined by and)

3.  Linda grabbed her son’s hand and ran down the street.  (2 – no comma is needed  because there’s only one sentence)

4.  Paul, who just graduated from the academy, is planning to go back for a degree. (3)

5.  I went back to Porter Street because I had more questions for Mrs. Smith.  (1 – no comma is needed because the extra idea is at the back)

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Test Yourself: Objectivity

Objectivity (sticking strictly to observable, verifiable facts) is essential to criminal justice reporting. Objective details showcase your professionalism, and they can help prevent awkward moments in a court trial. Objectivity can even help you avoid a visit to court. An objective report prevents challenges because the facts are clearly laid out.

This activity will help you evaluate your own understanding of objectivity. Which of the following sentences are objective?

1.  On the east side of 10th Street I saw a WM in jeans and a red flannel shirt who was behaving suspiciously.

2.  Albert Johnson threatened his wife.

3.  I smelled beer on Carol Johnson’s breath.

4.  Inmate Palmer approached me with his fists clenched.

5.  I saw what might be a weapon in his left pocket.

6.  I saw an irregular bulge in his left pocket.

7.  Overturned bureau drawers were lying on the bedroom floor.

8.  I saw evidence of a break-in.

9.  Inmate Chapman looked nervous when I walked into his cell.

10.  Harmon’s hands trembled when I asked him to open his locker.

ANSWERS:

Words and phrases that lack objectivity are in red.

1.  On the east side of 10th Street I saw a WM in jeans and a red flannel shirt who was behaving suspiciously.

2.  Albert Johnson threatened his wife.

3.  I smelled beer on Carol Johnson’s breath. (Beer has a definite odor.)

4.  Inmate Palmer approached me with his fists clenched. (You can see clenched fists.)

5.  I saw what might be a weapon in his left pocket.

6.  I saw an irregular bulge in his left pocket.  (You can see an irregular bulge.)

7.  Overturned bureau drawers were lying on the bedroom floor. (You can see the drawers.)

8.  I saw evidence of a break-in.  (Sometimes perpetrators try to fake a break-in. You can’t assume that disorder was created by an intruder.)

9.  Inmate Chapman looked nervous when I walked into his cell. (What looks like nervous behavior to one person might seem normal to another observer.)

10.  Harmon’s hands trembled when I asked him to open his locker. (You can see trembling hands.)


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