Tag Archives: report writing

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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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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Some Advice

There are several good reasons why you should avoid jargon in your police and corrections reports: It’s not professional, it might confuse outsiders who read your reports, and the jargon habit can be hard to break when you go on to other forms of writing.

The word advise is an example of jargon that can create problems. Many officers use “advise” as a synonym for “tell”: Barlow advised me that he’d been at work when the break-in occurred. No problem, right? Other officers know you mean “Barlow told me.”

But what happens if you use advise this way when you’re not writing a police report? For example, suppose you’re writing a research paper for college, or an article for a police publication, or a press release for a local newspaper, or a supervisory report.

Advise doesn’t mean “tell” (check the dictionary!) “Tell” means “tell,” and “advise” means “to give advice.” A college professor, newspaper editor, or local official is going to be puzzled if you give the impression that advice was given when actually nothing of that sort happened.

(Can you tell that I just read a college paper full of misused “He advised” and “I advised” sentences? Sigh.)

Here’s a little quiz to make sure you know how to use advise correctly. Change advised to told where necessary. Answers appear below.

1.  I advised Inmate Jones that he was assigned to the morning shift.

2.  I advised Inmate Jones to improve his negative attitude.

3.  I advised Mary Smith to see a doctor about the cuts on her arms.

4.  Smith advised me that her ex-boyfriend was responsible for the cuts.

5.  Chief Simmons advised us that he would be on vacation the first half of July.

6.  Officer Donaldson’s doctor advised him to limit his cholesterol intake.

7.  I already advised the Assistant Warden about the broken alarm in Baker Dorm.

8.  I’m glad I listened to Chief Johnson when he advised me to continue my education right after high school.

9.   The Chaplain advised us that there would be a special religious service Sunday evening.

10. I’m glad my guidance counselor in high school advised me to take a keyboarding course.

Here are the answers:

1.  I told Inmate Jones that he was assigned to the morning shift.

2.  I advised Inmate Jones to improve his negative attitude.  (giving advice)

3.  I advised Mary Smith to see a doctor about the cuts on her arms.  (giving advice)

4.  Smith told me that her ex-boyfriend was responsible for the cuts.

5.  Chief Simmons told us that he would be on vacation the first half of July.

6.  Officer Donaldson’s doctor advised him to limit his cholesterol intake.  (giving advice)

7.  I already told the Assistant Warden about the broken alarm in Baker Dorm.

8.  I’m glad I listened to Chief Johnson when he advised me to continue my education right after high school.  (giving advice)

9.   The Chaplain told us that there would be a special religious service Sunday evening.

10. I’m glad my guidance counselor in high school advised me to take a keyboarding course.  (giving advice)


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And the Answer Is… (A Coordinate Conjunction Quiz)

Simple words often create the most confusion for writers. The word and is a good example. When do you use a comma, and when do you omit it? Answer: Use the comma when you have a sentence on both sides of and. Otherwise omit it.
And remember that the comma goes before and, never after it. (To learn more, click here and read about Comma Rule 2.
This rule applies to every coordinate conjunction: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). Try placing the commas yourself. Try this quiz, and then scroll down for the answers.
1.  Inmate Greene grabbed the garbage can lid and banged it on the mess hall door.
2. I talked to Jerry Whitman and Officer Barthes questioned his wife.
3.  The policy doesn’t make sense and we shouldn’t implement it.
4.  The bright lights disoriented Jeffords and the loud noise confused him.
5.  Myers failed both sobriety tests and I smelled beer on his breath.
6.  The shelter is overcrowded and does not provide enough services for domestic violence victims.
ANSWERS
1.  Inmate Greene grabbed the garbage can lid and banged it on the mess hall door.
2. I talked to Jerry Whitman, and Officer Barthes questioned his wife.  TWO SENTENCES
3.  The policy doesn’t make sense, and we shouldn’t implement it.  TWO SENTENCES 4.  The bright lights disoriented Jeffords, and the loud noise confused him.  TWO SENTENCES
5.  Myers failed both sobriety tests, and I smelled beer on his breath.  TWO SENTENCES
6.  The shelter is overcrowded and does not provide enough services for domestic violence victims.

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Notetaking Tips

Taking accurate and complete notes 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.

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. Click here to learn more about types of reports.

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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Plain English Tips

As a criminal justice professional, you strive to write efficiently and clearly. Here are some words and expressions that can (and should!) be simplified:

Avoid

Use Instead

utilize

use

single-click

click

for the purpose of

to

in the event that

if

if or when

if

the month of November

November

blue in color

blue

large in size

large

pull-down menu

menu

scream and yell

scream

brand-new

new

lower down

lower

PIN number

PIN

preplan

plan

preregister

register

For more suggestions about clarity and efficiency, go to www.PlainLanguage.gov.


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