Category Archives: What’s New

Think about Specific Details

Here’s a news report based on a police report. What details would need to be more specific in the actual report? (You do not need to  include the date, address, and the dog’s breed.) After you’ve made your list, scroll down to check your answers.

A dog attacked a police officer as responding to a disturbance Saturday, and the officer was forced to shoot.

The officer responded in reference to the report of a disturbance in progress. The officer made initial contact with a verbally hostile man later identified as 51-year-old John Doe.

The officer attempted to detain Doe in order to safely continue his investigation into the cause of the disturbance. While being handcuffed, Doe spun around and began to physically resist the officer’s lawful attempt to detain him. Both men went to the ground, and Doe continued to fight the officer. Doe’s dog also attacked the officer, biting his arm and holding on.

With one arm incapacitated by the attacking dog, the officer deployed his Taser in an attempt to subdue Doe, but in the struggle it appeared to be ineffective. A deputy arrived and was able to pull Doe off the officer and secure him in handcuffs. Doe’s dog continued to attack the officer, who was consequently forced to shoot the animal in order to get it to release its grip on his arm.

Further investigation revealed that Doe also appeared to have been the primary aggressor in the original altercation that generated the initial call. Doe was placed under arrest and transported to jail, where he was booked on the following charges and is currently being held on a total bond of $4,516.

Doe has been charged with one count of felony battery, misdemeanor battery, resisting an officer with violence and criminal mischief.

Here are the details that need to be more specific:

  • disturbance in progress (what was the suspect doing?)
  • the officer made initial contact (what did the officer say to Doe?)
  • with a verbally hostile man (what did he say?)
  • attempted to detain Doe (what did the officer do?)
  • began to physically resist (what did Doe do?)
  • in the struggle it appeared to be ineffective (how do you know?)
  • appeared to have been the primary aggressor (how do you know?)

The word details

Write Plainly

As a criminal justice professional, you should strive to write plainly, efficiently, and clearly. You’ll save time, and so will your readers.  Here are some words and expressions that can (and should!) be simplified:


Use Instead





for the purpose of


in the event that


if or when


the month of November


blue in color


large in size


pull-down menu


scream and yell




lower down


PIN number






For more suggestions about clarity and efficiency, go to

The Robby Anderson Police Report

On January 19, Jets wide receiver Robby Anderson was arrested in Florida for driving violations. It was Anderson’s second arrest in Florida. You can read the story here. Last May he was arrested at a music festival for pushing a police officer. 

The entire report is posted here. It’s worth reading: concise, objective, thorough.

Here’s an excerpt:

The vehicle then slowed down to approximate 45mph at the red light for SR 84 Westbound before proceeding to run the red light. He then got into the left turn lane under the 595 overpass to go East on WR 84 which was also a red light. Once again he ran the light before continuing Eastbound on SR 84. Once eastbound the driver started to slow to a crawl, but then accelerated again to nearly 45mph.

I have a few quibbles. “Eastbound” should be lower case – it’s a direction, not the name of a specific place. There should be a space between 45 and mph. And passive voice found its way into the end of the report, as often happens: “Robert was arrested” (who arrested him?). “He was transported to BSO Jail” (who drove him there?). 

But there is much to admire here. Almost every sentence starts with a person (“He”) or thing (“The vehicle”), so it’s usually clear who did what. The attention to detail is impressive. When an officer can describe an offense so accurately, a defense attorney may be reluctant to challenge the arrest.

Well done!


An FBI Report

On January 4, a woman passenger on a Spirit Airlines flight reported that she was sexually assaulted while the plane was in the air. She immediately told flight attendants what had happened.

Federal agents met the plane when it landed and took the suspected assailant into custody. You can read the story here:

It’s worth taking a few moments to visit the link and read the affidavit posted there. The FBI agent who handled the case is an excellent writer. The affidavit features normal, straightforward language. Special Agent Kyle Dodge used “I,” “me,” “she,” “her,” and other ordinary words, and he wrote in active voice. Here’s an example:

She fell asleep leaning against a window. She woke up to a hand in her pants and noticed that her pants and shirt were unbuttoned.  EXCERPT FROM THE AFFIDAVIT

It’s not difficult to write the kinds of sentences required for police reports if – and it’s a big if! – you care about writing clearly. Trouble begins when you decide that everyday language isn’t good enough. The more you try to puff up your sentences, the more writing problems you’re going to have.

Congratulations to Special Agent Kyle Dodge for an excellent affidavit. 


Fixing Verb Problems

Today I’m going to talk about fixing verb problems. (Verbs are action words like go, shoot, see. Forms of be are also verbs: is, are, was, were, and so on.) We’re going to focus on two common mistakes.

1. Could have, could’ve (correct!) vs. could of (wrong!)

I’ve often said that it’s the small, everyday words that get writers into trouble. Of is a good example, especially when you’re thinking about verbs.

Unfortunately many people (including officers!) sometimes write of when they mean could’ve or could have. (Could’ve is a contraction of could have.) When you’re speaking, “could’ve” and “could of” sound the same. As a result, of creeps into a sentence even though it doesn’t belong there.

The same problem crops up with should have and would have. Be careful to write should’ve, should have, would’ve, or would have – not should of or would of!

Mattson could of left through the bedroom window.  WRONG

Mattson could’ve left through the bedroom window. CORRECT

Mattson could have left through the bedroom window. CORRECT

It’s a good idea to write out “have” in instead of abbreviating it. That practice will help you avoid the embarrassment of using of incorrectly.

2.  It’s easy to forget to add the –ed ending for verbs, for the same reason: You don’t clearly hear that –ed when you’re talking. Read the following sentence aloud, and you’ll hear what I mean:

Joan had hoped for a promotion, and she finally received the good news this morning.

Chances are you barely heard the -ed in hoped and received. That means it’s easy to forget about that -ed when you’re writing, especially if you’re tired or rushed.

So here’s what you need to know. The -ed ending is often necessary when you combine a verb with has, had, have, be, been, is, are, was, and were:

Lucy has lived on Tenth Street for two years.

Although we have wished for a new building for a long time, we’re unlikely to get it.

The report is finished.

Several people are already lined up and waiting.

And so on. These tips are easy to apply if you concentrate and double-check your reports – and they’ll help you avoid many errors!


A Bullet List Can Save Time!

Do you ever find yourself writing a report with a lot of tiresome repetition?

Jones said she came home from work at 5:25 pm. Jones said she noticed the back door was open. Jones said she was frightened. Jones said she called 911. Jones said she then went to a neighbor’s house to wait for police to arrive. Jones said she didn’t notice any other suspicious activity at her home.  REPETITIOUS

A bullet list can be a great timesaver. Notice you don’t try to write your whole report in list format! Use it only as needed, to save time:

I arrived at about 6:10 PM and talked to Jones. She was watching for me from a neighbor’s house. While waiting for her, I noticed that her front door was open.

Jones told me:

  • she came home from work at 5:25 pm
  • she noticed the back door was open
  • she was frightened and called 911
  • he then went to a neighbor’s house to wait for police to arrive
  • he didn’t notice any other suspicious activity at her home

Still puzzled about lists? Here are two things to think about. First, you’ve probably been writing lists all your life!

Second, it’s common practice to write a letter, a report, or any other task and include a list. Suppose a young couple has a new baby. They’re planning to visit some friends for a weekend. The friend asked what supplies to have on hand. The couple could write a letter – as usual – about how much they’re looking forward to the visit – and include a list of needed items. (To listen to a podcast about lists, click here.)

This practice activity will help you become proficient with timesaving lists.

Instructions: Rewrite the facts below in bullets. Scroll down for suggested answers.

1.  Patterson noticed many things were wrong when she entered her bedroom. Dresser drawers were overturned and emptied on the floor. The lock on her jewelry box was broken. The jewelry box was emptied on her bed. Her favorite gold necklace was missing. A platinum diamond ring was missing.

2.  After talking to the bartender, I entered a private room in the back. I saw a man and woman were screaming at each other. Although a little girl was kicking the man’s legs, he paid no attention to her. While all this was going on, an older woman was picking up shards of glass from the floor.

3.  Baxter said he’d left his wallet on the front seat while he ran into the McDonald’s to use the bathroom. His friend Cunningham was sitting in the passenger seat. When Baxter returned to his car, both Cunningham and the wallet were gone.


Note: These are suggestions only. Answers may vary.

1.  When Patterson entered her bedroom, she noticed the following:

  • Dresser drawers were overturned and emptied on the floor
  • The lock on her jewelry box was open
  • The jewelry box was emptied on her bed
  • A gold necklace and a platinum diamond ring were missing

2.  After talking to the bartender, I entered a private room in the back and saw:

  • a man and woman screaming at each other
  • a little girl kicking the man’s legs
  • an older woman picking up shards of glass from the floor

3.  Baxter told me:

  • He ran into the McDonald’s to use the bathroom
  • He left his wallet on the front seat
  • His friend Cunningham was in the passenger seat
  • A few minutes later he returned to his car
  • Both Cunningham and the wallet were gone


Police Terminology You Should Know

Criminal justice professionals use a specialized vocabulary that every officer should know. Here is some police terminology that you should be careful to use correctly:

Burglary: This is a break-in without the use of force against a victim. If someone steals a television set from an unoccupied vacation house, the crime is classified as a burglary.

Robbery:  When the suspect uses force to steal, the crime is classified as a robbery. Most convenience store crimes are robberies.

Adult: Generally a person 18 years of age or older.

Aggravated assault: Usually involves both a weapon and severe injury.

Bias crime (also called hate crime): Not just a crime by a person who is prejudiced toward a particular group. To prosecute a “bias”(or “hate”) crime, you must show that hate motivated the crime.

Drunkenness: This term is applied for situations involving alcoholic beverages, but it excludes driving under the influence.

DUI: Driving under the influence includes both alcohol and drugs.

Alcohol: A tasteless and odorless substance. You may have difficulty in court if you claim that you smelled alcohol on a suspect’s breath. Instead you could say, “I smelled an alcoholic beverage.”

Another Perspective on Police Reports: Crime Statistics

Police officers quite naturally tend to take an up-close-and-personal view of the reports they write: Is my report complete? Did I get the facts right? Are there any grammar and usage mistakes to correct?

But a recent story in a Baltimore newspaper is a good reminder that police reports can be viewed from a much larger context. They provide crime statistics and valuable data about trends in criminal activity. The article in the Baltimore Sun notes that hate incidents – most of them directed at African-Americans –  surged 40 percent last year.

The Baltimore data was collected as part of a project involving newsrooms across the US. You should also know about an even larger and more complex undertaking coordinated by the FBI: Uniform Crime Reporting. Police departments all over the country send crime data to the FBI, which collects, interprets, and publishes statistics based on that data.

Every year the FBI publishes four reports (available free from the UCR website): Crime in the United StatesNational Incident-Based Reporting System, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, and Hate Crime Statistics.

The FBI data is collected from 18,000 sources across the US. Highly skilled statisticians crunch the numbers, which give a useful perspective on what law enforcement is dealing with in the ongoing fight against crime. The UCR project is one more reminder of the professionalism and commitment to excellence that characterize the criminal justice field.

2014 Crime Data from the FBI

Identifying Passive Voice

Passive voice often causes problems in criminal justice reports. (Here’s a typical passive voice sentence: The vehicle was searched.) It’s easy to see how passive voice can cause problems, especially in an investigation or court hearing: The sentence doesn’t tell who performed the search.

In general, you should avoid using passive voice in your reports. Be careful, however, not to be fooled into “correcting” sentences that were right in the first place. Make sure a sentence is really passive before you change it.

Here are two examples of what I’m talking about:

The suspects were questioned.  PASSIVE VOICE

While we were questioning the subjects, Officer Brown arrived at the scene.  ACTIVE VOICE

“We were questioning” is active voice (OK to use) because you know that we were doing it.

Now let’s look at a series of sentences. Can you see which are passive and which are active? Scroll down for the answers.

Jones was seen running away from the convenience store.

Jones was carrying a six-pack of beer and a bottle of white wine.

Three sobriety tests were administered.

Patterson was looking in his wallet for his driver’s license.

Both witnesses were questioned.

Finch was having difficulty answering the questions.

Here are the sentences again, with the passive sentences labeled:

Jones was seen running away from the convenience store.  PASSIVE  (Who saw him?)

Jones was carrying a six-pack of beer and a bottle of white wine.  √

Three sobriety tests were administered.  PASSIVE  (Who administered them?)

Patterson was looking in his wallet for his driver’s license.  √

Both witnesses were questioned.  PASSIVE  (Who questioned them?)

Finch was having difficulty answering the questions.  √

Reminder: Passive voice is acceptable only when you don’t know who performed an action. Otherwise, use active voice.

The two passive voice sentences below are acceptable because the officer writing the report doesn’t know who broke into the store and who took the money and liquor:

The store was broken into at around midnight.  [PASSIVE – OK]

Fifty dollars and five bottles of liquor were taken.  [PASSIVE – OK]

passive voice test

Editing Software

If you’re an officer who’s hoping to make your mark in the criminal justice field, you need to think about ways to sharpen your writing skills. Career advancement always requires good writing skills!

One tool you should think about is editing software. Some services are free, while others charge a subscription fee. My friend Chuck Warren sent me an article that lists 11 editing tools and describes how they work: Instantly Improve Your Writing with These 11 Editing Tools.”

I recommend reading the article and thinking about using one of these editing tools to look for errors in your written work. These electronic tools can be especially valuable when you’re taking college courses or working on an important report for your agency.

Computer software tools can’t think like humans, of course! For example, most editing tools can’t spot a word that’s spelled correctly but used incorrectly (your/you’re, its/it’s). And sometimes they’re not as smart as we are! The grammar checker on my computer sometimes nags me to fix a sentence that I know is perfectly ok.

Still – spellcheckers, grammar checkers, and other editing tools are a great boon to writers. (The tools on my home computer have saved me from many embarrassing errors!)

Here are some tips:

  • If your work-issued laptop doesn’t have a spellchecker or a grammar checker, consider writing your reports on a PC first. Run your finished piece through the spelling and grammar checks, and then copy it onto your laptop.
  • Consider using a free editing tool – or subscribing to one.
  • Don’t assume that everything the computer says is right. When in doubt, ask a friend for a second opinion.