(KNOXVILLE, Tenn.) -- Every police officer knows that pencils and pens are potentially dangerous weapons. Jailers, in particular, are sometimes attacked with sharpened pencils. My sister-in-law, Janie Grigsby Hunter (aka, Calamity Jane), was stabbed with a ball-point pen by the mother of a suspect she was arresting a few years ago.
The primary danger of writing implements in the hands of police officers, however, is that they can seriously injure themselves by what they write with their trusty pens. Metaphorically speaking, it's easy for a cop to stab himself or herself; and ink poisoning can be serious -- especially if it leaks into the newspapers.
I mulled this thought over a few days ago after a cop friend sent me a list of sentences that should never be used in police reports. The words of wisdom were attributed to a publication called "American Police Beat." High on the list was this little jewel: "The mayor then made an illegal left-hand turn ... at which point I opened fire."
Obviously, no real cop would ever write such an incriminating sentence, but sometimes one will come pretty close. A rookie on my shift once wrote a report on an incident of resisting arrest in which he stated: "I was forced to kick the suspect in the groin in order to gain control."
Now the truth is, when anybody is in a real fight where death or injury is a possibility, there are no rules. It's that simple. But you just can't get graphic in a report that you know may very well be read by lawyers and jurors who will not be in fear for their lives when they read it. I took the rookie aside and explained the term: "I was compelled to use sufficient force to subdue the violent suspect."
The list sent by my friend also contained the following items that should be avoided in police reports: "It was so dark and wet that night, you could almost eat the mist. The radio call penetrated the eerie silence with such intensity that for a moment I thought I had lost my mind."
And this one, "Got call. Responded. Arrested bad guy. The End."
I've seen both kinds of reports. One I didn't actually see but heard about for years went for both brevity and artistic content. Allegedly, a certain legendary sheriff's deputy once turned in a warrant that contained these lines or something very similar to describe an arrest: "When the wisdom of the spoken word had failed, the strength of the mighty right hand prevailed."
Under three different sheriffs and in a variety of different assignments, I managed to avoid so much as a written reprimand. Nor was I ever sued. There was a lot of luck involved, but I like to think part of it was excellent communications skills. In fact, a local judge once told me -- jokingly, of course -- that, after reading the probable cause narratives on my warrants for so many years, he wasn't surprised when I began to write fiction.
There was one case in my career where sheer luck definitely saved my butt. After driving my cruiser through a gate that hadn't completely opened early one morning, I sat down and wrote a report that was about 10 pages long and discussed -- among countless other things -- the barometric pressure and the fact that I had repaired the gate and my cruiser.
Still, I expected no mercy because it's hard to justify hitting a fixed object. After worrying all weekend, I went in early and asked my chief's secretary how angry he had been about my little incident. She told me that he had hardly looked at my report after he saw one that had been turned in by my friend and colleague on the alcohol enforcement squad, Bernie Lyon.
It's been a while, and I can't quote Bernie's report verbatim, but it was a masterpiece, as good as anything I could have written under the same circumstances, that said something very similar to this: "While driving my cruiser east on I-40, well within the speed limit and obeying all traffic laws, an object of unknown origin fell out of the sky and broke my windshield."
It's all in how you say it.
David Hunter, who writes this column for The News-Sentinel, is a free-lance writer and former Knox County sheriff's deputy. You can write him at P.O. Box 1124, Powell, Tenn. 37849. His e-mail address is email@example.com
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