The Benefits of Brevity

Today I’m going to ask you to evaluate a police report.

First, some background: In 2014, Ed FitzGerald was the Democratic candidate for governor of Ohio, running against Republican John Kasich.

At 4:30 a.m. on October 13, 2014, someone spotted FitzGerald and a woman in a nearly vacant parking lot. Police were called to investigate, found nothing wrong, and left. The story raised questions about FitzGerald’s character (he was married to another woman).

FitzGerald said the Republican party was adopting sleazy tactics to discredit him in the upcoming election.

Our focus here is on the police report. Suppose you were the officer’s supervisor. Would you ask for changes?

Here’s the FitzGerald report:

What did you decide?

I call this an effective report. It’s brief, objective, and complete. (Of course it would be better to have spelled out “reports”!) There’s no jargon.

Police reports shouldn’t read like novels. There’s no need for long, fancy sentences. Get the facts down, and you’re done.

Take a look at the first sentence: it doesn’t include the date, time, or location, or the officer’s name and ID number. You would already have typed them into the appropriate spaces in your laptop. There’s no need to do it again.

Your narrative should start with the beginning of the story – and that’s exactly how this report was written.

(Follow-up: Governor Kasich was re-elected.)

Edward Fitzgerald

                               Edward Fitzgerald

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Your Friday Quiz

These short quizzes can help you sharpen your writing skills. Answers appear below.

1. Correct the error in this sentence: I’m careful with my keys because I don’t want to loose them.

2. Correct the error in this sentence: We didn’t have to unlock the door, it was already open.

3. Where should you type in the date, time, and location of a police call?

a)  In the appropriate spaces on your laptop screen

b)  In the first sentence of your narrative

c)  In both places

ANSWERS

1. I’m careful with my keys because I don’t want to lose them. CORRECT

[Be careful with lose (it rhymes with “shoes”) and loose (it rhymes with “moose”). The word you need in this sentence is lose.]

2. We didn’t have to unlock the door. It was already open.  CORRECT

[Don’t join sentences with a comma. You need a period. Remember this handy rule: “If it starts with it, it’s a sentence.”]

3. Where should you type in the date, time, and location of a police call?

a)  In the appropriate spaces on your laptop screen

b)  In the first sentence of your narrative

c)  In both places

[Police officers are busy men and women. You don’t have time to retype information you’ve already entered onto your laptop. Your narrative should begin with your first action. The traditional opening sentence – time, date, and so on – isn’t needed in a modern police report.]

How did you do?

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Another Reason Police Reports Are Important

Police reports record facts that can be useful in investigating and prosecuting crimes. But there’s another reason they’re important, and it’s not as obvious: Police reports help track emerging criminal trends.

Ashley Southall is a law enforcement reporter focused on crime and policing in New York City, a beat she started working in 2016. She is also a writer for the New York Times.

She has noticed a trend that many people would applaud: Domestic violence reports are down in New York City. But one criminal justice official is worried.

“Those stats are very scary,” said Melinda Katz, the district attorney in Queens, where domestic violence arrests have fallen nearly 40 percent. “The problem we think people are having is how to notify us.”

Stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders may mean that domestic violence victims can’t get to a phone to notify the police. You can read the entire article at this link.

Please take a moment to reflect on the paperwork that consumes so much of your time! It’s an essential piece of a huge network of valuable information. You are important. What you do is important. Never lose sight of that!

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Your Friday Quiz

These Friday quizzes are a quick way to refresh your writing skills. Answers are posted below.

1. After studing last year’s crime statistics for our service area, our agency decided to change some of our procedures.

2. I saw a heavy frying pan under a chair in the living room, then I used my cell phone to photograph it.

3. Read the statements below. Which one is the best advice for a police writer?

a) Long sentences make a better impression than short ones.

b) Short sentences are timesavers.

c)  Police jargon testifies to your professionalism.

ANSWERS

1. After studying last year’s crime statistics for our service area, our agency decided to change some of our procedures.

[Be careful with the spelling of words like clarifying and testifying. You can hear the “y” at the end.]  

2. I saw a heavy frying pan under a chair in the living room. Then I used my cell phone to photograph it.

[Don’t use then + a comma to join two sentences. Use a period or a semicolon. Or you can use a comma and a FANBOYS word: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.]

3. Read the statements below. Which one is the best advice for a police writer?

a) Long sentences make a better impression than short ones.

b) Short sentences are timesavers.  CORRECT

c)  Police jargon testifies to your professionalism.

[Police officers are busy men and women. You need to write efficiently – not only to save time for yourself, but to help others outside of law enforcement who may reader your reports. Skip the jargon. Keep sentences crisp and short.]

How did you do?

On the job training OJT

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The Scoop on Poop

Here’s a press release about a police report. After you’ve read it, scroll down to see how the report could be written more effectively.

The officer took a report by phone from a male caller regarding a littering complaint. He advised that since moving into his residence a month ago, he has had several instances of the neighbor’s dog defecating in his driveway.
He advised that he has not elected to report it until today. He advised the neighbor was out walking her dog and noticed after they were away from his residence that there was a pile of feces in the driveway. He advised he confronted her and asked her to keep her dogs out of his yard. He advised he wanted this incident to be on record for possible future use.

Did you spot the problems? One is the repeated use of advised instead of told. “Advise” should be saved for “counsel” or “give advice”:

He told me that he left work at 5:05.  CORRECT

I advised him to see a doctor.  CORRECT

Inefficiency is another problem. There’s a lot of repetition. “He advised….He advised….He advised….” You can  make a list of the facts – a great timesaver.

And the repeated use of “he” is confusing: Is “he” the caller…or the dog? And why “residence”? Always use the simplest word. In this case, it’s home.

Here’s a more professional rewrite. Notice that it includes a timesaving list:

The officer took a littering complaint by phone from a male caller. The caller said that since moving into his home a month ago, the neighbor’s dog had been defecating in his driveway. The caller finally decided to report it today.

The caller said:

    • he saw his neighbor was  walking her dog
    • there was a pile of feces in his driveway
    • he asked her to keep her dog out of his yard
    • he wanted this incident to be on record

The press release is 109 words long. The rewrite is 82 words long. Which is a better use of the writer’s time?

please clean up after your dog

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Your Friday Quiz

These Friday quizzes offer you a quick brush-up on your report writing skills. Answers are posted below.

1. Correct the error in this excerpt from a police report:

Hansen said someone must have seen her put the key under a flower pot. Although, she didn’t see anyone on the sidewalk when she unlocked the door.

2.  Which information could be listed in a police report, rather than written in sentences?

a) Returning a wandering Alzheimer’s patient to his home

b) Reporting the items stolen during a break-in

c) Checking a driver’s license and car registration during a traffic stop

d)  All of the above

3.  Which word choices are better for a police report? Choose one word from each pair:

initiate/begin                                                 next/subsequent     

the abovementioned suspect/Johnson     now/currently

ANSWERS

1. Here’s the corrected version:

Hansen said someone must have seen her put the key under a flower pot although she didn’t see anyone on the sidewalk when she unlocked the door.

Don’t put a comma after although. Although is a word that begins an extra idea. Make sure you attach it to a real sentence.

You could also rewrite the sentence like this: 

Hansen said she didn’t see anyone on the sidewalk when she unlocked the door. But someone must have seen her put the key under a flower pot.

2.  Which information could be listed in a police report, rather than written in sentences?

a) Returning a wandering Alzheimer’s patient to his home

b) Reporting the items stolen during a break-in  CORRECT

c) Checking a driver’s license and car registration during a traffic stop

d)  All of the above

Click here to learn more about timesaving lists in police reports.

3.  Which word choices are better for a police report? Choose one word from each pair:

initiate/begin                                                 next/subsequent     

the abovementioned suspect/Johnson     now/currently

Police reports need to be readable and efficient. Choose plain words whenever you can.

The word "Quiz"

 

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A Domestic Violence Report

Officers often tell me they’re worried about grammar. They don’t understand gerunds, clauses, and other grammar terminology. How can they be effective writers without that knowledge?

My answer is always that they already know grammar. They’ve been creating sentences all their lives!

What I most often see missing in reports is something they may not have thought about: critical thinking. They may need an experienced officer to show them what’s needed in a report – and what can be omitted.

Efficiency is all about critical thinking. You may be overloaded with information after making an arrest. You need to decide what’s necessary – and omit the rest.

Today I have an example from a domestic violence report:

Upon arriving at the Bethesda West Emergency Room, I met with Nurse Leisen who advised me of the following.

She overheard a male subject stating that he had pushed his wife causing her to fall breaking her hip after arguing with her. I met with a male subject identifying himself by his Florida driver’s license as Edward A. Aronson in room 115.

It’s not necessary say that you arrived at the emergency room and met with the nurse. If you record her statement, it’s obvious that you were there and talking to her. (And please don’t use advised. The nurse wasn’t giving you advice. She was telling you about a possible crime.)

Sometimes suspects (and victims too) give false ID’s. It can be important to show that you did the professional thing and verified their identification. But a hospital patient and her husband are unlikely to fall into that category.

To repeat: Use your critical thinking skills to decide what information is necessary.

Here’s a rewrite that’s more efficient:

I was dispatched to Bethesda West Hospital. Nurse Leisen told me she overheard a man saying he broke his wife’s hip during an argument.

I met with Edward A. Aronson in room 115.

The original version is 62 words. The revision is 33 words – and has all the information needed. Which version is a better use of a busy officer’s time?

An angry man with clenched fist about to commit domestic violence

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An Excellent Police Report

Here’s a police report from my files that’s worth reading.

A police department investigated possible wrongdoing in the code enforcement office. After a lengthy investigation, police concluded that no crime was committed, even though the office still couldn’t account for $50 that was missing.

The investigation was triggered by a complaint from an electrician who suspected that a code enforcement employee had overcharged him and pocketed the extra money.

The detective who interviewed the electrician did a fine job. (The electrician also provided a clear, coherent account of what he thought happened, along with a well-organized set of supporting documents.)

What’s noteworthy about the detective’s report? He used straightforward sentences and short paragraphs. The report is thorough, objective, and professional. What’s especially impressive is his use of a timesaving list. (Think of how long it would have taken to write each item as a complete sentence!)

Mr. Zewe provided this detective with the following documentation:

  • A timeline detailing his electrical license renewal
  • A copy of his cash payment receipt
  • A copy of the envelope that his license was mailed in
  • A copy of his electrical license from the City of Kenner
  • A 2 page copy of Mrs. Gautreaux’s City of Kenner employment application
  • A 47 page copy of federal court papers regarding Mrs. Gautreaux’s conviction
  • A list of city employees and their telephone numbers who may have information
  • regarding possible activity
  • A copy of a two page letter addressed to Mayor Yenni from Jack Zewe
  • A copy of a letter to Mayor Yenni from Councilman Carroll
  • A copy of a letter to Councilman Carroll from Mayor Yenni

Could it be improved? Yes (of course that’s true of most writing!). Here are some suggestions:

  • Use “I” instead of “this detective”
  • Simplify some of the terminology. For example, write “I phoned Mr. Zewe but didn’t reach him” is better than “This detective attempted to contact Mr. Zewe telephonically and did not receive an answer.”
  • Omit some of the wordiness. For example “Based on the above facts” is unnecessary.
  • A list could be used for much of Jack Zewe’s statement.
  • Use “told” instead of “advised,” which should be saved for actual advice. For example: “Mr. Zewe advised that he believes…” could be rewritten “Mr. Zewe said that he believes…” or (more efficiently) “Mr. Zewe believes…”

If you’re a real stickler (a good thing!), you might want to make the numbers consistent. The report mixes words (two) and numerals (2, 47). (A good practice is to spell out numbers one through nine and use numerals for higher numbers.) Hyphens are needed in several places: A 47-page copy, a two-page copy.

Overall, however, this is an excellent report.

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Your Friday Quiz

Here’s a quick quiz that will help you review some common issues in report writing. Answers appear below.

1. Which police report will require you to establish probable cause?
a)  You’re dispatched to a bar to break up a fight
b)  You intervene when you see a man hitting a woman in a parking lot
c)  A store manager is holding a shoplifter in her office
d)  All of the above

2. Which sentence is more appropriate for a police report?
a)  The suspect was driven to jail.
b)  Officer Gabriel drove the suspect to jail.
c)  Both are correct.

3.  Can you find the mistake in this sentence?

If our softball team wins its third championship, where all going to Frank’s Grill to celebrate.

ANSWERS

1. Which police report will require you to establish probable cause?
a)  You’re dispatched to a bar to break up a fight
b)  You intervene when you see a man hitting a woman in a parking lot  CORRECT
(This is a Type 4 report. You need to establish probable cause any time you’re the one making the decision to get involved in a situation.)
c)  A store manager is holding a shoplifter in her office
d)  All of the above

2. Which sentence is more appropriate for a police report?
a)  The suspect was driven to jail.
(There are two problems here. Passive voice is outdated: don’t use it in a modern police report. More seriously, this sentence doesn’t state who drove the suspect. What if there’s a question later on?)
b)  Officer Gabriel drove the suspect to jail.  CORRECT
c)  Both are correct.

3.  Can you find the mistake in this sentence?

If our softball team wins its third championship, we’re all going to Frank’s Grill to celebrate.  CORRECT

Where is the wrong word. This sentence requires we’re (“we are”).

Incidentally, its is correct. Use its like his – no apostrophe. THINK: “his third championship” – “its third championship.”

How did you do?

Quiz design

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Four Types of Reports

Police officers sometimes feel overwhelmed by all the writing they have to do. Every situation seems different. How can you possibly learn how to write every type of police report – and do it well?

Help is on the way!

1.  The brevity and efficiency requirements for police reports are your best friends. Make every word count. Write short, crisp sentences. Compare the versions below:

Johnson expressed that there were no stolen items on his person, whereupon this officer initiated a pat down, subsequently proving Johnson wrong by finding three expensive items in his pockets, i.e. two watches and a designer tie.  WORDY

Johnson told me he hadn’t stolen anything. I patted him down. I found two expensive watches and a designer tie in his pockets.  EFFICIENT

2.  Learn the four types of reports. The good news is that they’re like a staircase: each type builds on the previous type.

Type 1 is the simplest: facts only. Type 2 adds an investigation (a search or talking to witnesses, for example).

Type 3 adds action by the officer (such as a chase or breaking up a fight). Type 4 is initiated by the officer: instead of being dispatched, you make the decision to get involved in a situation.

Once you learn to think in Types (“Is it a 1 or a 3?”), you’ll feel confident about writing your reports. Type 4 always requires probable cause, for example.

You can download a simple chart explaining the four types at this link. If you’re an instructor or administrator, feel free to share the chart. Many officers say it’s a great help!

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