TMZ, a website that focuses on celebrity news, has posted a police incident report about a recent fight allegedly started by Chris Brown, a singer who was charged with a felony in 2009 for his assault on recording artist Rihanna.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department plans to close the misdemeanor battery case because singer Frank Ocean, the alleged victim, does not want to press charges.
The case is interesting for two reasons: It illustrates the difficulties police can encounter when dealing with a person with a propensity for violence—and it also demonstrates why incident reports (police reports documenting events that did not result in an arrest) are important.
On January 27, Frank Ocean drove into the parking lot at a West Hollywood recording studio and saw that another car was parked in his assigned parking space.
Ocean went into the lobby and confronted Brown, who tried to shake Ocean’s hand. Ocean refused. Brown hit Ocean, and two of Brown’s friends joined in the attack. Ocean says he heard a gay slur—“faggot!”—but doesn’t know who said it.
The attack lasted one or two minutes. Brown said, “We can bust on you too!” (“bust on you” is a slang term for shooting, according to the report) and drove away.
Ocean refused medical treatment at the scene and would not talk about the fight. He went to Cedars Sinai Hospital on his own and talked to police there. He says that he has forgiven Brown and will not press charges.
The incident report posted on the TMZ website is an excellent example of professional police writing. The officer uses everyday language and active voice; sentences are professional and grammatically correct, and there are no spelling errors. There is a separate paragraph for each witness. Events and details are carefully documented: the report notes that Ocean had “a cut to his right index finger and minor cut on his left temple,” and it describes step-by-step what allegedly happened at the scene.
Incident reports are sometimes neglected when officers are dealing with the stresses of a busy shift. In a recent murder trial in Florida (the Monday Demarsh case), police did not document domestic violence calls because the alleged victim did not seem to be in danger. That omission has raised questions about whether police adequately protected Virginia Varnum, the alleged victim.
Criminal justice experts say that even a minor incident might prove to be important later when events take an unexpected turn. The Frank Ocean report, for example, includes a threat made by Chris Brown. That detail could be important if Brown is indeed, as the Los Angeles Times says, on a “quest to become America’s super-villain.”
The incident report includes one unusual feature: A summary in the first paragraph (“Our investigation revealed Victim Breaux, a music artist also known as Frank Ocean, was battered by Suspects Brown, Omololu, and Glass due to an apparent argument over a parking space”).
Summarizing an event at the beginning of a report is a timesaving professional practice used in many businesses, but it’s less common in police writing. The “just the facts, Ma’am” philosophy favored by many agencies discourages officers from drawing and recording conclusions about an investigation.
The report does not employ bullet style, another timesaving practice that has been adopted by many agencies. Here, for example, is how the initial contact with Frank Ocean could have been reported:
- told me he did not want to give any details
- said he was assaulted
- refused medical treatment
- had a cut on his right index finger
- had another minor cut on his left temple
- said he would go to the hospital on his own and talk to me there
One more detail about Chris Brown underlines the importance of routine paperwork: He might be sent to jail on another charge—violating his community service requirement—because of “significant discrepancies” in the dates in the reports. Apparently he was out of the United States on some of the days that he claims to have done his service.
To learn more:
Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including Police Talk (Pearson), co-written with the late Mary Mariani. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.