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.

Woman or Women?

I’m beginning to think that many people have never written the word “woman” in their entire lives! Every female is “a women.” It’s a mistake I’m seeing more and more, even from professional writers.

There’s a “women” mistake in this online report about a sexual assault in…of all places…a courtroom.

Woman or women? Please…everyone…it’s not hard to tell the difference between these two words!

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Writing Reports with Confidence

You might be surprised that I’m writing a blog post about confidence today. Police officers tend to be concerned about grammar, spelling, punctuation, and similar writing issues. That’s where confidence comes from, right? Wouldn’t it make more sense for me to write a post about verb endings, pronoun cases, and apostrophes?

Of course I often cover those issues in this blog. But long experience has shown me there’s another reason why some police reports are poorly written: officers don’t always use their critical thinking skills to the fullest. That’s my topic today.

Imagine that you’re dispatched to an automobile accident near a McDonald’s. You interview the drivers and a witness. You learn that the driver of a Toyota Corolla turned left out of the parking lot. The driver of a Honda Accord was approaching and didn’t see the Corolla. There was a collision. No one was injured.

Now read and evaluate this excerpt. What’s your opinion?

I arrived on scene, driving a service vehicle and in full uniform. I parked my car facing south on Broad Street in front of Smiley’s Cafe. At that point I exited my car and walked towards the red Toyota Corolla with the intention of interviewing the driver before attending to the blue 2011 Honda Accord. When I saw the extent of the damage to the Corolla, I thought the driver might be injured, but that turned out to be a mistake. Apparently the seat belts and airbag prevented injuries.

If I were the supervisor, I would encourage the writer to review the principles that make for a good police report: short sentences, ordinary words, and essential facts.

Your training and experience will help you decide what information matters. That’s what police reports are all about. What will the insurance company want to know? If there’s a court hearing, what facts will be relevant?

In many reports, there’s usually no need to record that you drove a service vehicle and were wearing a full uniform. You probably won’t need to explain that you arrived, parked your car, exited your car, and walked to the scene. Nor would you record what you were thinking or planning to do.

Record the date, time, and address in the appropriate spaces on your laptop. You won’t need to repeat them. You’ll probably need to note whether you were dispatched or saw the accident yourself while you were on patrol.

Here are examples of sentences that record useful information:

I talked to Walter Connack. He was driving a 2017 red Toyota Corolla. He said he made a left turn out of the McDonald’s parking lot on Broad Street.

I talked to Susan Schmidt. She was driving a blue 2011 Honda Accord. She said she was heading north on Broad Street. She didn’t see Connack’s Corolla leave the parking lot.

I didn’t see any injuries. Connack and Schmidt told me they weren’t hurt and didn’t need medical attention. There were no other passengers.

I talked to a witness, Mary Sullivan. She said she saw Connack slowly leave the parking lot and start turning left. Schmidt’s car was going very fast.

Note that these are sample sentences, not a complete report. There will be other sentences about possible issues such as skid marks, vehicle damage, DUI concerns, driver’s licenses, vehicle registrations, and so on. Remember too that procedures and policies about police reports vary from agency to agency.

But one principle remains constant: the need to use your critical thinking skills to determine what information matters – and to record it concisely and accurately.

A cup of coffee with a message "Unlock your confidence"

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A Challenge for You

Aldon Smith is a former NFL football player who used to play for the 49ers and the Raiders. In 2015 Smith was involved in an automobile collision that made the news because he walked away from it without leaving identifying information.

Below is a press release from the Santa Clara Police Department that describes what happened. It provides an opportunity for you to think about the kinds of information required in a police report. (A press release is not, of course, a police report – it’s a fact sheet for newspapers, TV, and other media.)

So…after you read the press release, make a list of additional information you’d expect to see if you had a chance to read the actual police report. (Reminder: A police report has to be specific.) After you’re finished, scroll down to see my list and compare it to yours.

On Thursday, August 6, 2015 at about 8:46 PM, Santa Clara Officers were dispatched to Moreland Way to investigate a disturbance involving a collision. On arrival, officers learned Aldon Smith was parking his vehicle and collided with a parked vehicle. After the collision, Smith exited his vehicle and caused additional damage to the parked vehicle with his car door.

Smith then left the area not reporting the collision or leaving his identifying information at the scene. He later returned to the parking area where he was contacted by officers. Smith displayed objective symptoms of being under the influence of an alcoholic beverage. Officers administered a field sobriety test to Smith.

Additional information I would expect to find in the police report might include:

  • What actions by Smith caused the damage to the parked vehicle?
  • What did the damage look like?
  • Who saw Aldon Smith exit his car?
  • What were the signs that Smith was under the influence of an alcoholic beverage?
  • How did the police contact Smith when he returned?
  • How did he respond to the police?
  • Which field sobriety test was administered?
  • Which officer administered it?
  • What were the results?

Specific practices for writing police reports can vary from agency to agency. If your list is different, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong. Just be sure that you’re carefully following the guidelines for your agency.


Aldon_Smith_at_Super_Bowl_XLVII 2

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The Cookie Caper

Busy police officers should write their reports as efficiently as possible. Include every piece of information that’s needed – but don’t repeat yourself, and don’t use extra words.

Today I’m going to discuss a long report about some stolen cookies. In 2013, an employee at an Indiana Walmart was arrested for stealing some Oreo cookies while on the job.

You can read the report here. When you do, you’ll see that it’s professional, thorough, and objective. The officer is an excellent writer! It’s not easy to write a sentence as complicated as this one – without a single error:

Mr. Moreno advised that upon back-tracking the video footage from the location in which the wrapper was located, he was able to observe Ms. Wieners select the package of cookies, open it, and proceed to consume multiple cookies during her work shift without her paying for said items.

But the report could be written much more efficiently. The sentence I just quoted is 48 words long! There’s no need to make a report that complicated. My rewrite of that sentence is less than a third as long – 15 words:

CCTV footage showed her eating a package of Oreo cookies that she hadn’t paid for.

Here’s a longer excerpt, followed again by my rewrite:

Mr. Moreno advised that on 02-12-13 it came to his attention that an employee may have been involved in an internal theft incident(s). Moren stated that an opened/empty food wrapper (Oreo cookies) was located within the store and that a subsequent investigation, coupled with CCTV video footage, indicated that employee Jane Smith (DOB 01-01-99) was responsible. Mr. Moreno advised that upon back-tracking the video footage from the location in which the wrapper was located, he was able to observe Ms. Wieners select the package of cookies, open it, and proceed to consume multiple cookies during her work shift without her paying for said items. Mr. Moren advised that he proceeded with an internal investigation prior to my arrival, which included interviewing Ms. Winters during her normal work shift tonight. Mr. Moreno advised that during  his interview with Ms. Winters she not only admitted to the theft of the aforementioned cookies but also to numerous thefts occurring on weekly basis during her approximate seven month tenure at the Portage Wal-Mart store.  (169 words)

Here’s my version:

Mr. Moreno told me that on 2-12-13 he learned that an employee (Jane Smith, DOB 01-01-99) was stealing from the store. CCTV footage showed her eating a package of Oreo cookies that she hadn’t paid for. When he talked to her, she admitted to taking the cookies and stealing other items.  (51 words)

My version is 51 words; the original is 169 words – three times as long – and both versions have exactly the same information.

For example, the original (lengthy) report says that the theft came to Mr. Moreno’s attention – but doesn’t say how he learned about it. Did he notice missing items? Did a customer see Jane steal the cookies? Or did another employee notice something suspicious going on? That would be useful information – but it doesn’t appear in the report.

There’s no reason to say “the aforementioned cookies.” What other cookies could there be?

And why keep saying “Mr. Moreno advised”? He was the only one person who investigated the crime and talked to the officer.

There’s one more thing: Professionals should strive to get every detail right. If you check the Walmart website, you’ll see that the company does not use a hyphen in its name. The officer should have checked that fact instead of incorrectly writing Wal-Mart throughout the report.

two Oreo cookies

 

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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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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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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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