Why writing well is important for Criminal Justice Practitioners

There are numerous ways that criminal justice practitioners can demonstrate to others that what they have to say is credible.

I would argue that there are two principle mechanisms. One is mastery of content and the other is through effective communication. The first approach includes understanding the concepts in your domain or specialization, and refraining from commenting on things you know absolutely nothing about.

For example, a police officer goes to the training academy where they learn the basics of their profession, which involves not only what policing is all about, but the relevant skills. If they graduate, they serve a period of time under probation, hopefully under the tutelage of a qualified field training officer. If they successfully pass this next step, then s/he is accepted on to the force. Over time, the officer gains experience in different situations, and through periodic personnel reviews learns to do their job better.

The other equally important mechanism is effective communication. We require our criminal justice practitioners to not only talk (orally) with members of the public, superiors and subordinates in a various contexts, but to produce written communications in the form of reports. These documents have important implications in both criminal and civil matters.

If, for instance, a correctional officer submits a report that is used as evidence in a legal proceeding (e.g., administrative hearing, trial, etc.) and the officer has failed to be specific, or the communication is confusing, riddled with spelling, grammar and punctuation errors, then it may mean that a victim or perpetrator does not get the proper consideration that they need for judicial intervention. For instance, the person’s period of incarceration may be unnecessarily extended (thus depriving them of their liberty), or a person who has done grievous harm to another, is either given a reduced sentence, or unnecessarily released from custody.

Thus, it’s important for criminal justice practitioners to not only master the content, but to be effective communicators. I’m not going to discuss whether criminal justice instructors do a good job teaching their students this, but here are some very simple tips on how to improve your writing, that many practitioners for one reason or another either ignore or avoid.

First, start by spell and grammar checking your writing. The communication platform you use may not allow you to do this in an efficient manner. Thus, you need to copy and paste what you write into a writing software package that allows you to do this first, and then transfer back into the field where you submit.

Second, read your answers out loud before submitting.

Third, give yourself enough time. Write a rough draft. Come back to it an hour, or day, or week later and edit.

Fourth, search out free writing resources on the web.

Fifth, read a book (or two) preferably with writing exercises. Do them.

Sixth, short of hiring a professional editor, have someone else read through your writing and have them give you feedback.

Seventh, take formal or additional instruction in writing. Many organizations offer free workshops to assist their employees communication skills. (Sometimes they are call writing labs).

These suggestions are not exhaustive. They don’t cover improving oral communication skills, but these ideas should assist those who need some help to improve their writing.


Albuquerque Police Department recruit officer phase one field training report writing

Why developing a literacy of graffiti and street art is important

If you see or interpret graffiti and street art only through a legal, criminal justice, and property rights lens then it is unabashedly and unequivocally vandalism.

But graffiti and street are more than this. In order to go beyond the tropes, misinformation, and common place explanations of this predominantly urban art form you need to learn a little about graffiti and street art. How much you need to know is not my point, but moving beyond a superficial understanding is important. I call this process developing a literacy of graffiti and street art.

Why is developing a literacy of graffiti and street art important?

There are a handful of reasons. To begin with, some subjects are more relevant to know than others. But if you are a city dweller, work there, or even pass through as a commuter or tourist, understanding your immediate environment, in which graffiti and street art is a part, is helpful.

We are also consciously and unconsciously affected by the environment around us. Understanding graffiti and street art, an essential part of urban street culture, can enable you to better interpret the visual landscape of your neighborhood and city.

Moreover, there is a considerable amount of unnecessary expenditure of tax dollars on graffiti and street art abatement. Every year municipalities, counties, states, business improvement districts, and corporations spend lots of money removing or painting over graffiti and street art. But not all graffiti and street art needs to be removed or painted over. Some of it can actually serve an educational purpose, drawing attention to crimes of the powerful, or enhance what is otherwise a dull and drab environment.

Knowing about graffiti and street art, for example, may enable you to critically debate or engage with individuals and organizations, who claim to know something about this subject, but may be poorly informed.

After gaining some basic knowledge about graffiti and street art, members of the public who have consciously or unconsciously bought into the broken windows theory and believe that graffiti (and perhaps street art) are indicators of dangerousness, should eventually feel a sense of ease, when they traverse neighborhoods where this form of urban art exists.

How can you gain an understanding of graffiti and street art?

There are at least three interrelated ways we can learn more about graffiti and street art.

It all begins with getting informed. I’m not suggesting picking up a spraycan or stencil, or doing an urban street ethnography. Although there are numerous books on the subject, you don’t need to read an entire one on the subject to learn about graffiti and street art.

Consult a reputable website that discusses graffiti and street art. But don’t simply assume that what you read on the world wide web is the truth or the gospel. There are numerous books and articles that go into greater detail about graffiti and street art.

Go beyond the obvious. Question both your assumptions and those of others who claim or appear to be in the know about graffiti and street art. (This goes for just about anything you claim to be an expert in).

Join, participate in, and engage with a community forum, including a social media site, that deals with graffiti and street art.

What’s next?

We need to stop sleep walking through our proximate urban environment and critically engage with it.

Failing to dig deeper than stereotypes about graffiti writers, street artists, the work they do, and the impact they have on our immediate public space and society in general, will not cure cancer or end racism, but it may have the ability to change the way you interpret and deal with the environments you live and work in, or pass through.

Ignoring or completely writing off graffiti and street art as simple brazen acts of vandalism is too simplistic an interpretation. Somebody or some group of people are trying to say something. You may not agree with it, the method, or its’ meaning, but it’s there.

Developing a literacy about graffiti and street art may improve your life, not by leaps and bounds, but in a small and subtle ways.

Photo Back alley Washington, DC, Union Market, December 2020 by Jeffrey Ian Ross

Urban Street Ethnography Interruptus

Every semester, for almost a decade, I close out the term, by giving my undergraduate students, enrolled in my Contemporary Criminal Justice System class, the option of conducting a very basic urban street ethnography.

Almost all of my students have graduated from a two year program in Criminal Justice from a local community college. Some of them are former or current Criminal Justice practitioners, while others are considering careers in this field. For most of my students, this is their first semester at University of Baltimore (UB).

Armed with a lecture that I deliver on the subject, one reading, a couple of videos, and a set of detailed instructions, I send them out into the mean streets of Baltimore.

I joke when I say the mean streets, because my detailed assignment instructs students to only walk around the major thoroughfares (and not the back alleys) of the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore, an approximate five by twelve block area adjacent to the UB campus. I also tell them to walk (not drive) around in pairs (not groups), during the relatively tranquil daylight hours.

There is a respectable amount of pedestrian and vehicular traffic in the Mount Vernon neighborhood. In addition to the Washington Memorial (the first one erected in the United States to commemorate George Washington), which is one of the centerpiece landmarks, there are lots of businesses and organizations located there. Mount Vernon also hosts numerous types of residences like row houses and apartment buildings. Unlike other parts of Charm City, few of the structures are boarded up. There is also a relative diversity of people, in terms of race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status.

I encourage, but don’t mandate, my students to speak to the people they encounter. Most importantly I tell them to not simply or superficially report what they see, but to tell me a story about what they observe, whom they encounter, what they hear, what they smell, etc. Most importantly, I want my students to critically reflect upon what they experience.

I use this assignment for a number of reasons. I know that in the academic field of Criminology/Criminal Justice, because the field is so heavily dominated by quantitative research, this may be the first and only time that they get the opportunity to engage in qualitative research that involves their actual participation.

Another reason I give my students the option to complete this exercise, is because after a semester of listening to me ramble or rant on about the criminal justice system, I realize that they need a break and there is no better excuse to get out of the classroom, and “to get their hands dirty,” than though first-hand experience like going out into the field.

The street ethnography assignment also provides students with an additional opportunity to hone their writing skills.

To some extent, the exercise is also a chance for my students to apply the material they learned during the semester to a real life situation. In this vein, it’s important for students to not only learn the material they are presented with in the classroom at a conceptual level, but to apply what they learn to the communities in which they live and work and vice versa.

Most importantly, I use this assignment to force my students to confront negative stereotypes they may have about Baltimore; especially the one that concerns how dangerous the city is. Many of my students come from the surrounding counties. For them, going to the University of Baltimore is the first time that they have encountered the city up close. They come to UB with a great deal of trepidation. Many of my students, like most Americans, have negative perceptions about Baltimore and its street culture based on shows like The Wire. At the very least my students learn that not all areas of Baltimore are dangerous. And that not all dangerous parts of the city are dangerous all the time.

Many of my students report that the assignment is one of the most interesting and fun things they have done all semester in my class.

Now, because of COVID-19 I can’t require my students to do this assignment any more. Predictably the university is worried about liability issues.

Sure, modified street ethnographies conducted by students during the pandemic can be done. But they involve numerous hoops and ladders that need to be negotiated, making the entire process a headache, and not fun. Doing an ethnography under masked conditions and social distancing significantly minimizes what I’m trying to accomplish.

One of the things that I’m looking forward to after the pandemic settles down, is getting my students back on the streets, so they can encounter what occurs on them, understand their unique street culture, and benefit from the knowledge that they gain through the exercise I exposed them to.

Photo credit: Elvert Barnes, Walk North Baltimore MD