On Language, Communication, and Leadership
with John Bowden
Putting terms in your terminology
Ed. Note: John Bowden retired from the Orlando Police Department in 1994 and presently is the founder and director of Applied Police Training and Certification (APTAC). Contact John via email by clicking here or visiting the APTAC website.
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The purpose of a use of force report is to clearly document the events that led up to the use of force, the force that was used, and all of the circumstances surrounding the incident. It’s easy to state that this is so, but actually doing it is not always easy. For instance, what is wrong with the following report?
“The suspect, Tom Edwards, was standing next to the window removing the glass. I pointed my weapon at him and said "Freeze, Police!" Edwards did not move. I directed him to the ground, into a kneeling position. He complied. I holstered my weapon and took out my handcuffs. I told Edwards to put his hands behind his back. I put a cuff on Edwards' right hand. Edwards resisted my efforts to handcuff him. I executed an Iron Wrist Takedown, pulling Edwards to the ground. I attached the other cuff to his left wrist.”
This report accurately reflects what happened and to the average officer this report looks pretty good. However, it assumes a certain level of understanding of defensive tactics terminology and police experience on the part of the reader. Unfortunately, our audience is not always someone in law enforcement or someone with defensive tactics experience. In fact, the person we need about whom we should be concerned (and to whom we should be writing) is our future legal adversary, the suspect's attorney. He will be looking for an alternative meaning to what we wrote.
The first problem in the above paragraph occurs in this sentence: “I directed him to the ground, into a kneeling position.”
A person with police experience understands this to mean that we told the suspect to kneel down on the ground, cross his ankles and put his hands on top of his head. Unfortunately, this sentence offers Edwards’ attorney an alternative interpretation: “The officer grabbed my innocent client and slammed him to his knees on the ground.”
We know this didn't happen, but the statement in our report left such an interpretation to the reader / attorney. When this is brought up in court, we will have to refute the attorney's interpretation with what really happened. When we try to do this, the attorney will have us where he wants us, between the rock and the hard place. For example:
Jargon phrases work well when we are communicating to law enforcement peers who know what we really mean. However, when we write our use of force reports we need to omit the jargon and replace it with straight-forward language so that the suspect's attorney will not be able to twist it into something that did not occur.
Attorney: Officer, your report says you directed my client to the ground, is this where you slammed him down to his knees? (Note that this is a yes-or-no question!)
Officer: No sir, I told him...
Attorney: Doesn't your report say you directed him to the ground?
Officer: Yes, but...
Attorney: Is this an accurate reflection of what happened?
Officer: Yes, but that's not what happened. I...
Attorney: That's not what happened? Did you falsify your report?
Officer: No, I didn't.
Attorney: Did you leave some information out of your report?
Officer: Just a few details, but I can clarify what...
Attorney: Just a few details? Perhaps you left out other details about what you did to provoke my client.
Officer: No, I didn't leave out those details.
Attorney: Were you taught to leave out details.
Officer: No, I just, I, I, uhhh...
Attorney: You just leave out what you want?
Officer: Yes, no, only if it is irrelevant to the case.
Attorney: You mean if it suits your purpose.
Officer: No! I...
Attorney: NO MORE QUESTIONS YOUR HONOR!
The attorney didn't change our testimony. What he did was make us look bad. He pointed out that we left information out of our report and suggested we may have provoked his client into resisting, in order to get away from "the big bad police officer." In making us look bad it brings into question the credibility of every thing else we did.
Did we leave out other information? Are we hiding something? Maybe we added something? The next step is for the prosecutor to deliver some damage control by getting you to clarify what happened. Unfortunately, it’s too late – the defense attorney has put a little crack in your credibility and will pound away at it at every opportunity. All the attorney needs in the end is a little doubt. We could have avoided this little exchange by filling in the details instead of using our shorthand terminology.
There are jargon phrases we use in our business to communicate to others in law enforcement what happened. These phrases work well when we are communicating to our peers who know what we really mean. However, when we write our use of force reports we need to omit the jargon and replace it with straight forward language so that the reader will not be able to twist it into something that did not occur.
The second sentence in our paragraph has the same problem as the first. It leaves a lot of room for interpretation on the part of the reader: “Edwards resisted my efforts to handcuff him.”
We should state exactly what Edwards did to resist. For Example: “Edwards pulled his wrist away and tried to stand up.”
The next problem is this statement: “I executed an Iron Wrist Takedown.”
The "Iron Wrist Takedown" is an acceptable response to the resistance we received. However, the name of the technique does not tell the reader what actually happened. The term "Iron Wrist Takedown" will have to be explained. Instead of explaining it in court, describe it in the report. For example: “Edwards pulled his wrist away and tried to stand up. I pressed the cuff against Edwards' arm, pulled him backwards and laid him face down on the ground.”
This sentence is only slightly longer than the original but it is much clearer about what happened and does not have to be explained.
The best way to write is to keep your writing simple and clear – use the term that is easiest to understand. A use of force report is not the place to show people your command of the English language. The only exception to using simple terms is when a complex term is the best one to use to describe the incident. For example: “I struck the suspect with a double fist blow to the suprascapula.”
Suprascapula is a complex scientific term designating a specific location on the body and may be difficult for the average person to understand. However, to change it to something different would hinder rather than help the clarity of the report. Here are some alternatives:
• the shoulder
• the back
• base of the neck
Each alternative is easier to understand but is incorrect. Each one could be twisted into something different than what actually took place, and make to sound like a deadly blow. So in this case, you’re best served by using the correct term even if it is more complex than the alternatives.
Your report will receive the final test long after you write it and you will not be able to change it. Take the time to carefully choose the best terms in your terminology so you will not have to explain them later.