View Full Version : Plagiarism and Police Reports

11-10-2007, 03:23 AM
Good evening all,

Does anyone know if it's considered plagiarism to lift phrases verbatim from publicly available police reports?

The reports in question are available online and do not have any copyright information on them (at least from what I could tell). A client of mine would like to use specific phrases from police reports in his nonfiction book.

Is it best just to use quotation marks and/or cite the police reports in the book?

I looked up http://www.plagiarism.org/learning_center/plagiarism_faq.html and found this blurb: "Simply put, plagiarism is the use of another's original words or ideas as though they were your own. Any time you borrow from an original source and do not give proper credit, you have committed plagiarism and violated U.S. copyright laws.

"Copyright laws exist to protect our intellectual property. They make it illegal to reproduce someone else's expression of ideas or information without permission. This can include music, images, written words, video, and a variety of other media.

"Are all published works copyrighted? Actually, no. The Copyright Act only protects works that express original ideas or information. For example, you could borrow liberally from Works published by the U.S. government...without fear of plagiarism."

The police reports I am referring to came from a sheriff's department in a Colorado county -- so I am not sure if this would fall under the "U.S. government" category or not.

Anyone have any experience with this?

Thanks for your help,

Little Red Barn
11-10-2007, 03:31 AM
Michelle, why not just call Dept. and ask for permission? :)
That would be City/County Dept. by the way not US Govt. unless it was State Trooper.
Ack ETA: Trooper would State Govt. locals would be City/county.

Tish Davidson
11-10-2007, 05:15 AM
I suspect that they are like information online from National Institutes of Health and other government bodies and are not copyrighted because they are paid for with taxpayer dollars, but you should ask to be sure.

Mac H.
11-10-2007, 07:57 AM
Any time you borrow from an original source and do not give proper credit, you have committed plagiarism.In that case, just give proper credit.

Since it's a nonfiction book it gives the whole thing a lot MORE credibility since, in the acknowledgement section at the end, you can have comments like "the description of Dr Jenson as 'a fat bastard' came directly from the police report of the July 14th incident".

That way you aren't disrupting the flow of the book to give footnotes and full comments, but you are clearly giving acknowledgement to the original source.


11-10-2007, 11:28 AM
My favorite police reports probably ARE copyrighted as they are so creative.

Gentle friends, let me bring your attention to the delightful, insightful police reports of Kevin L. Hooper for

The Arcata Eye, The Mildly Objectionable Weekly from Arcata, CA. (http://www.arcataeye.com/index.php?module=pagesetter&tid=2&topic=7)

My favorites for this week:

4:37 a.m. An Australian shepherd on Buttermilk Lane said “arf,” over and over again, and then some more, even though the point had been well made.

8:09 p.m. A massive Chevy Suburban collided with another vehicle at 18th and H with such fury that a tow truck had to be called. Odd, since SUV drivers are usually so careful and courteous.

9:30 p.m. A man staggering in the roadway at 27th Street and Alliance Road with his pants undone distinguished himself from the average free-range Arcata galoot by evincing a note of vulnerability. Rather than punch women or rivals, pee on whatever would hold still long enough or vandalize an inanimate object, this (d)rugged individualist broke with tradition by wailing that he needed help. Police agreed, and deposited him in the county drunk tank.

The drunk tank is usually called the Pink Palace, doubtless due to an unfortunate paint sale at the hardware store.

You can't make up stuff like this...

Friday, September 28 5:11 p.m. A Uniontown business reported a normally reliable employee not showing up for her shifts Wednesday and Thursday, which was most uncharacteristic for her. Another employee said she had gone off with someone who had convinced her that something bad was going to happen to her. The woman’s husband was contacted, and he said he had watched his wife leave with a traveler because she was convinced that a tsunami was imminent.

12-07-2007, 04:55 AM
Police reports are public information, but you do need to credit them. Should make for stronger sourcing anyway.

12-12-2007, 07:03 PM
I'm using part of a police report in my book and don't need to ask the specific police department for permission. They would not have given it to me if it was classified or confidential.

I'm using some information I got from a pedophile identification site online. It's public information or it wouldn't be out there. If it's online and not stated as copyrighted, it's public information and you don't need permission.

I was hired to create an original brochure for an agency, and now what I wrote is their property. I can't use any part of it without their permission. I can, however, write a book on the same topic if I choose to.

It's not unusual to have larger writing projects stem from smaller ones. We get inspired or latch onto an idea and it takes off from there. You can write a book about anything you want, just like anyone else. It seems to me that, handled professionally, the agency you wrote the brochure might be flattered by your taking such an interest in their brochure subject.

If you use any part of the brochure you wrote for someone, ask their permission and then cite it as you would any other source. If your sources are public information, like online information or files that are available to the general public, you might want to state the source to give your work more credibility, and as a general courtesy.

12-13-2007, 12:33 AM
I suspect that they are like information online from National Institutes of Health and other government bodies and are not copyrighted because they are paid for with taxpayer dollars, but you should ask to be sure.
U.S. Government publications are, by law, in the public domain (with certain exceptions, relating to others' copyrighted work used in a government publication).

That is NOT the case with state or local government publications or documents. Those are under copyright unless explicitly placed in the public domain. Even if the documents are required to be made public under, say, an administrative records act or freedom of information rules, they are still under copyright. (I verified this with the Copyright Office itself a few years ago because the lawyer for the state agency for which I worked did not understand copyright law and mistakenly thought our reports were in the public domain. So help me, he chose to disagree with the Copyright Office rather than admit that he did not know what he was talking about.) It is the law that prevails, not whose dollars paid for the work. Taxpayer dollars pay for, say, annual reports by state agencies, but those ARE under copyright. Often they include a copyright statement, and often not. But that statement is not needed for copyright to be valid. See www.copyright.gov for more information, esp. the FAQs and Copyright Basics.

However, if the material has not been registered with the Copyright Office, then the copyright owner is not able to sue. That is not license to violate copyright, but is merely an FYI.

Plagiarism, by the way, is a different concept. One can plagiarize from work that is in the public domain just as much as from work that is protected by copyright. Using others' work (public domain or not) without credit is plagiarism. Using copyrighted work without permission, whether credited or not, is copyright infringement.


12-13-2007, 12:41 AM
. . .
Does anyone know if it's considered plagiarism to lift phrases verbatim from publicly available police reports?. . .
One layman's opinion: reasonable use in fiction of phrases found in real police reports would be of no consequence. Use of sentences or paragraphs might raise issues. But there are only so many ways to say things, so verisimilitude might dictate adapting phrases from occasional specialized writing such as police reports.

If I were writing such fiction, I would chat up some cops and police agency public information officers to see what they think. I'd want to consider getting an ok to lift some phrases AND would be sure to give the department (or even specific individuals if they are ok with this) mention in acknowledgments. I would also want to be alert to the possibility that the phrases in question are commonly used in similar reports.



12-13-2007, 01:33 AM

Dustry Joe
12-24-2007, 08:54 PM
Any time you borrow from an original source and do not give proper credit, you have committed plagiarism.

Like most sweeping generalizations, this is too sweeping. For instance, I used to lift copy extensively from books prepared by athletic departments and sent to sportswriters. You don't have to credit the voters' manual or the congressional record.

State-funded rights are different. You might have followed what happens when a state school tries to claim rights for the logos and slogans of their sports teams: answer being you have to pay to print a Raiders shirt, but not an SCU shirt.

Then there's the freedom of information thingie.

You see newspaper columns where they just run items of police logs.

I would NOT ask permission from the cops to do this. I would research the law on it in your area (try asking a police reporter from your local newspaper) then just use it.