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Dean Scoville

Dean Scoville

Associate Editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service.
Patrol

Put It in Writing

Clear, concise reports can mean the difference between effective prosecution and just spinning your wheels.

April 12, 2012  |  by - Also by this author

Guys like Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith probably never experienced a precipitous drop off in readership prior to hanging up their quills. Others, like Will Rogers, may well have died long before their careers had even peaked.

But such cases are surely the exceptions.

For most established columnists, an inevitable decline in readership awaits them. People who've enjoyed infinitesimally greater patronage than I—writers like Dave Barry, Bob Greene, Anne Landers, and Rush Limbaugh—have experienced their own peaks and valleys.

Sometimes, as in the case of Landers, their demographic erodes in part due to a synergy between the author's advancing age and the accessibility of younger, hipper, and more "relatable" personages in other media (think: Dr. Drew on MTV). Personal behavior can play a role, as Barry and Greene can attest. Then there are those whose literary fates are more or less self-determining, such as reviewers of typewriters, Beta videos, Palm Pilots, and other media cast-offs and has-beens.

Perhaps the saddest cause is also the most preventable: That which has come through self-immolating statements made by the author, either in writing or over the air. In fact, it is Limbaugh's latest embroglio that has me taking a second look at my efforts herein.

I came out of the gates guns ablazin' with columns advocating everything from goofing off in the workplace to the timely exercise of profanity. Freed from the asinine anal-retentive "Thou shalt not offend at all costs" strictures of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, I indulged myself in a manner I would not have previously thought possible. Objectivity was something I was expected to pursue in feature stories and articles. When it came to blogging, I could write of what I wanted and as I wanted. No kid in a candy store has ever been happier.

Throughout, my admittedly flippant tone has belied a genuine concern about what I am saying and how I am perceived in saying it. On those occasions when vigilance fails me and an astute reader calls me on my ill-considered use of "yoctosecond" when "nanosecond" would have sufficed, my only recourse is to express sincere remorse and a promise to not replicate the error.

What makes these mistakes particularly irksome is that they're so damned preventable. By its nature, writing is a medium that affords one the ability to compose words and thoughts prior to committing to them. Blessed with an opportunity that more spontaneous speakers like Al Campanis and Jimmy the Greek might well have killed for, one would hopefully take full advantage of it. Moreover, good writing serves as a bulwark against willful misreading and removes the prospect of some middle man confusing your message. It’s no accident that when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, he did so on stone. But despite every prophylactic precaution an author can take, things can still get screwed up.

It need not be the writer's fault. Even allowing for Kahlil Gibran's observation that the necessity for explanation can be a sign of weakness in the text, there is no way that he or she should be held culpable for that which has been grossly misinterpreted or derived from obviously erroneous inferences.

Like most columnists, I have not been spared of the kind of general assholery exemplified by dumbasses who think that my acknowledgement of an era of post-pursuit ass-kickings somehow made me party to them (when my implicit point had been that the promise of such thumpings kept at least some kids in line—namely, me).

Nor am I accountable for every editorial change affecting me. The title appended to my feature story on dealing with the mentally ill—the strongly admonishing "YOU ARE NOT A PSYCHOLOGIST"—found me second-guessing my editor's decision. But fears that I would be hearing from the "No shit, Sherlock" constituency proved unfounded, and I would readily concede that editorial changes have generally proven to be for my benefit.

Such matters notwithstanding, I have truly enjoyed the opportunity to write for this audience and hope that I can continue to do it for the foreseeable future.

If you are like a lot of cops, you are possibly as enamored of your job. And let’s face it, regardless of the capacity in which you work, odds are that you and I share something in common: Someone's opinion of us has probably been heavily influenced on the basis of something we've written.

In my current lot, passers of judgment include my publisher, my editor, a few salivating literary aspirants in the wings, and—saving the best for last—you, dear reader.

In your case, the list of usual suspects might well include watch sergeants, detectives, and those argumentative souls commonly found occupying opposite  sides of the courtroom. For many of them, your worth as an investigator is largely determined by the words you put on the page.

I know this as I have been in your shoes. And while I’d be hard-pressed to say that I didn’t know many deputies who were better street cops than me, I’d be equally challenged to observe that many wrote paper as good as mine.

Often, it was less a matter of their being incapable of doing so than it was of their having placed less effort in chronicling their exploits than they had in pursuing them.

More than a few of these deputies viewed report writing as just one more impediment to getting back in the field and getting another hook. Others I suspected of intentionally writing weak-assed paper so that defendants would be able to offer more of an affirmative defense, thereby ensuring their arresting officers more court time.

A perception of writing as a somewhat sissified or less masculine endeavor no doubt had some play in the matter, too. Upon having found a copy of Ray Bradbury's "Zen In the Art of Writing" inside my patrol car, a lieutenant got so pissed-off you would have thought he’d happened upon my well-worn copy of Hustler instead.

And yet many of these same people could be quite complimentary of my writing to the extent that they were obliged to read it. The same lieutenant who proved oblivious to whatever professional profit my written product might glean from Mr. Bradbury lauded the quality of my reports on more than one occasion. As a detective sergeant at Industry Station, I had a subordinate who generally didn't say two words to me go out of his way to tell me that a crime report I'd written was the best that he'd ever read (his surprise reminded me that younger folks rarely have any idea of what you were capable of doing when working in their same capacity).

So what import do these ruminations hold for you? Simply this: If you are not placing a premium on your own writing, then you’d better start doing so now.

Because your written product is often the single most tangible evidence of the work that you do, and if YOUR readership falls off, it will result in unfiled cases, lackluster evaluations, and a generally all-around crappy reputation among your co-workers.

You can go out and make a hundred arrests and people will acknowledge the numbers and you will endear yourself to a few bean counters. But people who have never met you will have more of a concrete impression of you given your ability to articulate your work. I know this because I can't tell you how many times through the years the first words I have heard upon meeting people are, "Aren't you the guy who wrote…?"

So, take an extra second to think about what you're attempting to say and how you might want to go about saying it.

Tired of writing the same damn "Between the indicated dates and times, person(s) unknown broke into..."? Imagine how your poor watch sergeant who's seen those same words a thousand times feels.

Recognizing the implications of such cookie-cutter approaches, might it make sense to try a different narrative approach? Accept it as a challenge: Can you make all too familiar passages even more succinct and easier to read?

Commit yourself to delivering a more polished product, one that reflects your intelligence and work ethic. Anticipate others' anticipations. Don't undermine your investigative efforts by leaving some area of ambiguity for a defense attorney to exploit, or worse, for a DA to simply say "the hell with it" before effectively shit-canning your case.

Finally, recognize that however good you already think you are, there is always room for improvement and strive toward it. My writing efforts were sufficient to avail me the chance to retire from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and work for POLICE Magazine, but daily I ask myself if I have the chops that will encourage my employers to retain me. And while some infrequent award or recognition comforts me, the fact remains that I still get my ass chewed out.

You see, I know that the moment I fail to adhere to my own advice, my readership will taper off—and sure as hell one of you young Turks will take over.

And I am going to do all I can to keep that from happening.

At least, for a while.

Tags: Writing Reports, Retired Officers, policemag


Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

R. G. Montgomery @ 4/17/2012 12:37 PM

I remember an instructor at the academy - speaking of reports - said, and I quote, "If you've written a full page, you've written too much."

In two of my positions - Border Patrol Agent and Customs Inspector - the report I wrote was the only testimony I would ever offer to sway the final decision on the action I have begun with an arrest or seizure of property. These were 'administrative' actions and did not call for trail by jury. Instead, I wrote a report and the 'respondent' wrote one in reply.

Sometimes matters went to a formal hearing or trail. Still, if I didn't give enough details and information, the prosecuting attorney would not be interested. Dirty secret, prosecutors don't want to lose a case and won't prosecute on a lame report.

The last couple years I worked (I too now slop at the retirement trough) I was in the training section. Looking on the prescribed syllabus, 'report writing' was pointedly missing. I wedged it in somewhere.

We had the luxury of a computerized report system AND a document processing program. Spell check, grammar check, online dictionary and so forth. What it cannot do is a) see what happened, b) remember what happened, and c) compose a tight, clean, chronological and READABLE record.

I always told my troops, "No matter what you find or do, if you cannot write it down so 'they' can read it, IT DIDN'T HAPPEN."

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