Try using these 10 tips the next time you write a police report, and you’ll be able to complete your paperwork more quickly and efficiently. And that’s only one of the benefits. Anyone who reads your report (a lieutenant, reporter, or attorney) will be impressed by your professionalism and writing ability. You will have avoided outdated (and time-wasting) wordiness that characterizes so much police writing.
1. Use names and pronouns (I, he, her) when you write about yourself and others at the scene. Avoid outdated expressions like “this officer” and “the abovementioned witness” or “victim 1.”
In the past some officers were taught that impersonal terminology guaranteed objectivity and accuracy. Not true! You have the same integrity whether you’re calling yourself “I” or “this officer.” And think about this: if you were testifying in court, and sworn to tell the truth, you would use everyday language (“I,” “me”) in your testimony. Follow the same practice in your reports.
2. Limit yourself to one idea per sentence.
Short, straightforward sentences are easy to read and understand, saving time for everyone. (You’ll especially appreciate this time-saving tip when you’re reviewing a report to prepare for a court hearing.) The longer a sentence is, the more likely you are to make an error.
3. Start every sentence with a person, place, or thing.
Normal sentence structure in English begins with a noun, and the grammar is simple: Just put a period at the end. Complicated sentences, on the other hand, require complicated punctuation, and they open the door to sentence errors.
4. Try to limit yourself to three commas per sentence.
If a sentence has more than three commas, it’s probably too complicated to be read easily, and it may contain usage or punctuation errors.
5. Be as clear and specific as possible.
“Contacted” is vague: Did you visit, phone, or email the witness? “Residence” is just as confusing: House, apartment, mobile home, condo? Always strive for clarity.
6. Use simple language.
“Since” is easier to understand (and write) than “inasmuch as.” “Pertaining to” is a fancy (and time-wasting) way to write “about.”
7. Stick to observable facts.
Conclusions, guesses, hunches, and other thought processes do not belong in a report. Stick to the facts. A statement like “He was aggressive” won’t stand up in court. You can, however, write “Jackson clenched his fists and kicked a chair.”
8. Write in paragraphs.
Organizing information in groups (what each witness told you, what actions you did, what evidence you collected) has two important benefits: Your report is more logical, and it’s easier to read and understand later on.
9. Use active voice.
A widespread (and mistaken) notion in law enforcement says that passive voice guarantees objectivity and accuracy. False. Writing a sentence like “A revolver was seen under the nightstand” does not guarantee that you’re telling the truth. It’s much simpler just to write “I saw a revolver under the nightstand.” That’s what you would say in court, isn’t it?
10. Use bullet style.
You’ve probably been writing shopping lists all your life. Use the same format when you’re recording several pieces of related information, like this:
Larry Holden told me:
- He and Sharon have been “fighting a lot”
- She was drunk when he came home from work
- She threw a package of frozen chicken at him
- He didn’t touch her
These 10 tips can transform your report writing, making you more professional, more up-to-date, and more efficient. Don’t try to follow all 10 right away. Choose one or two to focus on until they become second nature; then go on to one or two more. Keep learning and growing until you’ve become proficient with all 10.
One more suggestion: Share what you’re learning with other officers: Your entire agency will benefit, and you’ll be developing your leadership skills. When report writing improves, everyone, especially you, benefits.
Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including Police Talk (Pearson), cowritten with the late Mary Mariani. Go to http://amzn.com/0578082942 for information about her book The Criminal Justice Guide to Report Writing for Officers.