Category Archives: police reports

Writing tips, English usage and grammar review, and news stories for officers and other criminal justice professionals who deal with police reports.

A Christmas Gift

Today we’re going to look at a well-written report from Christmas Eve in 2011. Amanda Blocker was a dancer at the Gold Nugget Lounge in Florida. A customer promised to leave $40 for her as a gift. But after Blocker found the money on the bar and took it home, she felt guilty and called the police. They told her no one had made a complaint about the money.

Here’s the report:

The report is concise and objective. I have two suggestions:

1. The first two sentences could be more efficient. “Made contact” is vague. Did you talk to her in person? Phone her? Text her? And you can omit “upon arrival.” If you talk to her at the address, it’s clear you had arrived there.

I responded to X Ave. Upon arrival I made contact with Amanda Blocker. WORDY

At X Ave I talked to Amanda Blocker.  BETTER

2.  Don’t use the jargonish advised when you mean told. Save advised for actual advice:

I advised her no one had made a complaint about the money.  JARGON

I told her no one had made a complaint about the money.  BETTER

One sentence in this report especially impressed me:

When she arrived home, she felt bad and thought she had stolen the money.  CORRECT

Felt bad is correct English! (You feel bad, feel happy, feel sad, and so on. You don’t feel badly, feel happily, or feel sadly.)  This officer got it right.

two $20 bills

____________________________________________________________

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 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.

 

Share

A Sexual Abuse Report

Sexual abuse of children is in the news again. The Boy Scouts of America recently announced that it may have to mortgage a large ranch in order to pay legal fees connected to past sexual abuse of Boy Scouts. The Roman Catholic Church is still facing questions about its policies for dealing with the problem. Other religious groups are reporting similar issues.

Today I’m going to look at a 2009 report about a St. Louis Catholic priest named Father Kevin Hederman, He was suspended from the priesthood after he was sued for allegedly abusing a St. Louis teenager. Later, however, the Vatican cleared Father Hederman of the charges. You can read more here.

This is a sad case – but it is also a useful reminder of the importance of good police reporting. The report (which you can read here) is objective and thorough.

Several word-for-word statements from Father Hederman suggest he may have been feeling guilty. His first question to the investigating officer is a telling one: “Is it something sexual I did?” And his second question – “Will I need a lawyer?” – also sounds as if sexual abuse was on his mind.

If you’re looking for a model of an effective report, read this one.

But I would recommend one change:  Avoid using advise when you mean “tell” or “say.” Save advise for times when you counsel someone: “I advised her to see a doctor about the cut.”

In the sentence below (quoted from the police report), notice that “advise” is used in two ways: to tell (incorrect) and to counsel (correct). (When you mean “tell,” say so!)

I advised Hederman that when we met, I would indeed be advising him of his rights per Miranda and that it was his right to have counsel with him if he so desired.

The sentence should read:

I told Hederman that when we met, I would indeed be advising him of his rights per Miranda and that it was his right to have counsel with him if he so desired.

Overall, however, it is an excellent report.

Sexual abuse of children

 

Share

Fixing Pronoun Problems

Do you know how to use pronouns? They are little words like he, she, it, we, you, and they. Mistakes with pronouns often show up in police reports. They’re such small and familiar words that we tend to be careless with them.

For this review, I’m going to use a 2017 incident report about Justin Bieber. He was the subject of a Cleveland police report about an alleged fight in Cleveland hotel in 2017. No charges were filed.

The incident report is available at this link: https://www.scribd.com/document/339434580/Bieber-Incident-Report

The report is thorough and objective, and overall the writing is good. Read the excerpts below. Can you spot the pronoun problems – and do you know how to fix them? (Hint: look for the words he and him – and think about clarity.)

VICTIM STATED HIM AND A COUPLE OF FRIENDS WENT TO THE WESTERN HOTEL VICTIM NOTICED A BLACK VEHICLE WAS BEHIND THEM UPON THEIR ARRIVAL AT THE BEST WESTERN VICTIM STATED ALL HIS FRIENDS WENT INSIDE THE HOTEL BESIDE ONE OF VICTIM’S FRIEND AND HIM.

VICTIM STATED WHEN THEY CAME OUTSIDE AFTER ENDING THE NIGHT, VICTIM STATED THAT THE DEFENDER JUSTIN BEIBER TOOK OFF HIS GLASSES FROM THE VICTIM PERSON AND THE VICTIM TOOK A PICTURE OF HIM WITH HIS GLASSES.

My comments:

  • The first thing I noticed was missing periods – and Bieber’s name was misspelled. As the report continued, the periods began to appear. Clearly the officer knows how to use them, and the problem was probably time pressure. Solution: slow down, reread what you’ve written, and make corrections.
  • The next thing I noticed was a pronoun mistake. Can you find it?

VICTIM STATED HIM AND A COUPLE OF FRIENDS WENT TO THE WESTERN HOTEL

Is “him and a couple of friends went” correct – or should it be “he and a couple of friends went”? There’s an easy way to tell: just shorten the sentence. 

VICTIM STATED HIM AND A COUPLE OF FRIENDS WENT TO THE WESTERN HOTEL  X

VICTIM STATED HE WENT TO THE WESTERN HOTEL    √  

VICTIM STATED HE AND A COUPLE OF FRIENDS WENT TO THE WESTERN HOTEL  √ 

I call this the “thumb rule”: Use your thumb to cover the extra words, and you’ll instantly hear the correct word.

Now let’s look at a clarity issue. “He” and “him” are confusing words in this report because there are two males – Bieber and the victim:

VICTIM STATED THAT THE DEFENDER JUSTIN BEIBER TOOK OFF HIS GLASSES FROM THE VICTIM PERSON AND THE VICTIM TOOK A PICTURE OF HIM WITH HIS GLASSES.  X

Whose glasses? A useful trick is to break a complicated sentence into two shorter ones. Notice that this rewrite is easier to understand:

THE VICTIM STATED THAT BIEBER GRABBED HIS GLASSES AND PUT THEM ON. THE VICTIM USED HIS PHONE TO TAKE A PICTURE OF BIEBER WEARING THE GLASSES.  √  

You can download and print a free handout about pronouns by clicking here.

Share

A Turkey and a Stabbing

Busy officers agree that they need to be efficient when they’re writing a report. But how do you know what’s necessary and what can be omitted? Looking at an actual police report (in this case, a stabbing after a Thanksgiving dinner) can help you learn some useful guidelines.

This story (from the Smoking Gun website) began when Taz Miller took a plate of leftovers home from a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by his grandmother. Christopher Teer (Miller’s mother’s live-in boyfriend) found the plate in the refrigerator and ate the turkey. Miller got angry and stabbed Teer.

If you read the report yourself, you might notice that it reads more like a novel than a brisk, get-to-the-point police report. Here are some suggestions for making it more efficient and professional:

1.  The sentence “I was requested to respond” is unnecessary, since the officer already had stated how he was dispatched to the scene.

2.  It’s not necessary to keep repeating, “Ms. Fuller stated.” You can save time by putting all her information into one paragraph that begins “Ms. Fuller told me the following.”

3.  Introductory sentences can often be minimized. For example, it’s not necessary to write, “I first spoke with Mr. Teer.” Just go ahead and write what he told you. If you’re careful about chronology in your report, it will be obvious that he was the first person you interviewed in the hospital. Similarly in a later paragraph, it’s not necessary to introduce your list of Teer’s injuries by writing, “I observed several wounds and abrasions on Mr. Teer.” Just write your list: “I observed on his upper arm….”

4.  This report often confuses “advise” (to give advice) with “tell.” Save “advise” for situations when you actually counsel someone (“I advised her to see a doctor about the cut”). If you’re promoted to a position that requires professional writing for a non-police audience, misusing “advise” this way may confuse readers and damage your credibility.

5.  Bullet style is a great timesaver. Here’s how bullets could have been used in one section of this report:

Ms. Fuller told me the following:

  • Taz brought home a plate of food from his grandmother’s Thanksgiving dinner
  • Christopher ate the turkey
  • Taz and Christopher argued
  • Christopher apologized
  • She saw Taz take a large knife from a kitchen drawer
  • Taz went to Fuller’s bedroom and stabbed Christopher
  • She tried to stop Taz by grabbing his upper arm

6.  Repeating numbers—“two (2) puncture wounds”—is an outdated practice that doesn’t add anything useful to the report.

An important reminder: Report-writing practices vary from agency to agency. It may take time before some supervisors recognize the usefulness of modern writing practices—bullet style, for example. Always adhere to the principles of your agency, and resolve to update them, if appropriate, when you attain a leadership position and can institute more efficient practices.

Happy Thanksgiving

Share

Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause

Recently someone asked for help in understanding the difference between reasonable suspicion and probable cause. I went through my files and found a news story that helps explain the difference. You’ll read about it in a moment.

First let me make a few points:

  • Policies and practices vary. Make sure you’re thoroughly familiar with your agency’s guidelines.
  • Definitions vary, and they can be hard to pin down in a particular situation. An administrator can be a good resource if you have questions.
  • In general, “reasonable suspicion” is something that seems questionable to you. It gives you limited rights as an officer. In general, you can ask questions and make a limited search.
  • Probable cause is harder to prove. You have to have specific evidence – facts – to show there’s a reasonable chance a crime was being committed.
  • You need to know what “reasonable” and “probable” mean in your agency, and what a “limited search” might involve.

*  *  *  * 

Officer Aaron Smith of Montgomery, Alabama was charged with murder in the February 25, 2018 death of Greg Gunn, a 58-year-old male who lived in a high-crime neighborhood.

Gunn, who was black, was walking home from a card game at 3 AM. When Smith (who is white) stopped Gunn and began a body search, Gunn ran. Smith used his stun gun and a metal baton to subdue Gunn, who died a few yards from his front door. Smith initially said that Gunn had attacked him but has backed off from that claim. You can read the entire story at this link: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2016/03/03/alabama-police-officer-charged-in-shooting-death-58-year-old-man.html.

This case underlines the difference between “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause.” Smith’s attorney, Mickey McDermott, said Gunn’s presence in the neighborhood at 3 AM was reason enough for Officer Smith to stop and question him.

“He’s a suspect of being in a high-crime area,” the attorney said. “He’s in a high-crime area, at three o’clock in the morning, dressed in all black. Can you not draw those conclusions?”

But is “reasonable suspicion” sufficient justification for the use of deadly force? State Bureau of Investigation Agent Jason DiNunzio doesn’t think so.

This case points to the necessity for understanding the difference between “reasonable suspicion” (which allows questioning and a limited search) and “probable cause” (which permits a more thorough search and possible detention). Officers need to be thoroughly familiar with the definitions, laws, and policies for their jurisdiction.

probable cause

Share

A Punch in the Face

On August 30, a police officer from the Lawton Police Department punched a suspect in the face. The incident is being investigated. You can read the story here: https://www.kswo.com/2019/09/03/lpd-releases-police-report-punching-incident/

And you can read the police report here: https://www.lawtonok.gov/sites/default/files/publications/2019-09/PoliceReport_8302019.pdf

It is worth reading! The sentences are clear and professional. The officer writes in normal English – no jargon. Everything is straightforward: no opinions, no unnecessary repetition.

Here’s an excerpt:

I turned my attention to Porter. I immediately observed that he was sweating profusely, and breathing heavily. Porter began to flex his upper body at me, growl, and yell at me. I was able to see veins in Porters’ neck bulging and spit flying from his mouth as he growled.

It’s a pleasure to read such an excellent report. I hope you’ll take a moment to read it yourself.

Share

A Defense Attorney’s Point of View

Your primary goal as a law enforcement professional is to learn how to think, react, and behave like a police officer.

But it’s also useful to know how other professionals think – especially the ones who might be looking for holes in your police reports.

You can click here to read a short post by an attorney who reads police reports in order to help clients win cases.

He makes a useful point: If, say, an accident victim is unconscious, of course that person’s viewpoint will be missing from the police report. How can an officer conduct an interview with someone who can’t hear the questions?

But that means important information might be missing from your report. Consider talking to an EMT or witness at a crime scene and including their information in your report. If there’s a court hearing that additional information could make a huge difference.

It’s important to remember that something you miss during a busy shift can open the door to a court case.

Defense lawyer in court

Share

A Problem in Salt Lake City

In October 2018, student athlete Lauren McCluskey was killed by a registered sex offender on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City. After McCluskey’s death, stories came out about the alleged mistreatment of students and police officers by the university’s police department. Police Chief Dale Brophy eventually left.

Recently the Salt Lake Tribune conducted an independent investigation into procedures for investigating sexual assault at the University of Utah. You can read about the investigation at this link:  https://www.sltrib.com/news/education/2019/11/03/how-university-utahs

Some of the problems could be seen in police reports, which showed there were delays in contacting victims and incomplete investigations.

Officers and students have testified about “blame the victim” interviews by officers and a culture in the police department that demeaned women.

The University has been searching for new public safety leadership.

Share

Stress Management

Law enforcement careers are stressful. While you’re busy protecting the public, you need to think about guarding your own health.

Amaury Mercado has compiled some excellent suggestions based on his long experience as a police officer. Here’s a link to his article.

Share