Riting For Cops
Jim has a background in military aviation, specializing in combat rescue and close air support. His opinions are his alone and do not reflect the policy or position of the Air Force or Department of Defense, and no references here should be interpreted as an endorsement of any product or service by any government agency.
The subtle, contextual cues that guide our instincts are often tough to put our finger on, but they are also the reason we might approach one person or situation differently than another. The last thing we want to do is leave those decisions up to someone else’s interpretation. It is difficult to teach what stress, deception, and threatening body language look like in training.
One of the key flaws in civilian tactical training is how much time and effort we put into shooting and fighting skills and how little time and effort we put into conflict resolution. If all we teach is shooting, and the one tool in your “toolbox” is carbine skills, then the whole world might tend to look like a shooting range to you. That is a dangerous habit pattern…
In July 2016 a police officer in Minnesota stopped a car and the driver informed the officer that he was armed. The driver was apparently reaching for his wallet, but the officer perceived that he was reaching for the gun. The officer gave him instructions to not reach for it, the driver said that he wasn’t, and somewhere in the mix the officer shot and killed him. The driver’s name was Philando Castile. The officer was charged with manslaughter but was acquitted by a jury. He was fired by his agency.
- Take a Class – Once you get established in your career, look into opportunities for self-improvement. See if your agency will fund you taking an English or writing class at the local college. A class like that may or may not help your career by itself, but if you take it seriously, the improvement in your writing will be noticeable.
- Read a Lot – The fastest way to become a better writer is to read more. Try to knock out a novel a month at first. Go pick up five magazines that you would never read otherwise. Notice not just what they are saying, but how they are saying it.
- Read to Edit – Take a look at reports (and even facebook posts) that other cops have written. Try to spot the errors and areas for improvement. It will help you catch your own errors.
- Have Five Different People Review Anything Important – You know which reports and which cases are going to get hot. When you write those reports, have a couple of different people read and critique them before you submit.
- Read it Out Loud – When you read it out loud, does it sound stupid? Then it is stupid. Fix it.
- Force Yourself Into an Outline – You may be held to the format of a standard form or agency rules about what to cover, but start out by figuring out what you are trying to convey. Consider communicating in a format like “5Ws” (Who, What, Where…), or FIRAC (Facts, Issues, Rules, Analysis, Conclusion), and always try to put the bottom line up front (BLUF). If you are writing a report about how someone committed a crime, write out how their actions met every element of that particular crime – go open up the book if you need to, it will make your life easier when it gets to the lawyers.
- Write Like You Are Explaining it to Your Mom – Most jurors don’t know what OC Spray is, they don’t know what a blood choke is, they don’t know what a Terry Search is. They don’t know shorthand like ETOH or Code 3.
- Use First Person and Active Voice – You can say “I” in writing. You can also indicate personal cause and effect without accepting blame. For example, “As he pulled a gun, he was shot by officers on scene.” Sounds like your agency is trying to distance itself from what actually happened. It sounds like bureaucratic weasel-speak. It is the agency version of “Those aren’t my pants.” Instead, try: “The subject pulled a gun and the officers shot him.”
- Use Spell and Grammar Check – Those are brilliant tools. If you are hand writing a report, you can even use your smartphone to check the spelling and grammar of a tricky sentence.
- Separate Facts from Conclusions – You want your report to be written in facts, and you need to label your conclusions. For example, “I interpreted x, y, and z as an indication that he was not being truthful, so I ____.”
“While making contact with the caller, she told me she was threatened by a man with a gun and that the subject was sitting in his car across the street. I made sure she was safe, and then went to make contact with the subject. As I approached his car, he exited the driver door and postured himself in a fighting stance, but with his hands low near his waistband. I directed him to show me his hands and he immediately lunged at me, quickly closing the 20 foot distance. As he got within distance to strike me, I used a Widget brand electronic taser device to stop his momentum and bring him to the ground. He appeared agitated but otherwise healthy and compliant as I put him in handcuffs and placed him in the back of my patrol car. About two minutes later, I noticed he appeared to be convulsing and I immediately requested emergency medical support while I rendered aid to him in the field. I got him out of the car, conducted an assessment and determined he was having a major medical episode. Following my training, I attempted to protect his head as he thrashed. EMS arrived and transported him. I learned later that night that he died at the hospital.”