My favorite tips come from men and women who have been writing and reading police reports for a long time. Some time ago, Mark Gallo – a traffic accident reconstructionist in Michigan – told me about two problems he’s seen in numerous reports.
I’d call the first “writing on automatic pilot” – repeating the same wording other officers use over and over. Mark says, “Many years ago I concluded that there must be a key on police typewriters (I said it was many years ago) that entered the entire description of a drunk driver: “the above-named subject had bloodshot watery eyes an odor of alcohol coming from his head area his clothes were in disarray….” Everybody wrote it exactly the same way, almost like they were reciting the Miranda warning.”
You might wonder what’s so bad about doing this. If the wording works for other officers, why not use it yourself?
Here’s why: You sound as if you weren’t paying attention. There’s nothing there that YOU observed. Not to mention that “odor of alcohol” might get you in trouble in court because alcohol is odorless. (Better wording: “Odor of an alcoholic beverage.”)
And why “above-named subject”? Just use “he” or “she” – or the person’s name. And clothes “in disarray”? I’ve seen some very tidy people who were under the influence of alcohol. If you do notice disheveled clothing, be specific: stained jacket, torn sleeve.
Mark Gallo’s second complaint concerns the word “head area.” What, he asks (and I have the same question) is the difference between a “head” and a “head area”?
So many of these verbal patterns are the result of OJT – on-the-job-training – learning how to write reports by imitating what other officers have been doing. That’s a great practice if those officers are great writers. It’s not so smart if you could do better by adopting some different writing patterns.
Good food for thought. (Incidentally, my book Criminal Justice Report Writing has a useful chapter on OJT.)