Police report writing, although it becomes public record and it is extremely important to the Criminal Justice System, is seldom too technical for the average officer to master. It’s not brain surgery, however, it should be carried out with care and pride.
Police reports will result in the investigation of crimes, the arrest of suspects and the basis for criminal trials. These reports can frequently result in heavy scrutiny by supervisors, internal affairs, prosecutors, defense attorneys, civil attorneys, and sometimes, the media.
While the idea of such scrutiny can be intimidating, it should be the catalyst to always insure the best performance on every report that is created. Each officer should consider report writing a representation of himself (or herself) and an opportunity to show his hard work, pride and commitment to duty.
Mastering the task of writing thorough and accurate police reports comes down to some simple rules that are easy to follow. You won’t need an English degree or extensive technical police knowledge, just use the following rules and you’ll be on your way to becoming a great report writer.
Rule 1: Take it seriously. If you truly understand what police report writing is all about, you will know how important it is. It is used to document an occurrence and/or initiate an action. Occurrences can range from documenting an arrest or a crime to filing an intelligence report.
Initiating an action can range from starting an investigation to arresting a suspect of a crime. Keeping this in mind and understand that any report at any time can end up in court, on a supervisor’s desk or in front of internal affairs. It should motivate any officer to put extra effort into creating a good report.
Rule 2: Take ‘copious’ notes. Take notes during interviews with complainants, victims and witnesses. Write down distances, draw rough diagrams and anything that will help you create your report. These notes will be your tour guide to completing an accurate and comprehensive report.
Rule 3: Take your time and do it right – don’t rush. Be methodical in your creation of your report. Being hasty with an official document breeds mistakes and future problems.
Rule 4: Chronology is your friend. Unless otherwise necessary for more accurate reporting, document information in chronological order. Telling what happened first is easier for the reader to understand and better to piece together the timeline of the incident and to document events.
Rule 5: Stick to the facts. Don’t make assumptions, don’t embellish and always tell the truth. Remember that the truth has a way of coming out eventually!
Rule 6: Be careful of common ‘cop’ context mistakes and ‘cop’ misspellings. Words have meanings. Defense attorneys love to dwell on report mistakes when you are on the stand. CONTEXT: You effected (made) an arrest but the arrest affected (impacted) the bad guy.
SPELLING: There were no witnesses available except their friends. SPELLING AND CONTEXT: They’re not going to testify at their trial. OMG! Words like effect, affect, there, they’re and their, are often used out of context but are also misspelled.
Rule 7: Avoid ‘cop’ jargon. It’s confusing to the reader, especially when the reader may be a civilian juror on an important trial. Writers don’t want to alienate or confuse their readers. When jargon must be used because it is significant to the accurate and comprehensive reporting of an incident, it should be used but also explained.
Rule 8: Strive to be accurate and thorough. Remember NEOTWY from your academy days on basic report writing. Ask yourself, did you cover wheN, wherE, whO, whaT, hoW, and whY?
Rule 9: Paint a picture but remember you are not writing a novel. When necessary and you are able, retrace the suspect’s actions at a crime scene to provide your readers a clear understanding of the events of the crime and the suspect’s M.O.
Describe the setting accurately and professionally but not creatively. Be descriptive but don’t write: ”…on a dark and starry night…” Keep your descriptions limited to weather, types of buildings, traffic patterns, pedestrian traffic patterns, neighborhood descriptions and any other information directly related to the report that aids the reporting and follow-up investigation.
Rule 10: Remember your law class. Refer to the law and department guidelines for reporting to insure you are covering the elements of crimes and required information.
Rule 11: Try not to sound too erudite. Don’t use big words that some of your audience, and you, may not understand. Use plain English that most people will easily grasp and not need to use a dictionary every few words.
Rule 12: Write to inform, not to impress. Your reports should be masterpieces and they should tell the story in a brief and accurate way. Don’t write five pages that you could have told the story in two.
Rule 13: Find an editor. Until you master the simple art of report writing, or even if you have, ask someone to check and critique your work for accuracy, proper content and grammatical mistakes.
Rule 14: Read the reports of the best report writers. Review the reports of experienced officers who are well known for meticulous work.
Rule 15: Second guess yourself and your work. After you have completed the report, ask yourself the following questions.
- Is this report accurate?
- Is it complete?
- Did I put in all the pertinent information available at this time?
- Did I describe the crime?
- Will I need to do a follow-up or supplemental report?
- What will the supervisor say when he reads it?
- What will the detective think when he reads it?
- Will he have to go back and acquire information that I left out?
- Did I do my best to help identify and apprehend the perpetrator in this case?
- What will the prosecutor say?
- Will the defense attorney be able to attack me about this report?
- Did I do the right thing for the victim?
- What will the jurors think of me?
- What will my mom say? Put your best foot forward, dear!
Rule 16: Finally, read the report to yourself. You will be the final judge before you sign your name to the report and let it free on the world for the scrutiny of others. If you follow the preceding rules and techniques, I am sure you will create great reports and improve with each and every report writing opportunity.
Keep in mind that report writing is an eternal testament to your work. It is something that says so much about you and your career. It shows your command of the language and the organization of your thoughts. It speaks volumes about you and your work, reflects on your work ethic!
At the end of day, it comes down to saving just ONE life.
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