August 21, 2012
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Tim Dees Police Tech & Gear
with Tim Dees

Website helps marginal report writers

Few colleges and even fewer high schools do an adequate job of conferring basic skills in English and math onto their graduates

When I was a field training officer — an embarrassingly long time ago — the most common problem new officers had was the inability to write good reports. We didn’t have a lot of resources available for these folks, and more than a few washed out of the program because they couldn’t master the necessary skills in the time the field training program allowed. As with most everything else in life, there is a solution now available on the Internet.

Sometimes it was a matter of organization, not being able to reduce what they had observed or been told to a few concise paragraphs. More commonly, the disconnect was with basic literacy skills.

I taught criminal justice in small, mostly two-year colleges for eight years. At most of these schools, way more than 90 percent of incoming students did not do well enough on placement tests to be allowed to enroll in college-level English courses. The same was true of college-level math, but that’s another story.

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Don’t Know What They Don’t Know
Worse yet, these same students resisted completing the classes they needed to improve these critical skills high school graduates are supposed to know. They wanted to enroll in all the criminal justice core courses — that was the “cop stuff” — but preferred to save the English and math courses for later.

They got an awful object lesson when they found my classes were writing-intensive and things like grammar and spelling counted as much as content. Given that all of these students completed their work with word processors that automatically check for proper spelling and grammar, I didn’t think there was much of an excuse for turning in a paper containing errors.

One student who submitted his work electronically via email consistently sent me papers with grossly-misspelled words — all easily identified by that red wavy line Microsoft Word puts under any word it doesn’t find in its dictionary. I had him in my office one day and asked why he always sent me papers with errors.

“I didn’t know those words were misspelled.”

“Do you see that red line underneath some words? That alerts you that they are misspelled.”

“I didn’t know what that meant.”

“You want to be a police officer, right? In the cop biz, that red squiggly line would be called a ‘clue.’ It merits further investigation.”

Yes, many of my students hated me. Now that I enjoy petty fame as a contributor here on PoliceOne, I occasionally receive messages from former students who told me they hated being in my classes, but learned more from me than most of their other instructors.

The upshot is that — with some exceptions — few colleges and even fewer high schools do an adequate job of conferring basic skills in English and math onto their graduates. I could explain why I think this is so, but that’s material for another column. In the end, a high school or even a college diploma is no guarantee of basic literacy. You need to evaluate every new officer candidate to assess their individual skills.

Watch TV, Get Smarter?
If you’re looking for a no-cost source of scenarios to use as foundations for remedial reports, look no further than the soap operas on daytime TV. They’re tedious and slow-paced enough that they require focus and listening skills, and yet each episode depicts a mini-drama that drives the story forward.

You may have to ask a fan of The Young and the Restless to tell you whether your student is getting the facts right, but you have an easily-accessed and inexhaustible supply of sample situations to work with.

If you would prefer a more structured approach, the website yourpolicewrite.com may be of help. The website is the work of Dr. Jean Reynolds, an English professor and the author of The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers, available on Amazon.com or in an ebook version from Smashwords.

At the yourpolicewrite.com website, Dr. Reynolds has some badly written passages to practice editing (with the better version also posted), PowerPoint decks for twelve lessons in reporting writing, a diagnostic test and answer key, and links to several podcasts on report writing.

It’s a first-rate resource, and one that is even more valuable in this era of reduced budgets and cutbacks. 

About the author

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer, and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in Northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon.

He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.

Tim has written more than 300 articles for nearly every national law enforcement publication in the United States, and is the author of The Truth About Cops, published by Hyperink Press. In 2005, Tim became the first editor-in-chief for Officer.com, moving to the same position for LawOfficer.com at the beginning of 2008. He now writes on applications of technology in law enforcement from his home in SE Washington state.

Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama, and the Certified Protection Professional credential from ASIS International. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

Dees can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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