OJT (on-the-job training) is how many professionals in many fields learn their jobs, and criminal justice is no exception. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes not. It can mean that professionals are still stuck in The Way We’ve Always Done It instead of updating procedures and policies in light of new research and technology.
Police writing is a case in point. Laptops can make report writing much more efficient because officers can enter some of the information into boxes instead of writing out whole sentences. But a sergeant or lieutenant trained The Old Way may not see the benefits of adapting.
The introductory sentence in a narrative is one example. In bygone days, when police reports were written on blank pieces of paper, it made sense to cram as much information as possible into the first sentence: At 0842 hours on 8/07/10 I, Officer Carole Lynch, #547, was dispatched to a burglary at 1512 Carmen Boulevard.
But what if your laptop provides spaces for the time, date, type of call, address, and your official ID? No need to re-enter them. But the tradition lives on in many agencies.
Three features of good report writing are especially prone to be forgotten by officers who learned report writing through OJT:
- ACTIVE VOICE
There are still people who believe that officers automatically become more ethical and objective when they write in passive voice (The door was checked for pry marks) instead of active voice (I checked the door for pry marks). If only it were that easy to turn a mediocre officer into a top-notch professional! Sorry. It doesn’t work that way.
- PERSONAL PRONOUNS
The same mistaken belief hangs on about words like “I” and “me”: An officer automatically rises to a higher plane when he or she writes “This officer” instead. Think about it for a moment. Can you get rid of bias just by changing a couple of words in a sentence? Again the answer is no.
Progressive agencies encourage officers to include lists – rather than sentences – in their reports. Lists are useful any time you have a series of related facts. Instead of writing a paragraph of complete sentences, put the facts (such as stolen items) into a list.
Lists (sometimes called “bullet style”) are easier to write and more efficient than complete sentences. Other benefits are that lists more compact, easier to organize, and quicker to read–a great benefit when you’re getting ready to testify in court. But there are still agencies that insist that officers write a complete (and time-wasting) sentence for every fact.
Click here to learn more about lists in reports – and remember that you’re not asked to write the entire report in list format! Lists are only for a series of facts – such as a list of stolen items or facts about a suspect.
If you’re new to law enforcement, of course you should stick to the policies your supervisor or your agency prefers. But at the same time, you should make a resolution to be on the lookout for new and better ways to write reports. When the time comes for you to be promoted, you’ll be ready to show genuine leadership in the area of report writing.