Use Active Voice

I read lots of reports, and – count on it – no matter how good the writer is, I know I’m going to read a @#$%! sentence like this near the end:

The evidence was logged into the Evidence Room.  PASSIVE VOICE

The suspect was transported to the County Jail.  PASSIVE VOICE

An ambulance was called to take the suspect to to MeadowBrook Hospital.
PASSIVE VOICE

It seems that hardly any officer ever bothers to mention who logged in the evidence, who drove the patrol car with the suspect inside, or who called for the ambulance:

Officer Callahan logged the knife and bloodstained shirt into the Evidence Room.  ACTIVE VOICE

I drove Jones to the County Jail.  ACTIVE VOICE

Officer Schmidt called an ambulance to take Wilson to Meadow Brook Hospital.  ACTIVE VOICE

Passive voice is…dumb. Why on earth would a police report omit the identity of the person who performed an important action? But officers do it every day.

I’ve heard of embarrassing moments in court when the defense attorney wants to question the officer who drove the suspect to jail or performed some other action on the scene.

The officer who’s testifying just sits there in embarrassed silence. There were several officers at the scene. Eight months have gone by, and she can’t remember who did what. The police report she wrote eight months ago is no help: All it says is “The suspect was driven to County Jail.”

Why put yourself into that position? Use active voice.

I know a couple of administrators who reject any police report that has passive voice sentences. Good for them! If a report omits essential information, it has to be rewritten. It’s that simple.

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A Bag of Cocaine

On March 26, a suspect in the back seat of a police car swallowed a bag of cocaine – including the plastic bag. You can read the story here.

Here’s the report:

AFTER BEING ARRESTED FOR PROVIDING A FALSE NAME TO LEO AND A WARRANT, THE DEFENDANT WAS PLACED INTO THE BACK OF A POLICE CAR. WHILE IN THE BACK OF THE POLICE CAR THE DEFENDANT IS SHOWN ON CAMERA EATING A BAG OF DRUGS HE PULLED FROM HIS BUTT. THE DEFENDANT PROCEEDS TO EAT THE BAGGY WITH THE DRUGS. THE DEFENDANT DENIED EATING THE BAGGY.  DEPUTY LANEY SWABBED THE DEFENDANTS MOUTH WHICH TESTED POSITIVE FOR COCAINE. THE BAGGY IS BEING SENT TO THE LAB FOR TESTING.

I have some comments:

  • The past tense of spit is spat:

THE DEFENDANT SPIT THE BAGGY OUT IN FRONT OF DEPUTY LANEY.  INCORRECT

THE DEFENDANT SPAT THE BAGGIE OUT IN FRONT OF DEPUTY LANEY.  CORRECT

  • Baggy means loose: He wore baggy pants and a torn shirt. The word needed for this report is baggie.
  • Defendants mouth needs an apostrophe: defendant’s mouth
  • Much of the writing is excellent – straightforward and professional. You should strive to write all your sentences that way! Compare the sentences below:

THE DEFENDANT DENIED EATING THE BAGGIE.  DEPUTY LANEY SWABBED THE DEFENDANT’S MOUTH WHICH TESTED POSITIVE FOR COCAINE.  (CORRECT)

WHILE IN THE BACK OF THE POLICE CAR THE DEFENDANT IS SHOWN ON CAMERA EATING A BAG OF DRUGS HE PULLED FROM HIS BUTT. THE DEFENDANT PROCEEDS TO EAT THE BAGGY WITH THE DRUGS.  (NEEDS REVISING)

Here’s my version:

THE SERVICE VEHICLE CAMERA SHOWED THE DEFENDANT PULLING A PLASTIC BAG FILLED WITH WHITE POWDER FROM HIS RECTUM. THEN HE ATE THE BAGGIE AND WHITE POWDER.      CORRECT

A clear plastic bag of cocaine

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Your Friday Quiz

Here are three sentences from police reports. Two of them are good, professional sentences. But one sentence is missing an important piece of information. Can you spot the sentence that has a problem?

  1. Sitnikov was patted down, and a small plastic bag containing white powder was found in his left back pocket.
  2. Carson told me he didn’t hear anything unusual Tuesday evening.
  3. When I walked up to the counter, I recognized the woman standing in line in front of me.

The problem sentence is #1. Who patted Sitnikov down and found the plastic bag? The sentence doesn’t say. That omission could be a problem if there’s a court hearing later on.

Here’s a better version of the sentence:

  1. I patted Sitnikov down, and in his left back pocket I found a small plastic bag containing white powder .  BETTER

the word "quiz"

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The Jacob Nix Police Report

Last October, a major league pitcher got drunk and illegally entered a house through a doggie door. Jacob Nix from the San Diego Padres and a friend, Thomas Cosgrove, told police they thought they were entering Nix’s house.

The homeowner called police and kicked Nix in the face before help arrived. Police charged both Nix and Cosgrove with criminal trespassing.

You can read the entire story here and the probable cause statement here.

It’s a good professional report, but it could be better. I’m going to examine two sentences today:

The defendant was confronted by V1 who engaged in a physical altercation with him by kicking the defendant one time in the face. During this time, the co-defendant T. Cosgrove reached into the doggie door in an attempt to pull the defendant out.

Some comments:

  • There’s no need to use the terms V1 and co-defendant. The report is easier to read if you just use their names. (Remember, many busy people – attorneys, judges, reporters, and so on – may be reading your police reports.)
  • A physical altercation is a fight. Use clear, plain words.
  • “During this time” is unnecessary. Make your reports as brief as possible.

Here’s my version:

The homeowner kicked Nix in the face. T. Cosgrove reached into the doggie door and tried to pull Nix out.

The original version is 43 words; mine is 21. Which do you think is a better use of a police officer’s valuable time?

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A Botched Police Report

Today’s post is about a mistake in a police report that led to serious consequences. It’s a good reminder to take some time to review each report before you submit it.

In Louisville, Kentucky, a driver named Joseph Luckett was driving drunk and crashed into another car, killing the driver. But the police report mistakenly stated that the other driver was drunk. Nobody caught the mistake, and a judge lowered Luckett’s bond from $100,000 to $5,000.

Luckett had a previous criminal history. But his attorney pointed out that Luckett wasn’t at fault, according to the police report, and the judge agreed. Luckett posted bond and was released.

Police spokesman Sgt. Lamont Washington later said the arresting officer made a “clerical mistake in the narrative of his citation.” You can read the entire story here.

Anyone can make a mistake! Always check your reports over before you submit them. An officer who’s tired after a long shift can easily get a fact wrong.

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Your Friday Quiz

Writing skills are essential when you’re writing police reports. As you climb the career ladder in law enforcement, writing skills become even more important.

Here’s a short quiz that will help you avoid some common mistakes. Answers and explanations are posted below.

1.  That miniscule tear on her jacket turned out to be an important clue.

2.  The blizzard wrecked havoc on our travel plans for the conference in Texas.

3.  I warned the boys not to step foot on Mr. Baker’s perfectly maintained lawn.

4.  While I was interviewing Flannery, I saw a women watching us through an upstairs window.

Bonus question: Rewrite this sentence in modern criminal justice style:

The abovementioned suspect is now in custody.

ANSWERS:

That minuscule tear on her jacket turned out to be an important clue.  [Look for the word minus, and you’ll always spell minuscule correctly!]

The blizzard wreaked havoc on our travel plans for the conference in Texas.

I warned the boys not to set foot on Mr. Baker’s perfectly maintained lawn.

While I was interviewing Flannery, I saw a woman watching us through an upstairs window.  [Be careful not to confuse woman and women.]

Bonus question: This suspect is now in custody.

The word "Quiz"

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Revise a Paragraph

Today we’re going to streamline a paragraph police report from 2014.

New England Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones said he made a “pretty stupid mistake” that caused him to be admitted to Norwood Hospital in  Massachusetts on January 10. He arrived at the police station shirtless, disoriented, and asking for help. An officer went to Jones’ house to pick up clothing for him and noticed a smell of “burnt marijuana.” No charges were filed.

Marijuana use is banned by the NFL. A first violation results in the player being referred to the league’s substance abuse program, but no fine or suspension.

You can read the story and police report here. The report is thorough and professional but overlong. Busy police officers might benefit from reading it and thinking about ways to make it shorter.

I found two problems with the first paragraph.

Approximately 07:40 Hrs. — Officer Foscaldo arrives at officer parking area to START his day shift. He and Reserve Officer Headd, who was completing his mid-night shift, engaged in conversation.

This paragraph doesn’t contain any useful information. Another problem is that it’s written in present tense (“Officer Foscaldo arrives”). 

The second paragraph has many filler words and phrases. What words can be crossed out without losing any useful information? I found 14 of them. That’s a lot of wasted writing time in just one paragraph. Which words would you cross out?

It was at that time Foscaldo observed a shirtless black man wearing blue sweatpants. This individual had a muscular build, over 6 feet tall and long arms. in a very hurried fashion this individual scurried through the lot where cruisers were parked, and then made a direct line to the rear, Police Only, entry point to the station. Without warning or provocation the individual abruptly got down on his knees and placed his hands behind his head.  [77 words]

Here’s my version, with unnecessary words in green

It was at that time Foscaldo observed a shirtless black man wearing blue sweatpants. This individual had a muscular build, over 6 feet tall and long arms. in a very hurried fashion this individual scurried through the lot where cruisers were parked, and then made a direct line to the rear, Police Only, entry point to the station. Without warning or provocation the individual abruptly got down on his knees and placed his hands behind his head.

I also changed observed to saw and this individual to he:

Foscaldo observed saw a shirtless black man wearing blue sweatpants. This individual The man had a muscular build, over 6 feet tall and long arms. This individual He scurried through the lot where cruisers were parked, and then made a direct line to the rear, Police Only, entry point to the station. The individual He abruptly got down on his knees and placed his hands behind his head.  [61 words]

Here’s the final version – 16 words shorter:

Foscaldo saw a shirtless black man wearing blue sweatpants. The man had a muscular build, over 6 feet tall and long arms. He scurried through the lot where cruisers were parked, and then made a direct line to the rear, Police Only, entry point to the station.  He abruptly got down on his knees and placed his hands behind his head.Chandler_Jones 2

 

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What Information Is Needed?

Here’s a summary I saw recently on an online police bulletin board. I have two questions for you:

  1. Can you spot a vague word that needs to be more specific?
  2. What other information would you need if you were writing a police report?

11:58 p.m. – Caller reported a woman had kicked in his front door, damaging the frame. The woman fled as police arrived but was contacted a short time later. She admitted to being angry and kicking the door in. She was also intoxicated and only 18 years of age. The woman was charged with Intentional Damage to Property and Minor consuming/possession of alcohol.

The word that concerned me was contacted. It could mean knocked on her door, made a phone call, or sent a telegram or an email.

Here is a list of other information you might need to include in your report:

  • Name and address of the caller
  • Name and address of the suspect
  • How you identified her
  • How she got away – on foot? in a car?
  • How you know she was intoxicated
  • Whether she was searched and what was found
  • How police contacted her 
  • What she said to police
  • Medical attention she needed
  • What the caller said about the incident
  • The name of the officer who arrested her, read her rights, and took her to jail

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A Comma Problem

A 2015 murder case is a good example of why so many officers feel confused about commas. I’m going to discuss a sentence from a newspaper article about the case. But the same problem often shows up in police reports, and you may also have to grapple with it if you’re working on a college degree.

Shannon Lamb, a Delta State University professor, allegedly killed his girlfriend, Amy Prentiss, and another professor, Ethan Schmidt. As police closed in on him, Lamb took his own life.

The Associated Press published a photo of a hand-written note provided by police in Gautier, Mississippi. (You can read the entire story at this link.)

When I read the caption under the photo, I was bothered by this wording: 

 …accused of killing Prentiss, his girlfriend and a colleague, fellow Delta State professor Ethan Schmidt.

How many people – one, two, or three? A girlfriend named Prentiss who’s a colleague, or a girlfriend named Prentiss and another person who’s a colleague, or Prentiss, a girlfriend, and a colleague?

But if you add another comma, it’s still confusing:

Penn State University professor Shannon Lamb is accused of killing Prentiss, his girlfriend, and a colleague, fellow Delta State professor Ethan Schmidt.

This sentence illustrates why it’s so important to teach writers to think rather than simply have them diagram sentences and complete workbook exercises.

The comma before and is often called an Oxford comma. Some authorities claim you have to use it. Others claim you should never use it. They’re all wrong, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.

Here’s what I would have done: Add the word both. The revised sentence would read, “Lamb is accused of killing both Prentiss, his girlfriend, and a colleague, fellow Delta State professor Ethan Schmidt.” Problem solved!

There are two takeaways for you.

1.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can solve any sentence problem with a punctuation mark. Sometimes you’ll need to cross out a sentence and rewrite it. Often I find that I need to break one long sentence into two shorter ones – there’s no other way to make my point clear.

2.  There is no absolute rule about the Oxford comma. Book publishers require it; newspapers forbid it. When I’m writing for myself (this blog, for example), I prefer to use it.

Note that I said “prefer.” When the Oxford comma doesn’t work in a sentence, I don’t use it. Hooray for common sense!

keyboard with an Oxford comma key

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The Pop Tart Incident

On December 15, a Florida man named Brian Sutherland threw a pop-tart at his wife during an argument. He also struck her in the arm. You can read more here: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/buster/domestic-battery/pop-tart-battery-case-764210

Here’s the police report. It’s detailed, thorough, and professional. I see a few sentences that  could be revised, however. What do you see as you read it?

Here are my comments:

1.  Defendant is misspelled . If there’s a common word you have trouble spelling (most of us do!), write it on an index card and carry it with you. Study it in spare moments – or pull out the card every time you write a report.

2.  Omit unnecessary details. Your common sense will tell you whether you need to write down any questions you asked. In this incident, the only information that matters is what the husband and wife told you. Omit your questions.

3.  Omit unnecessary words. All arguments are verbal, for example. You don’t need verbal. Here are two more examples of sentences that could have been written more efficiently:

The victim stated she and the defendant were involved in a verbal argument.
My version: The victim said she and her husband were arguing.

 She stated the defendant became upset and intentionally threw a pop-tart at her head.
My version: She said he became angry and threw a pop-tart at her head. (It’s impossible to throw something unintentionally! And you don’t need to keep repeating “the defendant.” There are only two people in this incident – the husband and wife.)

On the whole, however, this is an effective police report.

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