Thinking about a Police Report

Writing a police report requires some complex thinking skills. Here’s an opportunity to practice those skills.

 Read the summary below and make a list of issues that might come up as you prepare to write your report. When you’re finished, compare your ideas with the list below.

A 19-year-old woman stopped at the flashing red light at Shaffer Road and Bee Line Highway. Then she pulled into the intersection into the path of vehicle driven by a 73-year-old man that she didn’t see. The two vehicles collided, causing severe damage. A passenger in the  man’s vehicle was taken to the hospital for evaluation.

Here are some issues you might have thought about:

  • This is a Type 2 report (the officer didn’t see the incident happen and has to conduct an investigation).
  • Sources are needed for some of the information. How do you know that she really did stop at the traffic signal, and how do you know she didn’t see the other vehicle?
  • How are you going to document the damage to the vehicles? “Severe damage” is probably too vague for a police report. You might list some of the effects of the accident or use your cell phone to photograph the vehicles.

One more point: Writing in passive voice (“was taken to the hospital”) is a bad habit that many officers struggle to overcome. If there’s a court hearing later on, it might be important to know who transported the passenger.

Develop the habit of using active voice (“Officer Traneski transported the passenger to the hospital”) in every sentence.

How did you do?

neurons in a human brain


Sign up for our FREE Police Writer e-Newsletter and receive a free copy of “10 Days to Better Police Reports,” ready to download! Your privacy is protected: We NEVER share emails with third parties. 


 Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from for the low price of $17.95. For a free preview, click on the link or the picture below.

Updated, with a new chapter on Writing Efficiently

“It will definitely help you with your writing skills.” – Joseph E. Badger, California Association of Accident Reconstructionists Newsletter

Criminal Justice Report Writing is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.




Sign up for our FREE Police Writer e-Newsletter and receive a free copy of “10 Days to Better Police Reports,” ready to download! Your privacy is protected: We NEVER share emails with third parties. 


 Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from for the low price of $17.95. For a free preview, click on the link or the picture below.

Updated, with a new chapter on Writing Efficiently

“It will definitely help you with your writing skills.” – Joseph E. Badger, California Association of Accident Reconstructionists Newsletter

Criminal Justice Report Writing is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.


How Would You Write This Report?

If you’re a student in a police academy, you might be shown a video and asked to write a report about it.

Let’s try it. Click the link to read a news story about Philip Standefer, a police officer in Lubbock, Texas, who saved a driver’s life through quick thinking. Then watch the video below. (It’s only 47 seconds long.)

How would you write your report? The news story is incomplete, so you can invent some details (such as the name of the driver of the van and the other officers who arrived at the scene). (Don’t cheat! Do it now, before you look at my version.)

Answer: This situation calls for a Type 3 report (and a commendation for Officer Standefer!). What’s special about Type 3 reports is that you, the officer, become part of the story. (In Type 1 and Type 2 reports, the events happened before you arrived.)

Type 3 reports require special care because you’re dealing with two stories – before and after. Don’t make this complicated for yourself.

Officer Standefer might write something like this (I invented some facts):

At approximately 1:19 AM on September 17, 2012, I, Philip Standefer, was standing at the 3700 block of 19th Street talking to a driver about a traffic accident.

I saw a flower van heading north on 19th Street at high speed. It crossed the median. I saw that Sarah Beaty, 19, was standing in the path of the vehicle. I pushed her away.

Sarah fell onto the road. The van missed her.

The van crashed into a patrol car, which then hit another patrol car. I was pinned between both cars. I saw that my leg was pointing in the wrong direction.

Officers Calpen and Tenley arrived and called for an ambulance. The medics gave me first aid and drove me to Trinity Hospital.

Officer Tenley arrested Sally Cooper, driver of the van. He notified Cooper of her Miranda rights. Then he transported her to the county jail.

Because departmental policies differ, your report might be different from mine.

But the basic principles are always the same. An effective police report sticks strictly to the facts. You should omit your thinking processes (“I suspected the driver was intoxicated,” “I was afraid the car would injure Sarah”).

There’s a lovely follow-up to this story. ABC News brought Sarah Beaty and Officer Standefer back together so that she could thank him for saving her life. You can read about their meeting here.

Well done, Officer Standefer!


Four Types of Reports

Report writing can seem overwhelming. There’s so much information to process! And when you’re just learning how to write reports, it seems like each one is different.

The good news is that – when you have some experience – there are only four basic types of police reports. The even better news is that each one adds something to the previous type – sort of like going up a flight of stairs. So you’re not starting over with each new type of report – you’re building.

symbols representing stairs

It’s easy to understand and use the four types of reports when you understand how each type builds on the previous one, gradually becoming more complex. (You can download a free chart that explains the four types of reports and the special characteristics of each one.)

In Type #1, the officer is a primarily recorder. (Incident reports fall into this category.) Someone calls to report a crime, and you write down what happened. Examples might be a theft, assault, or sexual attack.

Type #2 is more complex. Now the officer is also an investigator. After a break-in, for example, you might look for the point of entry, take fingerprints, and question neighbors about what they saw or heard.

In this type of report, you have to record what you did and what you found. You also have to demonstrate that you followed procedures effectively. The key factors here are that you didn’t solve the crime and didn’t make an arrest.

In Type #3, the officer becomes a participant. You might intervene in a domestic dispute, settle a fight in a bar, chase a person suspected of robbing a convenience store. Now you have to report not only what others did, but what you did. Often you’ll make an arrest; other possibilities are calling for a backup or medical assistance. You might also ask protective services to get involved.

The complications here are that there’s a back story—what happened before you arrived—that has to be coordinated with your story, plus the additional challenge of demonstrating that you followed procedures and guidelines.

Finally, in Type #4, the officer sets the story in motion. There’s no back story. You see a crime in progress and intervene. For example, you might see an erratic driver and make a traffic stop. Since you set the investigation in motion, you have to be particularly careful to establish probable cause for getting involved.

These four types of reports all share some common characteristics, but they also have special requirements. Understanding these four types and challenges will build your confidence and help you write more effective reports.

Four Types of Reports Resources for you:

a flight of


Avoid Jargon!

Because I’m always looking for examples for this blog, I signed up with Google to receive a daily email with links to police reports in the news.

Today Google sent me six links – a bonanza! I’m going to post excerpts from two of them. See if you can spot what bothered me about them:

Advises she cannot see anyone but possibly believes one subject left in a vehicle. Arrest made. Report taken.

Caller on Clinton St. reports stray dog attacked their pet dog and injured its face. Advises stray is locked in their garage at this time. 

Here it is: the word advises. It’s police jargon that makes reports sound weird to anyone outside the criminal justice field. I don’t “advise” a waiter that I want spaghetti: I tell him. That’s normal English, and it’s the word you should use in your police reports.

Reserve advise for situations when there’s actual advice. Here’s a sentence that really does contain advice:

The post office advises everyone to do their holiday shipping early.  CORRECT 

Note that advise does not mean “tell.” Said or told is a better choice:

Jim told me that he’ll pick up the dry cleaning on his way home.  CORRECT 

Happily, one of the links in today’s police report email had a jargon-free sentence:

Chinese police report 14 children have been injured in an attack by a knife-wielding assailant at a kindergarten in the western city of Chongqing.  CORRECT

Are you ever guilty of jargon? If so, are you working on breaking your jargon habit? I sincerely hope so!



Preposition: A four-syllable word. It sounds intimidating!

But it doesn’t have to be. The simple truth is that you’ve been using prepositions ever since you learned how to speak…and most people (including you!) use them correctly most of the time.

As a serious writer, you need to learn only a few usage rules about prepositions. Why not learn them now? There are only four rules. Make a commitment to learn one rule a week…and you will soon master a big chunk of English grammar.

* * * * * 

What are prepositions? They are small, ordinary words that indicate direction or purpose: in, by, for, with, to, of, on, over, under, beside, near, along…you can probably think of many more.

Prepositional phrases are small word groups that begin with prepositions: in the garden, by the sea, for a year, with my sister, to the store, and so on.

Here are the usage points you need to know:

1.  Most of the time prepositional phrases are extra parts of sentences. When you’re analyzing a sentence, you should usually skip over the prepositional phrase to get to the really important parts.

Here’s what I mean. Can you figure out why this sentence is incorrect?

A change in city policies are causing headaches for police officers. INCORRECT

What is the sentence really about? Answer: A change. “City policies” aren’t causing the headaches: The change is.

So the sentence needs to be corrected:

A change in city policies is causing headaches for police officers. CORRECT

(You can learn more by clicking here and reading about Rule 4.)

2.  You can use a comma when a sentence begins a prepositional phrase. Most good writers omit the comma if the prepositional phrase is short.

On Tuesdays Chief Strong meets with the mayor. [No comma: On Tuesdays is a short prepositional phrase.]

Under the bed in a box tied with string,  I found a Smith-Wesson revolver. [Use a comma: Under the bed in a box tied with string is a long prepositional phrase.]

You can learn more about these commas by clicking here and reading about Comma Rule 1.

3.  Use your ear when a pronoun (he, she, him, her, I, me, etc.) follows a preposition.

I gave the report to her for proofreading. CORRECT  [not “to she”]

I gave the report to her and him before I delivered it to the mayor. CORRECT  [not “to she and he”]

Chief Strong thanked me for my hard work. CORRECT  [not “I”]

Chief Strong thanked Officer Brown and me for my hard work. CORRECT  [not “I”]

You can learn more about sentences like these by clicking here and reading about Pronoun Rule 3. You can watch a video about this rule by clicking here.

4.  Use prepositions with precision. Notice the different meanings in these two sentences:

Officer McCaffrey walked in the room. [He spent time walking around the room.]

Officer McCaffrey walked into the room. [He entered the room.]


Subject-Verb Agreement

When you’re writing a police or corrections report, of course you want to sound professional. So it’s important to understand what “subject verb agreement” means and how to do it in your reports.

Here’s a strategy that instantly shows off your writing skills:  If your sentence contains a prepositional phrase, take a moment or two to make sure your verb is right.

It sounds harder than it really is! Take a look at this sentence:

Accuracy makes you a better writer.

It’s easy to see that “makes” is correct, right?

Now look at this sentence:

Accuracy with details makes you a better writer.

Is makes still correct? Yes: It’s not details that make you a better writer, but accuracy. So: Accuracy with details makes… is correct.

Watch out for prepositions (small words like in, by, for, with, to, of, and so on). They can fool you into focusing your attention on an unimportant word. Don’t be taken in!

One of the officers needs this laptop tonight.  CORRECT  (One…needs)

Knowing a couple of shortcuts saves time.  CORRECT  (Knowing…makes)

Several boxes of equipment are expected. CORRECT  (Boxes…are)

Another tip: Usually the important word is at the beginning of the sentence. In the previous examples, focus on “one,” “knowing,” and “boxes” to get the verb right.

Are you ready for some practice? Try these. Then scroll down to check your answers.

Misuse of these substances (is, are) punishable by law.

Changes in the procedures often (cause, causes) confusion at first.

His explanation for his actions (don’t, doesn’t) make sense.

Here are the answers:

Misuse of these substances is punishable by law.  CORRECT  (Misuse…is)

Changes in the procedures often cause confusion at first.  CORRECT  (Changes…cause)

His explanation for his actions doesn’t make sense.  CORRECT  (His explanation…doesn’t)

To learn more about subjects, verbs, and prepositional phrases, click here and read about Rule 4.

a checkmark



Can You Start a Sentence with an -Ing Word?

Can you start a sentence with an –ing word? Yes, you can! In fact you can start a sentence with almost any word. (You may have been told that you can’t start a sentence with and or but. Not true! Professional writers have always started sentences with those words. There’s no such rule – and never has been.)

But some words are potential minefields for starting a sentence, and you should be wary of using them that way. Examples include like, such as, who, which – and yes, -ing words are risky.

Of course it’s correct to start a sentence with a word ending in –ing: But you risk writing a sentence fragment or a dangling modifier. It’s a good idea to check the first word of every sentence to see if either of those errors has crept in. (Checking the first word will also help catch other potential errors.) Read on for examples.

1.  Fragments:

Some –ing words are participles – meaning that they’re descriptions of something else. They need to be glued on to a sentence.

All morning long, two officers were busy. Digging holes in the back yard to look for the murder weapon. SENTENCE + FRAGMENT

“Digging” describes the officers, so it’s an adjective. It needs to be glued on to the previous sentence:

All morning long, two officers were busy digging holes in the back yard to look for the murder weapon. CORRECT

2.  Dangling modifiers:

Descriptions need to be placed next to the person or thing they’re describing. Separating them causes an error called a dangling (“hanging”) modifier (“description”).

I saw smoke coming out of a warehouse driving down Second Street. DANGLING MODIFIER

The warehouse wasn’t driving–you were!

Here’s the corrected sentence:

Driving down Second Street, I saw smoke coming out of a warehouse. CORRECT





You probably know that you should avoid using apostrophes to signify that you’re writing about more than one person or thing. It’s incorrect, for example, to write “The Johnson’s are on vacation this week.” The correct version is “The Johnsons are on vacation this week.”

But there’s an exception: Plurals of numerals and single letters use apostrophes. Here are some examples:

  • The 4’s in your reimbursement request look like 9’s.
  • The computer turned all the x’s in the report into t’s.
  • I found an envelope stuffed with 10’s and 20’s.

Using apostrophes correctly showcases you as an officer who takes writing seriously. Start today!

sticky notes asking if it's right or wrong


Verbal or Oral?

You probably see it as often as I do: “I verbally told him to….” The command might be to get out of the car, open her purse, hand over his driver’s license, or something similar.

But verbal is meaningless in sentences like this. Verbal means “using words.” It’s not a synonym for oral. Verbal communication can include writing, texting, emailing, and writing in chalk on a sidewalk.

When you’re careful to use oral for spoken commands, you portray yourself as a professional – a good thing!

And here’s something else to think about. Do you really need “oral”?

Imagine this situation: An officer calls her husband to confirm plans for dinner with some friends. “Do the Johnsons know what time to meet us at the Olive Garden?” He assures her that they do: “I told them to be there at 6:30.”

He doesn’t need to say, “I verbally told them to be there at 6:30.”

Police jargon (“verbally”) is often unnecessary. It wastes time, and it looks odd when someone outside of law enforcement (a judge, attorney, community leader, reporter) reads your reports. Think twice when you’re tempted to slip into jargon!

a checkmark



It’s and Its

Today we’re going to review the proper use of two words that are often confused: its and it’s.

The easiest way to learn the difference is to think about a familiar word you use every day: his.

You don’t use an apostrophe in his (do you?). Yet you know instantly that his is a possessive word.

Its (without an apostrophe) works exactly the same way:

George took his uniform to be cleaned yesterday. CORRECT

The department is redesigning its uniform. CORRECT

So here’s a guideline for you: Any time you’re wondering whether to put that apostrophe into it’s/its, think about his. If you can substitute his in the sentence, its (no apostrophe) is correct.

(It’s means it is. And its with an apostrophe at the end is ALWAYS wrong: its’.)

The department is redesigning his uniform. CORRECT

We’re redesigning our curriculum so that it’s consistent with state law. CORRECT

Here are four practice sentences. Scroll down for the answers.

1. I like this book, but some of (it’s, its) information is outdated.

2.  Although (it’s, its) obvious that the procedure needs to be changed, we need to retain (it’s, its) best features.

3.  The force doubled (it’s, its) size over the last 30 years, and (it’s, its) still increasing.

4.  Because (it’s, its) air conditioner is broken, that patrol car is like a steam bath when (it’s, its) very hot outside.


1. I like this book, but some of its information is outdated. (like his information)

2.  Although it’s obvious that the procedure needs to be changed, we need to retain its best features.  (like it is obvious and his best features)

3.  The force doubled its size over the last 30 years, and it’s still increasing.  (like his size and it is still increasing)

4.  Because its air conditioner is broken, that patrol car is like a steam bath when it’s very hot outside.  (like his air conditioner and it is very hot)