Tag Archives: report writing

Sophisticated Sentences

Every officer wants to write intelligent reports. That’s certainly a worthy goal. Unfortunately, there’s a hidden problem: When you try to write sophisticated sentences, clarity gets lost and errors creep in.

Here are two suggestions for writing sophisticated sentences that enhance your reports:

1.  Use a semicolon. This is easy to do! Find two simple sentences in a row that you want to put together. Change the first period to a semicolon. Change the capital letter to lower case unless it’s a word that needs to be capitalized.

Officer Baptiste saw smoke coming from the engine of the car. She called 911.  CORRECT

Officer Baptiste saw smoke coming from the engine of the car; she called 911.  CORRECT (semicolon)

I searched the basement. Sergeant Rios questioned Mrs. Pallatine.  CORRECT

I searched the basement; Sergeant Rios questioned Mrs. Pallatine.  CORRECT (semicolon)

2.  Try writing a Comma Rule 3 sentence when you use a proper noun (a capitalized name of a person, place, or thing). Hint: Be sure to use TWO commas.

We’ll be working extra shifts when Halloween, a favorite day for pranks, rolls around on October 31.  CORRECT

My Uncle John, who was a police officer back in the 1960s, says law enforcement has changed dramatically since then.  CORRECT

Polk City, a small town in Central Florida, is continuing to grow.  CORRECT

 

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Avoiding Run-on Sentences

Be careful not to use run-on sentences in your reports. Omitting the period at the end of a sentence–or mistakenly thinking a comma will do the job–is a serious error.

Here’s a quick run-on sentence activity for you to try: Can you tell which examples are run-on sentences?

1.  After I called for a backup, Officer Bailey radioed me.

2.  The ambulance arrived, it was too late to save her.

3.  Chain of custody is an important criminal justice concept that you should know.

ANSWERS

1.  After I called for a backup, Officer Bailey radioed me.  CORRECT

2.  The ambulance arrived. It was too late to save her.  RUN-ON (Here’s a handy rule: If it starts with “it,” it’s a sentence.)

3.  Chain of custody is an important criminal justice concept that you should know.  CORRECT

 

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Who Is She?

I’ve often said that it’s the simple words that get officers into trouble when they write reports. Today we’re going to look at she and her. Easy words, right?

Wrong. There’s a problem called indefinite pronoun reference that often creates confusion.

Here’s a typical mistake. Can you figure out what’s wrong?

Martha said she had not been in touch with her daughter in quite a while because her telephone wasn’t working. INCORRECT

Whose telephone wasn’t working? When there are two women in a sentence, she becomes a confusing (or indefinite) word.

Be specific about identities when you’re using pronouns (he, she, him, her, they). Here’s a more clear version of the same sentence:

Martha said she had not been in touch with her daughter in quite a while because her daughter’s telephone wasn’t working. CORRECT

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Tips for Type 4 Reports

A few days ago someone confessed to me that she continued to find Type 4 reports confusing. What, she wanted to know, makes a Type 4 report different? And how does that difference affect the way the report is written?

Good questions!

Type 4 reports are different because you, the officer, initiate the action. You saw or heard something suspicious and decided to intervene.

Your report has two important differences from most Type 1, 2, and 3 reports:

  • you weren’t dispatched to the scene
  • you have to establish probable cause

These differences will affect the way you start your report. First, you have to establish why you were at that location. Second, you have to give a detailed and convincing justification for getting involved.

Phrases like “acting suspiciously” or “something wasn’t right” don’t work here. You have to describe what was unusual about the suspect’s appearance or behavior, or what struck you as out of place about the scene. Examples might include:

  • you saw someone running down the street who kept looking behind himself
  • you heard a scream
  • you saw a light in an empty building
  • you noticed that a woman was struggling to pull away from the  man who was walking with her

(To learn more about Type 4 reports, click here.)

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Pronouns in Comparisons

Pronoun Rule 4 helps you use pronouns in comparisons. This rule helps you sort everyday word pairs like I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, and they/them.

Before we review this rule, try these three sample sentences.

1.  Officer Gupta has been with the agency three years longer than (I, me).

2.  We have twice as many patrol cars as (they, them).

3.  I told Carole I want to handle domestic violence calls as well as (she, her).

Here are the answers. Notice that adding an extra word at the end will instantly help you choose the correct pronoun.

1.  Officer Gupta has been with the agency three years longer than I (have).

2.  We have twice as many patrol cars as they (do).

3.  I told Carole I want to handle domestic violence calls as well as she (does).

You don’t have to say the extra word aloud (usually am, is, are, has, have, does, or do).

One more tip: Use than, not then, in these comparisons:

The registration was more than two years out of date.  CORRECT

To learn more about Pronoun Rule 4, click  here.

Today’s Quiz ANSWER

The sentence is incorrect. Use passed when you’re writing about an action that already happened. (Thinking about that -ed ending can help.).

Here’s the corrected sentence:

The car passed me going 75 mph in a 50 mph zone. CORRECT

One more tip: Don’t confuse passed with pasted. It happens!

 

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Commas in Interrupter Sentences: Comma Rule 3 Practice

“Interrupter” sentences (Comma Rule 3) are useful when you’re writing about a person or a place in a criminal justice report, and they’re easy to punctuate: Just remember to use TWO commas. Click here to read about Comma Rule 3, and click here to watch a short video. Then try this quiz. Scroll down to check your answers. (Hint: Read each sentence aloud and listen for a change in your voice.)

1.  Citizens who don’t pay attention to what’s going on around them may be victimized by criminals.

2.  Tina Collier who just joined the force last year is already up for an award.

3.  We’re keeping an eye on Porter Street which has been a favorite location for drug dealers lately.

4.  The Universal Crime Reporting Handbook which I first heard about in the Academy is a great resource for officers.

5.  Dogs that aren’t leashed can be impounded.

6.  Oxycontin a controlled substance can be dangerous when used improperly.

7.  A person who’s never handled a weapon before can be trained to be an excellent officer.

8.  July one of the hottest months in the year always seems interminable to me.

9.  Cold weather which drives vagrants away from Northern climes always swells the population in the South.

10. Drivers who exceed the speed limit are liable to be ticketed.

The answers:

1.  Citizens who don’t pay attention to what’s going on around them may be victimized by criminals.  NO COMMAS

2.  Tina Collier, who just joined the force last year, is already up for an award.

3.  We’re keeping an eye on Porter Street, which has been a favorite location for drug dealers lately.

4.  The Universal Crime Reporting Handbook, which I first heard about in the Academy, is a great resource for officers.

5.  Dogs that aren’t leashed can be impounded.  NO COMMAS

6.  Oxycontin, a controlled substance, can be dangerous when used improperly.

7.  A person who’s never handled a weapon before can be trained to be an excellent officer.  NO COMMAS

8.  July, one of the hottest months in the year, always seems interminable to me.

9.  Cold weather, which drives vagrants away from Northern climes, always swells the population in the South.

10. Drivers who exceed the speed limit are liable to be ticketed.  NO COMMAS

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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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The Perils of Mindreading

It happened to all of us when we were kids: During a tense moment, some adult (Mom, Dad, a teacher, a principal, or someone else in authority) ordered us to “Take that look off your face!”

What look? I was trying as hard as I could to be completely expressionless. And, since of course I couldn’t see myself, I had no idea (and still don’t, to this day) what that person saw. Defiance? Mockery? Anger? I’ll never know.

Incidents like that one teach a useful lesson: Don’t try to guess at another person’s intentions.

That principle is especially important to report writing. Labeling a person as “belligerent,” “hostile,” “confused,” “helpless,” or some other mental state is risky. In a court or disciplinary hearing, the person might come up with a totally different description and explanation, damaging your credibility.

The rule for report writing is the same one that professional writers use (and you are a professional writer, after all!): Show, don’t tell.

So, instead of writing that she was “driving erratically,” write down what she did: Crossed the center line three times in less than a minute, braked five times while approaching a stop sign. Don’t write that he was “belligerent”: Record exactly what he said to you. Note the signs that signaled to you that a witness was frightened: Darting eyes, trembling lips, shaking hands.

Train yourself to notice and remember what people around you are doing. That kind of practice will help you develop the descriptive skills needed for effective reports.

 

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Completeness

The year was 1903, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had just published another Sherlock Holmes story: “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder.” It’s fun to read, but it certainly isn’t relevant to today’s police officers, right? After all, most modern forensic techniques hadn’t been discovered yet. Fingerprinting was brand new then and makes only one brief appearance in the story.

But maybe there’s something in the story for officers today. Let’s take a closer look.

The story is about a homicide, and for once the police were smarter than Holmes–or so they thought. Detective Lestrade, triumphant with the discovery of a bloody fingerprint on the wall, crows, “you must acknowledge that we have been a little in front of you this time, Mr. Holmes.”

Later, though, in a private moment with his friend Dr. Watson, Holmes says, “The fact is that there is one really serious flaw in this evidence to which our friend attaches so much importance.”

“Indeed, Holmes! What is it?”

“Only this: that I know that that mark was not there when I examined the hall yesterday.”

Gulp. At the end of the story Holmes once again finds the true killer. The thumbprint was a red herring, planted there to implicate the wrong man.

What’s the message for today’s officers? Here it is: Always document not just what you did, but what you found (or didn’t find). Writing “I looked for fingerprints” is meaningless unless you add “and found none.” Sometimes–as Holmes knew very well–what you don’t see is more important than what you do see. Write it down so that you’ll have evidence if you need it.

 

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Plurals of Names

As a police or corrections officer, you’re going to be writing people’s names in almost every report–an easy skill for most officers until they encounter plurals. It’s easy to write down what Cynthia Santos said or did. But what if you interview the whole family? There’s already an “s” at the end of Santos.

And simpler names can also present difficulties. How do you form the plural of Smith, Clark, Patterson, and similar names?

Help is on the way…along with a memory device.

Let’s start with words (not names) that end with “s” and see how they’re done:

boss     gas     kiss     virus     witness     iris

To form the plural, just add -es:

bosses     gases     kisses     viruses     witnesses     irises

Now let’s do the plurals of names ending in “s.” They’re done the same way: Just add –es.

Santos     Jones     Reynolds     Willis     Thomas     Lewis

Santoses     Joneses     Reynoldses     Willises     Thomases     Lewises

What about ordinary names that don’t end in “s”? Well, how do you form the plural of an ordinary word? You just add “s,” of course. Names work the same way:

Smith     Clark     Patterson     Riley     Brown

Smiths     Clarks     Pattersons     Rileys     Browns

For good measure, here are two tips:

  • If “Reynoldses” sounds odd to you (it does to me, even though it’s my family’s name!), just use the Reynolds family.
  • NEVER use an apostrophe to mean more-than-one. Apostrophes are for “of” expressions: Mr. Riley’s car was found in an empty lot two blocks away. CORRECT
 

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