Objectivity in a Criminal Justice Report

Objectivity is vital to a criminal justice report. A judge or district attorney probably won’t dismiss a case if you’ve made a grammatical mistake. But if your report lacks objectivity, the district attorney might decide not to prosecute–or, worse yet, a judge might throw the case out of court.

Providing specific details is the key to writing an objective report. This can be difficult because criminal justice professionals automatically think in categories. When you arrive at a scene or conduct an interview, descriptive words immediately come to mind: suspicious, inebriated, aggressive, disoriented, and similar words.

For example, suppose you saw a driver cross the double line three times in two minutes. She staggered out of her car when you asked her to perform a sobriety test. Your immediate conclusion was that she was driving under the influence.

But professional criminal justice practices require you to omit these categories and conclusions. You state only facts and details, leaving it to your reader to draw conclusions.

These requirements seem to defy common sense–but there are good reasons for them. Facts and details:

  • Facilitate follow-up investigations
    Criminals often operate in characteristic patterns. Recording exactly what a suspect or witness says can be a huge help to an investigator who’s looking for habits and repeated behavior.
  • Prevent challenges
    An inmate can’t argue that you jumped to conclusions if you list the behaviors that indicated defiance: “Johnson clenched his fists, took two steps backward, and said, ‘You’re not my boss, and I ain’t taking any orders from you.’ Then he turned, walked through the doorway, and slammed the door.”
  • Avoid embarrassment
    If you announce in a report that you found the point of entry, or you knew a suspect was dangerous, a defense attorney might point out errors in your reasoning. Just state the facts: Describe the broken window and the footprints in the flowerbed, or list the behaviors that prompted you to call for a backup when dealing with the suspect: The threats against you (write them down, word-for-word), the weapon he was waving from side to side, the loud voice and flushed face.

Here’s a comparison of generalizations you should avoid and details you could use instead:

  • confused (Better: could not state her name and address)
  • afraid (Better: whispered the answers to my questions, hands were shaking, twice said “What if he comes back?“)
  • reckless (Better: driving 50 mph in a 30 mph zone, crossed the double line while making a left turn)

While you’re thinking about objectivity, it’s important to be aware of some myths about reports. Writing “this officer” instead of “I” does not guarantee objectivity. (If only it were that simple!)

Similar outdated expressions like “Victim 1” and “Witness 2” are equally useless. They create confusion and waste time, especially if you’re preparing for a court hearing six months after the incident occurred. Use real names whenever possible.

What about objectionable language? Insensitive labels like “crazy,” “crippled,” and “fag” don’t belong in a professional report, with one important exception: If you’re quoting a victim or suspect who used them. The same principle applies to obscenities and slang. Sometimes a word pattern will help an investigator pinpoint a perpetrator, so it’s important to record word-for-word what was said.

Following these guidelines testifies to your professionalism, and they can provide a valuable service to your agency or institution as well. Train yourself to observe, remember, and record exactly what you’ve seen and heard: That effort will pay off again and again in your criminal justice career.

Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus at Polk State College, where she also taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books. Go to http://amzn.com/0578082942 for information about her book “The Criminal Justice Guide to Report Writing for Officers.”

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