Tips for Taking Notes for a Report

Taking notes that are accurate and complete is an important step when you’re preparing a report. Here are a few tips:

1.  Be prepared.

Of course you have writing paper (and perhaps a laptop). But what if you jump out of your patrol car to deal with an emergency? It’s embarrassing to be caught without writing materials. Go to the Dollar Store and buy a few tiny notebooks. Keep one in a pocket just in case you need it.

2.  Think about categories.

Train yourself to think in five categories: yourself, victims, witnesses, suspects, evidence, and disposition. You won’t necessarily organize your report in these categories. But thinking about them will ensure that you don’t overlook anything important.

3.  Think about the type of report you’ll be rewriting.

There are four basic types of reports that you’ll write over and over.) Click here to learn more about them.) If you’ve thoroughly familiarized yourself with the types of reports and their special requirements, you’re more likely to cover every angle. For example, a Type 4 report (officer sets the case in motion) may have to deal with probable cause issues in some detail.

3.  Control the interview.

Talking to witnesses, suspects, and victims can present challenges: Stress levels are likely to be high, and you may be listening to a jumble of relevant and irrelevant information.

One useful practice is to deal with emotions first. Reassure the person you’re talking to (“You’re safe” or “We’ve got the situation under control”). Then explain that you need the person’s help in order to follow up. If you’re calm and professional, the person who’s talking is more likely to cooperate and answer your questions. Don’t hesitate to break in, gently, if a witness goes off on a tangent.

4.  Record the information promptly and thoroughly.

Don’t rely on your memory to add details lately. It’s embarrassing to be caught with an inaccurate or incomplete report. Discipline yourself to write a complete set of notes as soon as possible.


Police Jargon II

Police jargon wastes time and can make you sound outdated and unprofessional. Here are some words and expressions to avoid. (See also Police Jargon to Avoid in Police Reports.)

1.  In reference to

Substitute “about.”

2.  Mirandized

This is police jargon. Substitute “I read him his rights from my Miranda card.”

3.  Modify

Substitute “change.”

4.  Numerous

Substitute “many.”

5.  Policeman

Substitute “law-enforcement officer” or “police officer.”

6.  Prison guard

“Correctional officer” is the proper term for an officer in a jail or prison.

7.  “I processed the area”

This vague sentence should be replaced with a specific description of what you did and what you found: “I recovered two cards of fingerprints on the door frame.”

8.  Residence

Too vague for a report. Be specific: Was it a double-wide mobile home, a house, an apartment, or a condo?

9.  Respective

This old-fashioned word is often an unnecessary waste of time.

10.  Take cognizance of

Substitute “recognize.”


Internet Resources

The Internet provides many resources for officers who write criminal justice reports. The websites listed here will prove useful throughout your career, so it’s a good idea to bookmark and use them often. All are free!

1.  The Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook from the FBI.

You’re probably familiar with this handbook already. You can download it free as a .pdf at (scroll down to find the Handbook link). Here’s how the FBI describes the UCR:

The UCR Handbook outlines the classification and scoring guidelines that law enforcement agencies use to report crimes to the UCR Program. In addition, it contains offense and arrest reporting forms and an explanation of how to complete them. The Handbook also provides definitions of all UCR offenses.

Even if you’re not filling out statistics reports, the UCR is invaluable: It clarifies criminal justice terminology, provides scenarios to discuss, and explains how professionals classify various crimes.


Besides offering definitions, this website compares what various dictionaries say about a particular word or phrase, and it sometimes offers usage note. I go to this website often when I’m unsure how to spell or use a particular word or expression.


Jargon and gobbledygook waste time, create confusion, and make a bad impression on your readers. This government-sponsored website provides many easy-to-use resources to help you write more clearly and efficiently.


Good-bye, Post-It notes! This free, privacy-protected website sorts and stores any information you want to save. You can access the information from any computer with Internet access. You can clean out your desk and set up a quick, reliable system to find important information.


This isn’t really a writers’ website, but it’s been such a lifesaver for me that I wanted to include it. You can securely store passwords here, free of charge, and access them from any computer with Internet access. This is a great website if you have accounts with many websites, and it’s especially useful if you travel often: you don’t have to worry about carrying (and possibly losing) a list of passwords.


Deleting Information from a Police Report

Another update to the story below:  State police Col. Richard McKeon – the official who ordered the state trooper to alter the arrest report – is retiring. Gov. Charlie D. Baker has ordered the force to review its procedures for handling how it logs arrests. You can read more here.

Update to the story below: State Trooper Ryan Sceviour is suing top commanders of the State Police, charging that they punished him and forced him to falsify records. You can read more at this link.

Is deleting information from a police report ever permissible? That question has been raised in connection with the arrest of a judge’s daughter in Worcester, Massachusetts, on October 13. (You can read an article about the arrest below.)

A police report on the arrest of a local judge’s daughter was altered as part of “appropriate revisions” that can be made by State Police supervisors.

Alli Bibaud is the daughter of Court Judge Tim Bibaud. When she was arrested on charges that included heroin possession. she told state troopers, “Do you know how many people I had to [sexual act deleted] to get that?”

A spokesperson for Massachusetts State Police issued a statement about the police report. He explained, “The removal of the inflammatory and unnecessary quotation did not change the substance of the trooper’s narrative, did not remove any elements of probable cause from the report, and, most importantly, had no impact on the charges against the defendant.”

He also noted that both versions of the report – cut and uncut – were submitted to the court.

Questions often arise about a citizen’s right to privacy vs. the public’s right to information about an arrest. Do you know your agency’s policies about including and excluding information from police reports?

State Police: Arrest report of judge’s daughter revised


Fixing Verb Problems

Today I’m going to talk about fixing verb problems. (Verbs are action words like go, shoot, see. Forms of be are also verbs: is, are, was, were, and so on.) We’re going to focus on two common mistakes.

1. Could have, could’ve (correct!) vs. could of (wrong!)

I’ve often said that it’s the small, everyday words that get writers into trouble. Of is a good example, especially when you’re thinking about verbs.

Unfortunately many people (including officers!) sometimes write of when they mean could’ve or could have. (Could’ve is a contraction of could have.) When you’re speaking, “could’ve” and “could of” sound the same. As a result, of creeps into a sentence even though it doesn’t belong there.

The same problem crops up with should have and would have. Be careful to write should’ve, should have, would’ve, or would have – not should of or would of!

Mattson could of left through the bedroom window.  WRONG

Mattson could’ve left through the bedroom window. CORRECT

Mattson could have left through the bedroom window. CORRECT

It’s a good idea to write out “have” in instead of abbreviating it. That practice will help you avoid the embarrassment of using of incorrectly.

2.  It’s easy to forget to add the –ed ending for verbs, for the same reason: You don’t clearly hear that –ed when you’re talking. Read the following sentence aloud, and you’ll hear what I mean:

Joan had hoped for a promotion, and she finally received the good news this morning.

Chances are you barely heard the -ed in hoped and received. That means it’s easy to forget about that -ed when you’re writing, especially if you’re tired or rushed.

So here’s what you need to know. The -ed ending is often necessary when you combine a verb with has, had, have, be, been, is, are, was, and were:

Lucy has lived on Tenth Street for two years.

Although we have wished for a new building for a long time, we’re unlikely to get it.

The report is finished.

Several people are already lined up and waiting.

And so on. These tips are easy to apply if you concentrate and double-check your reports – and they’ll help you avoid many errors!



A Bullet List Can Save Time!

Do you ever find yourself writing a report with a lot of tiresome repetition?

Jones said she came home from work at 5:25 pm. Jones said she noticed the back door was open. Jones said she was frightened. Jones said she called 911. Jones said she then went to a neighbor’s house to wait for police to arrive. Jones said she didn’t notice any other suspicious activity at her home.  REPETITIOUS

A bullet list can be a great timesaver. Notice you don’t try to write your whole report in list format! Use it only as needed, to save time:

I arrived at about 6:10 PM and talked to Jones. She was watching for me from a neighbor’s house. While waiting for her, I noticed that her front door was open.

Jones told me:

  • she came home from work at 5:25 pm
  • she noticed the back door was open
  • she was frightened and called 911
  • he then went to a neighbor’s house to wait for police to arrive
  • he didn’t notice any other suspicious activity at her home

Still puzzled about lists? Here are two things to think about. First, you’ve probably been writing lists all your life!

Second, it’s common practice to write a letter, a report, or any other task and include a list. Suppose a young couple has a new baby. They’re planning to visit some friends for a weekend. The friend asked what supplies to have on hand. The couple could write a letter – as usual – about how much they’re looking forward to the visit – and include a list of needed items. (For an introduction to lists, click here; to listen to a podcast about lists, click here.)

This practice activity will help you become proficient with timesaving lists.

Instructions: Rewrite the facts below in bullets. Scroll down for suggested answers.

1.  Patterson noticed many things were wrong when she entered her bedroom. Dresser drawers were overturned and emptied on the floor. The lock on her jewelry box was broken. The jewelry box was emptied on her bed. Her favorite gold necklace was missing. A platinum diamond ring was missing.

2.  After talking to the bartender, I entered a private room in the back. I saw a man and woman were screaming at each other. Although a little girl was kicking the man’s legs, he paid no attention to her. While all this was going on, an older woman was picking up shards of glass from the floor.

3.  Baxter said he’d left his wallet on the front seat while he ran into the McDonald’s to use the bathroom. His friend Cunningham was sitting in the passenger seat. When Baxter returned to his car, both Cunningham and the wallet were gone.


Note: These are suggestions only. Answers may vary.

1.  When Patterson entered her bedroom, she noticed the following:

  • Dresser drawers were overturned and emptied on the floor
  • The lock on her jewelry box was open
  • The jewelry box was emptied on her bed
  • A gold necklace and a platinum diamond ring were missing

2.  After talking to the bartender, I entered a private room in the back and saw:

  • a man and woman screaming at each other
  • a little girl kicking the man’s legs
  • an older woman picking up shards of glass from the floor

3.  Baxter told me:

  • He ran into the McDonald’s to use the bathroom
  • He left his wallet on the front seat
  • His friend Cunningham was in the passenger seat
  • A few minutes later he returned to his car
  • Both Cunningham and the wallet were gone


Police Terminology You Should Know

Criminal justice professionals use a specialized vocabulary that every officer should know. Here is some police terminology that you should be careful to use correctly:

Burglary: This is a break-in without the use of force against a victim. If someone steals a television set from an unoccupied vacation house, the crime is classified as a burglary.

Robbery:  When the suspect uses force to steal, the crime is classified as a robbery. Most convenience store crimes are robberies.

Adult: Generally a person 18 years of age or older.

Aggravated assault: Usually involves both a weapon and severe injury.

Bias crime (also called hate crime): Not just a crime by a person who is prejudiced toward a particular group. To prosecute a “bias”(or “hate”) crime, you must show that hate motivated the crime.

Drunkenness: This term is applied for situations involving alcoholic beverages, but it excludes driving under the influence.

DUI: Driving under the influence includes both alcohol and drugs.

Alcohol: A tasteless and odorless substance. You may have difficulty in court if you claim that you smelled alcohol on a suspect’s breath. Instead you could say, “I smelled an alcoholic beverage.”


Another Perspective on Police Reports: Crime Statistics

Police officers quite naturally tend to take an up-close-and-personal view of the reports they write: Is my report complete? Did I get the facts right? Are there any grammar and usage mistakes to correct?

But a recent story in a Baltimore newspaper is a good reminder that police reports can be viewed from a much larger context. They provide crime statistics and valuable data about trends in criminal activity. The article in the Baltimore Sun notes that hate incidents – most of them directed at African-Americans –  surged 40 percent last year.

The Baltimore data was collected as part of a project involving newsrooms across the US. You should also know about an even larger and more complex undertaking coordinated by the FBI: Uniform Crime Reporting. Police departments all over the country send crime data to the FBI, which collects, interprets, and publishes statistics based on that data.

Every year the FBI publishes four reports (available free from the UCR website): Crime in the United StatesNational Incident-Based Reporting System, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, and Hate Crime Statistics.

The FBI data is collected from 18,000 sources across the US. Highly skilled statisticians crunch the numbers, which give a useful perspective on what law enforcement is dealing with in the ongoing fight against crime. The UCR project is one more reminder of the professionalism and commitment to excellence that characterize the criminal justice field.

2014 Crime Data from the FBI


Identifying Passive Voice

Passive voice often causes problems in criminal justice reports. (Here’s a typical passive voice sentence: The vehicle was searched.) It’s easy to see how passive voice can cause problems, especially in an investigation or court hearing: The sentence doesn’t tell who performed the search.

In general, you should avoid using passive voice in your reports. Be careful, however, not to be fooled into “correcting” sentences that were right in the first place. Make sure a sentence is really passive before you change it.

Here are two examples of what I’m talking about:

The suspects were questioned.  PASSIVE VOICE

While we were questioning the subjects, Officer Brown arrived at the scene.  ACTIVE VOICE

“We were questioning” is active voice (OK to use) because you know that we were doing it.

Now let’s look at a series of sentences. Can you see which are passive and which are active? Scroll down for the answers.

Jones was seen running away from the convenience store.

Jones was carrying a six-pack of beer and a bottle of white wine.

Three sobriety tests were administered.

Patterson was looking in his wallet for his driver’s license.

Both witnesses were questioned.

Finch was having difficulty answering the questions.

Here are the sentences again, with the passive sentences labeled:

Jones was seen running away from the convenience store.  PASSIVE  (Who saw him?)

Jones was carrying a six-pack of beer and a bottle of white wine.  √

Three sobriety tests were administered.  PASSIVE  (Who administered them?)

Patterson was looking in his wallet for his driver’s license.  √

Both witnesses were questioned.  PASSIVE  (Who questioned them?)

Finch was having difficulty answering the questions.  √

Reminder: Passive voice is acceptable only when you don’t know who performed an action. Otherwise, use active voice.

The two passive voice sentences below are acceptable because the officer writing the report doesn’t know who broke into the store and who took the money and liquor:

The store was broken into at around midnight.  [PASSIVE – OK]

Fifty dollars and five bottles of liquor were taken.  [PASSIVE – OK]

passive voice test


Look at the Beginning of a Sentence

Warnings of possible sentence problems often show up at the beginning of a sentence. Here are four tips you’ll use again and again:

1.  Anything that begins with a person, place, or thing is probably a real sentence and should end with a period.

Donna had questions about my report.  SENTENCE

If it doesn’t begin with a person, place, or thing, it’s probably an extra idea and should a) end with a comma and b) be attached to a real sentence.

Because Donna had questions about my report,  EXTRA IDEA

Because Donna had questions about my report, I decided to revise it.  SENTENCE

(Click here to learn about Comma Rule 1.)

2.  Remember that it is a thing. Here’s a handy rule of thumb: If it starts with it, it’s a sentence.

I pushed on the door, it wouldn’t open.  INCORRECT

I pushed on the door. It wouldn’t open. CORRECT

3.  The beginning of the sentence usually tells you who or what the sentence is about. That information will make you more likely to get the rest of the sentence right.

Use of illegal substances (has/have) increased in this county.

Focus on the word use, and you’ll know immediately that the verb should be has. [Use…has]

Use of illegal substances has increased in this county. CORRECT

(Click here to read about Subject-Verb Agreement Rule 4.)

4.  Be especially careful about starting sentences with -ing words. Of course it’s correct to start a sentence with a word ending in -ing: But you risk writing a sentence fragment or a dangling modifier.

Buttoning his jacket as he ran to his car.  FRAGMENT

He was buttoning his jacket as he ran to his car. CORRECT

Buttoning his jacket, his cell phone fell out of the pocket.  DANGLING MODIFIER

While he was buttoning his jacket, his cell phone fell out of the pocket. CORRECT

Here’s a suggestion that will pay off again and again: Look at the beginning of a sentence and think about possible problems. Try it!


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