Analyze a Report

I always encourage officers and students to read as many police reports as possible. You will learn a lot!

Here’s a 2012 report published online that’s useful to read. The officer had a great deal of information to record, and some of it was confusing. The report is well handled!

Here’s what happened: In December 2012, the University of Texas suspended two football players in connection with a sexual assault allegation made by a 21-year-old San Antonio woman. Coach Mack Brown says the players were sent home for violating team rules and have not yet been charged with any crimes. Some observers have noted that the two players don’t completely match the descriptions of the suspects in the police report.

This unfolding story raises more questions than it answers. The alleged victim had been drinking before she invited the two men to her hotel room: Did she accurately remember what happened? Was a substance like Rohypnol secretly added to one of her drinks? Were the two suspended football players even involved in the case? 

But the report concisely and accurately organizes all the available facts about what happened at the scene and afterward, at the hospital.

Some comments from me:

1.  In the first sentence, “above listed location” is unnecessary: The location is already stated in the published report.

2.  The abbreviations V1 (for victim), 01 (for “other person”), and SP1 and SP2 (for suspects) are confusing to read and add nothing to the report. (Some agencies, however, use this practice to eliminate names when the report is released to the public.)

3.  The reference to a “strong odor of alcohol on her breath” may be challenged in court by an astute attorney who knows that alcohol is odorless. Use “alcoholic beverage” or “liquor” instead.

4.  One excellent feature of this report is its use of “I” (“I was dispatched,” “I contacted,” “I observed bruising”). These sentences are clear and easy to read, and they eliminate confusion about who did what at the scene.

5.  Passive voice appears in several places. Not a good idea! You need to state who performed each action: “Night CID was contacted, (SUP) was advised of the situation….”

6.  “Martini” is misspelled, and capital letters should not have been used for rape, night manager, vodka, and hotel. Red Bull is capitalized correctly in one sentence (it’s a brand name) but incorrectly written in lower case in another sentence.

7.  In American punctuation, periods and commas always go before quotation marks. For example, one of the alleged victim’s statements should have been punctuated this way: “I don’t quite remember.”

8. “Advised” is misused in one place in the report: “(SUP) was advised of the situation.” The sentence should read, “I told the supervisor about the situation.” Save “advise” for situations when you actually counsel someone: “I advised her to change the lock on her door.”

This officer deserves credit for writing a thorough and precise report. Time constraints in a busy shift may have gotten in the way of making minor edits and corrections.

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 Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from Amazon.com for the low price of $17.95. For a free preview, click on the link or the picture below.

Updated, with a new chapter on Writing Efficiently

“It will definitely help you with your writing skills.” – Joseph E. Badger, California Association of Accident Reconstructionists Newsletter

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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Snuck or Sneaked?

The English language is always changing. Usages that once were considered wrong gradually become accepted.

English teachers may not be happy about it. You may not be happy about it! But there are always changes right around the corner.

That means there’s always a transitional period when a word or usage is moving from the wrong column to the right column. That’s exactly what’s happening right now in the US with the word snuck. (It doesn’t seem to be an issue in other English-speaking countries, which still use the formally correct sneaked.)

Snuck is slang and inappropriate for police reports (unless you’re quoting someone’s exact words – then it’s okay). But snuck is showing up more and more often in professional writing. Soon – I predict – it will be accepted usage.

My advice to officers now is to stick to sneaked. Don’t be the first to adopt a language change! Here’s a story to illustrate my point.

A nine-year-old Minneapolis boy slipped past security, got onto a Delta flight, and flew to Las Vegas. Several hours went by before flight attendants realized the boy was a stowaway. Police investigated, and the boy was placed in a foster home.

Two news stories about the stowaway are worth a look. The first is from FOX 9 News in Minneapolis-St. Paul:

snuck

The second is from CNN:

sneakedIs “snuck” (which appears in the FOX 9 report) an acceptable substitute for “sneaked”?

The answer is simple: Not yet. Snuck is still nonstandard – similar to ain’t. Most language authorities still reject it.

Stick to sneaked in your police reports, at least for now!

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Don’t Let It Happen to You!

This is a true story from 2015. One February night, two young men used their keys to enter the family-owned store where they live with their parents and younger brother. Two San Diego police officers thought they were breaking in and called for a backup. A scuffle ensued, and one brother was punched repeatedly.

Both young men and their mother were arrested. Charges were later dropped.

OK, mistakes happen…but then things got worse. Surveillance video cameras proved that the officers lied in their police report about the encounter. Police spokesman Lt. Kevin Mayer confirmed the department was conducting an internal affairs investigation over the incident. The incident made national news.

A word to the wise: Use your police reports to document your professionalism and integrity. 

http://voiceofsandiego.org/all-narratives/police-misconduct/their-crime-walking-into-their-own-home/

CCTV security camera

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Write Efficiently!

Police officers are busy men and women! Reports need to be efficient. A report swollen with unnecessary words wastes the writer’s time – and wastes time for everyone who reads it.

Here’s an excerpt from a police repot about a fight at a bar. Can you rewrite it more efficiently? A suggested revision appears below.

I parked my service vehicle and entered Kelly’s Bar, whereupon I asked Jack Benson, the bartender, to tell me exactly what happened that caused him to call the police. Benson advised me that two men at the bar got into a fight. Perry Gallo offered to buy Linda Portman a drink, resulting in Larry Foster saying, “She’s with me” and punching Gallo with his left fist.

Here’s a suggested revision:

Jack Benson at Kelly’s Bar saw the fight. He told me that Perry Gallo offered to buy Linda Portman a drink. Larry Foster said “She’s with me” and punched Gallo with his left fist.

Some suggestions from me:

  • Avoid whereupon – it’s an old-fashioned word that doesn’t add anything useful.
  • Write short, simple sentences.
  • Use told or said. Save advised for giving actual advice.
  • Omit unnecessary fillers. You don’t have to explain that you parked your vehicle and entered the bar. If the bartender talked to you, of course you were at the bar!

efficiency meter

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Sign up for our FREE Police Writer e-Newsletter and receive a free copy of “10 Days to Better Police Reports,” ready to download! Your privacy is protected: We NEVER share emails with third parties.

 
 
 
____________________________________________________________

 Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from Amazon.com for the low price $17.95. For a free preview, click on the link or the picture below.

“It will definitely help you with your writing skills.” – Joseph E. Badger, California Association of Accident Reconstructionists Newsletter

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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Write a Police Report!

Here’s a true story about a theft. Your challenge: Write this up as a police report, with you as the investigating officer. You can scroll down to see how it’s done – but why not try writing it yourself first? It’s great practice!

Frank Smith called the police to report a stolen watch. A man pretending to be a vacuum cleaner salesman did a demonstration in Smith’s home. Then another man, who said he was the manager, also came into Smith’s home.

Later on, Smith realized that his expensive watch was missing. He’d left it in the kitchen, and then two men went in there to get paper towels to clean the vacuum they were demonstrating. Smith said the watch cost about $1,500, and he’d left it on the kitchen counter. 

The first man was white. About halfway through the demonstration a black male showed up and Patrick introduced him as his manager. The next day, around 4 p.m., he realized his watch was missing from the kitchen counter where he had left it.

The white male was described as 5’ 7” with a thin build. The black male was 6’, thin build, approximately 25 years of age. They were in a black Impala with tinted windows.

Did you try writing it yourself? If you did, here’s one version that you can use for comparison. How did you do?

I spoke to Frank Smith, who reported the theft of a watch valued at about $1,500. Smith told me that a white male who identified himself as Patrick came his home at around 6:45 p.m. June 8 and asked to demonstrate a vacuum cleaner he was selling. Smith allowed him inside. About halfway through the demonstration a black male showed up, and Patrick introduced him as his manager.

They finished the demonstration and asked for paper towels so they could clean the vacuum.

Smith said he told them to go in the kitchen to get the supplies. The next day, around 4 p.m., Smith realized his watch was missing from the kitchen counter where he had left it. He believes one of the subjects took the watch. He said the white male was 5’ 7” with a thin build. The black male was 6’ with a thin build, approximately 25 years of age. They were in a black Impala with tinted windows.

Here are a few comments from me:

  • You don’t need to give the address, the date, and the time you arrived at Smith’s home if you’ve typed them elsewhere on your laptop.
  • The original story jumps around and has some repetition. Don’t be sidetracked! Tell what happened, step-by-step. Don’t make the report harder than it has to be!
  • Avoid passive voice: “The white male was described as 5’ 7” with a thin build.” Who described the white male? Obviously it was Frank Smith. Say so! “Frank Smith said the white male was  5’ 7” with a thin build.”

How did you do?

Vacuum cleaner

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Third Person or First Person?

If you’re employed in the criminal justice field, you’ve probably listened to court testimony, and you even have been involved in a court hearing yourself. Based on that experience, which sentence are you more likely to hear in a courtroom?

This officer clocked the driver going 67 mph in a 50 mph zone.

I clocked the driver going 67 mph in a 50 mph zone.

The answer is obvious, isn’t it? “I clocked the driver” is what you’re going to hear in that courtroom. I and me are normal words that professionals use all the time.

But many officers wouldn’t dream of using I and me in a police report. Why? Do you think an officer’s professionalism, experience, and integrity are going to melt away if they write “I saw” or “I heard” in a report?

Of course not. Officers say “I saw” and “I heard” all the time in court hearings. But old habits can be hard to shake. There’s still an uneasy sense in some agencies that you can’t quite trust an officer who writes “I saw a knife on the table” or “I found a clear plastic bag of powder under the car seat.” “He must be lying!” “She can’t be trusted.”

It’s time to let go of that outdated thinking. Integrity is a choice and a commitment. You can’t make a man or woman honest just by forbidding them to write sentences with I and me.

It’s common sense, isn’t it?

Gold Police Badge

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A Domestic Violence Call

I often hear from officers who have questions about domestic violence calls. There are two issues that come up again and again:

“Part of the story happened before I got there, and then there was more after I arrived.”

“Often there are two versions of what happened.”

How do you handle these complications? One answer is to read a few domestic reports to get some ideas about how to organize them. Today I have a well-written police report about a domestic violence call for you to read.

A 77-year-old woman became angry because her 76-year-old husband was surfing a dating site. She slapped him, he pushed her to the ground, and she called 911.

There’s a lot to like about this report. It’s thorough, objective, and professional. The officer used first names (Edward, Sylvia). It’s written in plain English and employs active voice. Well done!

I’d  recommend a few changes. There’s a wordy section explaining how the officer identified the assailant: “I met with a male suspect identifying himself as….” The report goes on to explain that the suspect showed his driver’s license. That lengthy explanation would be helpful in a situation when someone might be trying to conceal his identity (a robbery, for example). It’s not necessary here.

There’s a slip-up when Mr. Aronson is referred to as “she”: “She freely admitted to pushing his wife…” (Even professional writers occasionally make minor errors like that one.)

“Advised” should be replaced with “told”: “Nurse Leisen who advised me….” Officers who get promotions that involve writing for the general public find they have to break that “advised” habit: civilians don’t understand it.

A few minor changes would give the report greater clarity. Of course the officer knows exactly what happened. But that small measure of extra clarity would be helpful to outsiders (reporters, attorneys). And the officer himself might need to go back over it in six months or so if there’s a court hearing.

Here’s what the officer wrote (I’ve changed “she” to “he”):

I spoke to Edward. He freely admitted to pushing his wife down on the ground after arguing with her. He did admit to being slapped by his wife. Sylvia stated that after 33 years of marriage I can not believe it.

“He did admit to being slapped by his wife” is puzzling. “Admit” implies wrongdoing – and Edward was the victim at that point, not the wrongdoer.

Here’s how the information could be rewritten for more clarity:

I spoke to Edward. He freely admitted to pushing his wife down on the ground after arguing with her. He said his wife, Sylvia, slapped him.

I spoke to Sylvia. She said, “After 33 years of marriage I cannot believe it.”

(Notice that the period goes inside the quotation marks!)

I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read the report yourself. Notice that the officer recorded what happened, step-by-step. There’s a new paragraph every time the story shifted. That simple advice can be a huge help in documenting domestic incidents – and other police calls.

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A New Year’s Resolution 3

Happy New Year!

You finished the champagne, watched the ball drop, sang “Auld Lang Syne,” and kissed all the special people in your life…

…and made a New Year’s resolution to improve your writing.

Now what?

This is the third post in a series to help you make 2020 the year when you grow as a writer. (You can read yesterday’s post here.) Here’s how to do it: make a realistic plan that you can live with for a whole year – and one that will yield results (preferably quickly).

Ready, set, go…here are some suggestions. Choose one (remember, you want to make your plan realistic! You can always do something extra later on if you want to).

1.  Recruit a writing partner.

Ask a friend or family member to read what you’ve written. The person doesn’t have to be an expert. The idea is that a fresh pair of eyes will spot things that you didn’t. My husband and I are both writers, and the input we give each other is invaluable.

Everyone (I include myself in this category) has difficulty looking at our writing objectively. When I read my own stuff a couple of days later, I’m always spotting missing words, repeated words, awkward spots, clumsy mistakes. (Advice: Always thank – warmly – your writing partner for any input you’re given, and never, never argue.)

2.  Learn something new every day.

This website can be a great tool – and it’s targeted to law-enforcement professionals like you. Or you could purchase a book and spend a couple of minutes every day reading. You can Google words, expressions, and rules that give you trouble. Advice: Keep your learning activity small and manageable, and do it every day.

3.  Try an issue-of-the-month approach.

You could start with apostrophes, for example. Throughout January, you’re going to do something connected with apostrophes every day.  You’ll find instructional material and practice exercises right on this website.

On days when you’re not doing a learning activity, you’re reviewing something you’ve written yourself with a sharp eye for the apostrophes. In February, it’s pronouns. In March, it’s Comma Rule 1….and so on, through the whole year. Look through the topics on the right side of the home page for this website – you’ll find lots of ideas.

4.  Or you can design a plan of your own.

The keys are to 1) keep it realistic and 2) stick with it.

Good luck, and best wishes for 2020!

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A New Year’s Resolution 2

In yesterday’s post, I encouraged you to make a resolution to sharpen your writing skills this year. Today I’ll give you some practical suggestions. Tune in tomorrow for a list of projects to choose from.

If you’re wise, you’ll choose only one or two items from tomorrow’s list. Here’s why: most New Year’s resolutions fade away well before January. In fact many of them don’t make it to January 7.

So what can you do to ensure that 2020 really is the year when you improve your writing skills?

The answer is to make your resolution as practical as possible: realistic, doable, manageable.

And that’s precisely where many aspiring writers turn down the wrong road. They resolve to plunge into an intensive study of traditional grammatical terminology: Adverbial conjunctions. Participial phrases. Sequence of tenses.

Not surprisingly, those good intentions quickly dry up or fade away. Why? Two reasons. First, traditional grammar is dull. Second (and more seriously), labeling parts of speech doesn’t make you a better writer – despite what you may have heard in school. Studying grammar will turn you into an expert grammarian, not an expert report writer.

What writers need help with most is usage – learning how to make quick and correct decisions about I/me, is/are, commas, semicolons, capital letters, and similar issues. The good news is that you can master English usage in a short time if you’re willing to devote a few minutes a day to reading and practice.

Here’s an example. How do you use a semicolon correctly? A grammarian will tell you that semicolons join two independent clauses that are lacking a conjunction.

Let’s make it simpler. A semicolon is like a period, but it’s followed by a lower-case letter.

That’s it. You’ve just learned everything you need to know about semicolons.

That’s it; you’ve just learned everything you need to know about semicolons.

You can use a semicolon almost anywhere. Just replace a period with a semicolon. Follow it with a lower-case letter.

You can use a semicolon almost anywhere. Just replace a period with a semicolon; follow it with a lower-case letter.

Easy, isn’t it? Are you feeling encouraged about your New Year’s Resolution? Let 2020 begin! See you tomorrow.

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A New Year’s Resolution 1

How about making 2020 the year for a big improvement in your writing skills?

I know what you’re thinking: I’d love to do that, but I don’t have time right now.

  • I don’t have time to study grammar
  • I’m too busy to take an English course
  • I have other priorities

What if I were to tell you that you can make a significant improvement in your writing this year with only a small investment of your time and energy? (And what if I added that effective writing should always be a high priority in the criminal justice field?)

It’s true.

As we count down to the new year, I’m going to be exploring suggestions for making you a better writer, beginning on January 1. There will be three posts (today, December 31, and January 1).

Today’s topic is the 80/20 Rule. Although it’s not specifically about writing, it can help you focus your energies on making that improvement this year.

The rule was invented by a Venetian economist named Vilfredo Pareto, who claimed that 80% of the value in 80% of the payoff is in 20% of the possibilities.

In practical terms, if you think of ten activities in any field (including writing), TWO of them are going to pay off big for you.

So here’s my challenge: Instead of weighing yourself down with 100, 10, or even 5 ways to improve your writing, focus on the 20% that will really make a difference.

Tune in tomorrow for some suggestions. Remember: You’re going to commit to only one or two of them.

See you tomorrow!champagne on New Year's Eve

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