Writing an Objective Report

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 can be useful in three ways:

  • They facilitate follow-up investigations
    Crimes often happen in 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.
  • They 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.”
  • They help you 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, her hands were shaking, twice said “What if he comes back?“)
  • reckless (Better: clocked at 50 mph in a 30 mph zone, crossed the double line while making a left turn)

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