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Thursday, March 29, 2007

When the pen really is mightier

Note: A print version of this story, or very near in content, can be seen in the March 2007 edition of LareDOS in Laredo, Texas and online, in pdf, at www.laredosnews.com.


By MIKE McILVAIN

That pen and computer a law officer writes an arrest report with can carry more punch than the gun.
Modern crime scene investigators are armed with pens and many with laptops, too. An officer can begin writing reports on the scene, or start with notes and edit them into soon thereafter into a comprehensive report fit for the district attorney’s office and potential scrutinizing juries.
A scene ending with a policeman shooting down a criminal might seem to end a case, but the law officer that effectively, and consistently, writes a report that all clearly understand has a better chance of nailing down that case and immediately related crimes for good. The clarity, careful explanation of details and effectiveness of the report cover plenty of ground, which law enforcement bosses put a high premium on nowadays.
In the western movies how fast a lawman could draw his gun was the difference between life and death. How well a lawman can write nowadays his report means the difference between a good cop and bad cop.
“To me, it’s way, way toward the top,” Sheriff’s Major Doyle Holdridge said, adding that all the effort thrown into a case mean nothing if no one understands the report. “If we’re not satisfied we’ll send them back up to do the report two or maybe three times. At some point the jury can review that document.”
Laredo Police Academy Director Larry Garner rates clear writing “around a six, maybe a seven.”
He isn’t satisfied with the four English courses required of those pursuing a bachelor’s in criminal justice.
“They need to write more,” he said. “Most cops would rather be out doing detective work, or practicing shooting or something, but they could be fixing to lose a dozen cases. It costs us when they write at a ninth grade level.”
Garner and his staff train officers to write in 32 and 24-hour courses for cadets and in-service work for those already in the field, but his experience says better writing makes for stronger police work.
Journalism and creative writing wouldn’t hurt.
“In law enforcement we are set in our ways,” he said. “We should suggest taking a creative writing course.”
Without clear writing, Garner says officers’ reports make them look like something other than a top professional and they lose cases, setting criminals free – sometimes to be arrested again later.
“They get off scott free, and it’s too late then,” Garner said.
Laredo Police Department spokesman Juan Rivera says LPD officers get more intense training once graduated from the 9-month academy with 6 weeks of in-service crime scene, driving and policy manual study, including additional report writing training with their field training officer.
Rivera notes that LPD officers use different forms for different crimes, accidents and cases.
“Almost every crime has a report and it’s a detailed report – unlike TV cops that just shoot everybody and have no paperwork,” Rivera said. “It’s done in an 8-hour shift, but sometimes they have to finish later.”
“It has to be step-by-step. In the details,” Webb County Sheriff’s Cpt. Benjamin Botello said. “Detail No. 25 could be the weapon, or other evidence. They have to be able to see everything for detail No. 26, or detail No. 27.”
“We have to show how everything how it went from point A to point B. It’s detailed and important that we make it like a book that you can follow completely and know what happened,” Holdridge said. “We want it so you can see that it is very self-explanatory.”
Holdridge said reports have several important purposes, starting with informing the district attorney about the case, but also the report serves as material for an arresting officer called to the witness stand and it is an instrument in potentially taking the suspect’s life away. The suspect could lose many years behind bars, or literally lose their life in a murder case in states like Texas, which uses capital punishment.
Sheriff Rick Flores notes that cases sometimes don’t go to court for several months, or at times even a year later, dulling the memory of the sharpest minds, so those details written the day of a crime are very important.
Flores credits Department of Public Safety veteran Holdridge for upgrading his department’s report writing, but Holdridge credits his experience with that state agency.
“It has to be user-friendly and easy to understand,” Holdridge said.
Flores notes that all his department’s offices are computerized and can go to specifics of a report with physical descriptions, civil rights readings, jail bond reports, and other matters indexed in a folder.
George Altgelt, an attorney and former prosecutor, said lawyers look for the mental processes arresting officers show when assessing whether, or not, there was sufficient probable cause to stop someone in the first place.
“He has to look at all the pieces of the puzzle as he can gather and once they are altogether can he answer the question if there was more probability than not if this crime occurred,” Altgelt said. “He has to paint a picture for the prosecutor and he decides if it has the strength to indict on the strength of the police report.”
Altgelt says police report strengths depend on the facts and officer’s ability to articulate those facts in writing. Altgelt said the reports have to be in chronological order.
“The conclusion should end in an arrest, and he can’t arrest without probable cause,” Altgelt said.
Altgelt points out to the tricky elements in some cases, which require thorough, detailed thinking and observation. Assume nothing.
For example security at a large store might have video taped a suspected DVD thief moving the items in his, or her, clothing to another department. The suspect is detained by the store and police are called.
Altgelt notes that an officer has to see the video first and see that steps match up to an arrest.
Simply moving the items might not be a crime, but it obviously might have been a step in an eventual theft. Officers have to operate within the legal framework.
Altgelt points another hypothetical case in which a beige suburban is seen speeding down Clark Blvd. and suspected in a vandalism case, or disturbance. An officer can “engage” the suburban and ask questions of the driver and riders, seeking inconsistencies and taking note of any items which could have been involved in the crime.
An empty case of eggs could be found in the car, but does it have any relation to the vandalism case, or disturbance?
Conflicting stories from the driver and riders could make them look suspicious, but officers have to be very specific when it’s decided to make an arrest.
“Show your work. There is no credit for just giving an answer,” Altgelt said. “The officer has to show his, or her, work. It’s more a professional thing than anything else.
“The right steps show professionalism in context. The police officer took an oath to uphold the constitution, and that includes any amendments.”
Altgelt notes that an officer has to listen carefully for the word lawyer because once one is requested it’s like a giant iron curtain dropping between he and the suspect. That has to be in the report, too.
“That can be more important than anything else,” Altgelt said.
Altgelt believes that buzzwords are important in a report and that professionalism and credibility usually equals conviction.
Altgelt says there no excuse for sloppy work in a report.
“If you don’t even bother to run a spell check, what does it say?” he asked. “Mostly everybody here in Laredo does it by the book. Everybody is under good watch under a lieutenant or watch commander and they help.
“There are one, or two that take shortcuts, and just assume that if they arrest someone then they are guilty. Some are more like the KGB or Gestapo and we know who they are by reading their arrest reports – and their cases don’t get prosecuted.”
Altgelt’s experience shows him that police reports have a tough battle for credibility because professionals, like him, judges and juries are always picking them apart.
“Some that come in are good, but they never get better,” he said.
Altgelt prosecuted drug and environmental cases for Webb County before opening his own office with partner Forrest Cook.
Flores says the state requires law officers to have at least 60 college hours, but his department would like it if they had more.
“An education, that’s your ammunition. Your pen – that’s the most important weapon,” Holdridge said.

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