Sometimes you NEED Passive Voice

Last week I warned you against the dangers of passive voice (“The suspect was patted down”). Today I’m going to give you a professional tip. There’s one situation when passive voice is useful: when something happened – and you don’t know who did it.

The crime scene was compromised. PASSIVE VOICE (effective: You don’t know who compromised it)

The house was entered through the unlocked back door. PASSIVE VOICE (effective: You don’t know who entered)

Bottom line: When you know who did what, use active voice. Or – to restate the handy rule I gave you last week – start every sentence in your reports with a person, place, or thing UNLESS you don’t know who did the action.

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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.

“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.

Use Active Voice

Here’s a simple way to improve your reports: Use active voice whenever possible.

I tested the doorway for fingerprints. ACTIVE VOICE

The doorway was tested for fingerprints by me. PASSIVE VOICE

When I do writing workshops, cops often tell me that passive voice is necessary for accuracy and objectivity. Really?

Let’s try a scenario. An officer is investigating a burglary. She goes into the bedroom and sees a beautiful ring on the nightstand. She realizes that the homeowner will probably think the burglar took the ring. What an opportunity! She pockets the ring.

Later the officer gets out her laptop and starts writing her report. She writes, “The bedroom was entered by this officer.” Typing those words transforms her into an honest person, and she returns the ring.

Ridiculous, isn’t it?

Suppose, though, you’re an officer who happens to like passive voice. You’re old-school, and that’s how you were taught to write. Why change?

Three reasons:

  • You want your writing to sound up-to-date and professional. Bygone terminology dates you.
  • Passive voice takes longer to write and to read. It’s going to slow you down if you’ve had a busy shift or you have a great deal of paperwork to review before a court hearing.
  • Passive voice creates confusion. Suppose you’re testifying in court and the question of Miranda rights comes up. “Who read Johnson his rights?” asks the attorney. “It says in your report that Johnson was Mirandized, but it doesn’t say who did it.”
    You gulp. You suddenly realize that the other officer at the scene, Joe McDonald, read Johnson his rights. Unfortunately McDonald isn’t in court today. The hearing has to be postponed until McDonald can testify.
    You could have avoided that embarrassing mistake if you’d used active voice: “Officer Joe McDonald used his Miranda card to advise Johnson of his rights.”

Here are a couple of pointers:

  • Active voice tells who did what: The burglar pried open the door.
  • Passive voice often uses by: The door was pried open by the burglar.

Note: Not all “was” and “-ing” words signify passive voice. These sentences are active voice:

Linda was washing her car. ACTIVE VOICE

The mayor was exploring a new approach to the problem. ACTIVE VOICE

Here are passive-voice versions of these sentences:

The car was being washed by Linda. PASSIVE VOICE

A new approach to the problem was explored by the mayor. PASSIVE VOICE

 

A Podcast Worth Listening To

I encourage you to listen to a podcast from Street Cop Training by Mark Tagliareni and Sean Grogan: Episode 738: Describing Body Language in a Report.

Click here to listen.

You’ll hear two experienced cops thinking aloud about some of the challenges that they face when they write their police reports. It’s a rare opportunity to hear the critical thinking processes required for effective reports.

A bonus  is that the podcast focuses a lot of attention on preparing for a court appearance – an aspect of law enforcement that doesn’t receive a lot of attention.

Highly recommended!

 

How to Help Struggling Writers

I often hear from academy instructors and agency officials who worry about the poorly written reports that come across their desks. What is to be done with a cadet or officer who writes a sentence like this one?

Four CDs were recovered from the defendant, which he had conceal those items by stuffing them inside his jacket.

This sentence (it’s real, by the way) is disastrously wrong.  It’s hard to believe this person is capable of ever writing a competent report.

So: what advice would you give the person who wrote it – and the concerned instructor or supervisor who read it?

Here’s my advice. First – and this may surprise you – there’s no need to panic. Very likely the writer was simply trying too hard to sound sophisticated.

Second, there’s a cure: Write short, straightforward sentences. I have never – in all my years of experience – met a cadet or officer who couldn’t meet that requirement.

Forget about trying to impress others with complicated syntax. Make each fact a separate sentence, like this:

I recovered four CDs from the defendant. He had stuffed them inside his jacket.  CORRECT

I found four CDs stuffed inside the defendant’s jacket.  CORRECT

Here’s my advice to anyone who’s nervous about report writing: Write shorter sentences. Start each one with a person, place, or thing. (In a police report, it’s usually best to start with a person.)

You’ll be surprised how many problems disappear with that simple strategy!

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Your Friday Quiz

This short quiz will help you sharpen your writing skills. Answers are posted below.

Part 1  Correct the English usage errors in these sentences. (Some sentences may not have errors.)

a) Lisa’s mother told me she was watching TV when the electricity suddenly went off.
b)  I questioned he and his wife separately.
c)  Grogan refused to except any help from his daughter.

Part 2   Which sentence is appropriate for a police report? Choose one answer.

a)  I arrived at the scene.
b)  I saw a bruise on Wagner’s right forearm.
c)  I did not believe what Wagner was telling me.

ANSWERS

Part 1 

  a) Lisa’s mother told me she was watching TV when the electricity suddenly went off.  CORRECT
X  b)  I questioned him and his wife separately.  [You wouldn’t say “I questioned he,” would you? Trust your eyes and ears. If a short sentence is right, the longer sentence will be right too.]
c)  Grogan refused to accept any help from his daughter.  [Except means but. It’s the wrong word in this sentence.]

Part 2   Which sentence is appropriate for a police report? Choose one answer.

a)  I arrived at the scene.
b)  I saw a bruise on Wagner’s right forearm.
X c)  I did not believe what Wagner was telling me. [Opinions don’t belong in a police report. Just state the facts.]

How did you do?

quiz in golden stars background

A Sentence with Two Problems

This sentence from a police report has two problems. Can you spot them?

The suspect then entered the store, the surveillance does not show the suspect placing items in his backpack; however, footage shows Smith approaching the suspect at approximately 2027  hours.

1. There’s too much information crammed into the sentence. In police reports, short sentences are almost always better than long ones. (That’s often true of other writing tasks as well.)

What do you gain by writing a long, sophisticated sentence? Nothing – and you run the risk of errors. (If you noticed the comma splice, congratulations! There should be a period after entered the store.)

2. 2027 hours is NOT an approximate time. It’s exact. Use “approximate” only with rounded off times: “about 2030 hours.”

Here’s my version. I deleted however even though it’s correct. It’s another complication you don’t need. Crisp, simple sentences are your best choices for police reports.

The suspect entered the store. The surveillance does not show the suspect placing items in his backpack. Footage shows Smith approaching the suspect at 2027  hours.

a red backpack

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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.

“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.

Your Friday Quiz

Here’s today’s Quiz! Answers appear below.

PART ONE  What essential information is missing from the sentences below? (Hint: both sentences have the same problem.)

1. A sworn written and taped statement was completed and submitted into evidence. 

2. Nothing was found when the car was searched.

PART TWO  Remove the unneeded words in the sentences below.

1. Upon my arrival, I entered the manager’s office and looked for Carl Stokes, who told me he noticed the safe was open when he arrived for work at eight o’clock.

2.  I saw evidence that confirmed Naomi’s complaint about Fulton – namely fresh scratches on her right cheek and bruising on her left arm.

ANSWERS

PART ONE  Look for the unnecessary words.

Neither sentence names the person who submitted the evidence and searched the car. What if there are questions later on, in a court case? There’s no written record of who did what.

PART TWO  Remove the unneeded words in the sentences below.

1. Carl Stokes told me he noticed the safe was open when he arrived for work at eight o’clock. [It’s obvious you arrived, parked your car, and looked for the manager. Brevity is an important feature of police writing.]

2.  I saw fresh scratches on Naomi’s right cheek and bruising on her left arm. 

How did you do?

Confetti Quiz

 

Tom Brady’s Jersey

Because Tom Brady has been in the news so often lately, I thought it might be fun (and useful!) to look back at a 2017 police report involving one of his jerseys.

Back then, Brady was quarterback for the New England Patriots. After the Super Bowl, he realized that his game jersey was missing from his locker in the NRG Stadium in Houston. The theft made news because Brady told police that the jersey was worth half a million dollars. (You can download the police report here: https://htv-prod-media.s3.amazonaws.com/files/brady-jersey-stolen-1487693415.pdf)

What interests us today, however, are the apostrophes. Here’s the summary from the police report:

On 2/05/17, the City of Houston hosted Super Bowl LI In the NRG Stadium. Shortly after winning the game, New England Patriot’s quarterback Tom Brady noticed his game jersey missing from his locker in the Patriot’s designated locker room.

Would you say that Brady was the Patriot’s quarterback – or the Patriots‘ quarterback? The answer is easy if you ask yourself whether you’re talking about the Patriots – or the Patriot.

The team is the Patriots, right? (Not the Patriot!) So it’s the Patriots’ quarterback and the Patriots’ designated locker room. The apostrophes in the report need to be corrected:

Shortly after winning the game, New England Patriots‘ quarterback Tom Brady noticed his game jersey missing from his locker in the Patriots‘ designated locker room.

Although apostrophes befuddle many writers, they’re not difficult at all. Just write the word or name, and put an apostrophe after the last letter.

Tom Brady is the quarterback of the Patriots.

Patriots

Patriots’

the Patriots’ quarterback

Let’s try another one: the victory of Tom Brady.

Tom Brady

Brady’s

Tom Brady’s victory

Here’s one more: Cyrus Jones is the cornerback for the Patriots. Let’s try the jersey of Cyrus Jones.

Cyrus Jones

Cyrus Jones’

Cyrus Jones’ jersey OR Cyrus Jones‘s jersey

Looking for the last letter of the word or name will help you place the apostrophe correctly every time.

For more practice with apostrophes, click here.

                                                  Courtesy of Mike Lizzi

Your Friday Quiz

Modern police reports require sentences that are objective, concise, straightforward, free of jargon, and written in active voice. Do your reports meet these standards? Here’s a chance to find out.

Instructions: Read the sentences below. Mark each effective sentence with a , and each ineffective sentence with an X. Scroll down for the answers.

  1. The suspect was transported to the county jail.
  2. I was suspicious of what Barton told me and decided to look for signs of forced entry.
  3. The car turned into the Circle K parking lot, and upon observing this, I activated my flashers and siren and followed it.
  4. I asked Novak how she knew that it was 2:19 AM when she heard the banging noise, and she responded that she’d looked at the clock in her bedroom.
  5. Upon observing Filton’s aggressive body language, I advised him to place his hands on the hood of the car.

ANSWERS

  1. X  This sentence omits an essential piece of information: the name of the officer who transported the suspect. Always use active voice. BETTER: I [or the name of the officer who did the driving] transported the suspect to the county jail.
  2. X This sentence doesn’t contain any useful information and needs rewriting. First, the statement that you were “suspicious” about Barton lacks objectivity. Second, it’s a waste of time explaining what you’re planning to do and why. Instead you should write about you did and what you found.  BETTER: I looked for signs of forced entry and found none. OR I found splintered wood and a hole approximately four inches in diameter near the lock on the rear door.
  3. X Omit “upon observing this” – it’s empty filler and inefficient. Better: The car turned into the Circle K parking lot. I activated my flashers and siren and followed the car.
  4. X Omit your questions and just record what suspects, victims, and witnesses tell you. BETTER: Novak said she’d looked at the clock in her bedroom and knew it was 2:19 AM.
  5. X This sentence has two problems. First, “Filton’s aggressive body language” lacks objectivity. What seems aggressive to you might look like normal behavior to someone else. You need to describe Filton’s behavior: “I saw Filton’s balled fists….”

    Second, advised is a poor word choice because it can mean “counseled” or “suggested.” If Filton refused to obey you, his attorney could say that you were only making a suggestion about his hands. BETTER: I saw Filton’s balled fists and told him to place his hands on the hood of the car.

How did you do?

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Your Friday Quiz

Today’s quiz has a different format. It’s based on writing mistakes that often appear in professional writing, including police reports. Try the quiz yourself, and then check your answers below.

Here’s a short quiz about some common writing mistakes. Scroll down for the answers.  (But do try the quiz yourself first!) Warning: some sentences have two mistakes; others have none.

1. Langford said nothing at first, then she slowly told me about the fight.

2. Carlson admitted he was quick to loose his temper.

3. The Smith’s refused to answer my questions about the screaming there neighbors heard.

4. Wiley pointed to back yard and said, “In the shed.”

5. Barton said that the purse was her’s, and she wasn’t going to give it to Farrell.

6. The department is preparing for its first accreditation visit.

Here are the answers:

X  1. Langford said nothing at first. Then she slowly told me about the fight.  (Use a period and a capital letter. You can’t join two sentences with then.)

X  2. Carlson admitted he was quick to lose his temper.  (Loose means “not tight,” and it rhymes with moose. The word needed here is lose.)

X  3.The Smiths refused to answer my questions about the screaming their neighbors heard.  (The Smiths don’t own anything in this sentence. Omit the apostrophe: Smiths is correct. And be careful not to confuse there/they’re/their. This sentence requires their.)

4. Wiley pointed to back yard and said, “In the shed.”  CORRECT (In the US, periods and commas always go inside quotation marks.)

X 5. Barton said that the purse was hers, and she wasn’t going to give it to Farrell.  (Don’t use an apostrophe with his, hers, ours, yours, and theirs.)

6. The department is preparing for its first accreditation visit.  CORRECT (There’s no apostrophe in its. Here’s how to tell: try plugging his into the sentence.  “The department is preparing for his first accreditation visit.” It’s – with an apostrophe – means it is: “I think it’s time to leave.”)

How did you do? And – more important – did you catch any errors that tend to slip into your reports?

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