Effective police reports require effective sentences. The good news is that you don’t need grammar jargon to master professional sentence patterns.
Here are two words that every officer should know: subjective (related to an opinion) and objective (factual).
Simply stated, there’s no place for opinions in a criminal-justice report. If you’re new to report writing, this may take some getting used to.
Of course you want to state that the man in the red plaid jacket was behaving suspiciously or seemed inebriated. It’s tempting to write that the kitchen window was probably the point of entry in the break-in. You’ll want to say that the inmate was disrespectful when you confronted him about disrupting the count.
Don’t do it.
Subjective (based on opinion) reports label you as unprofessional. Even worse, they can get you into trouble in court.
A skillful attorney can use vague descriptions (“The suspect was nervous”) to cast doubt on your judgment, trip you up on the witness stand, or convince a judge that you did not have probable cause for getting involved in the first place.
Objective (factual) reports make you look professional, and they’re especially useful in court. After a long time has passed, you may not remember details about what you saw.
If they’re plainly stated in your report, you’ll have no problem testifying. And many officers say that good reports can help keep a case from landing in court. An attorney who sees that you’ve convincingly stated the facts may decide not to challenge what you did.
Start thinking about ways you can describe rather than label a person who is nervous, inebriated, sarcastic, belligerent, aggressive, disrespectful, frightened, or disoriented. For example, instead of writing “Jones was disrespectful,” you could write this:
Jones told me, “If you knew what you were doing, the count would be finished by now.” OBJECTIVE
Practice thinking of objective ways to describe everyday things you see and hear. The extra effort now will pay off throughout your criminal justice career.
Here’s another recent police report for you to evaluate. On October 29, police responded to an armed robbery at a shoe store inside a mall in Tupelo, Mississippi. You can read the police report at this link.
My evaluation: The report is objective and professional. The officer uses everyday language – a big plus.
I have several suggestions. First, I think portions of the report could be written more efficiently. For example:
I MADE MY WAY TO THE BUSINESS, WHERE I IMMEDIATELY SAW A WHITE FEMALE, THAT APPEARED TO HAVE DUCT TAPE AROUND THE BACK OF HER HEAD AND AROUND ONE OF HER ANKLES. I THEN NOTICED ANOTHER FEMALE LAYING FACE DOWN, IN ONE OF THE ISLES. I THEN STARTED TO ASK WHAT HAPPENED.
I would omit “I made my way to the business” and “I then noticed.” If you state what you saw and heard, it’s obvious you were at the scene in person and asking questions.
Another suggestion: You can save time by listing the information a witness or victim tells you. Of course you can’t write an entire report as a list! But lists are timesavers, and they should be used more often in police reports.
Here’s the victim’s original statement:
XX STATED THAT SHE WAS CLEANING UP AND CAME TO THE REGISTER AREA TO GET TRASH BAGS AND THEN WENT TO THE BACK TO THE RESTROOM. XX STATED THAT WHEN SHE OPENED THE DOOR TO THE RESTROOM, THE MALE WAS STANDING THERE. XX STATES THAT THE MALE CAME OUT AND STARTED BEATING HER IN THE HEAD WITH A GUN, CAUSING A CUT ON HER FINGER.
And here’s the same information in list format:
XX told me:
– she was cleaning up and came to the register area to get trash bags
– then she went back to the restroom
– when she opened the door, the male was standing there
– he came out and started beating her on the head with a gun
-he caused a cut on her finger
One more thing: The original report says that the suspect “drug her” into the bathroom. No! He dragged her into the bathroom. “Drug” is a pharmaceutical product. The past tense of drag is dragged.
I often talk to officers who feel frustrated about their police reports. They’d like to improve their writing skills, but they don’t have time – or they think they don’t have time. Another issue is that they’re not quite sure what steps to take. Sign up for a course? Buy a workbook? Hire a tutor?
Today I’d like to suggest a practical way to get better – in your spare moments. All you need is access to the Internet.
What I’m suggesting is that you read as many police reports as you can – and do it with a critical eye. If you Google “police reports,” you’re likely to find some reports about celebrities who have had encounters with the law. You can also visit www.DeadSpin.com and www.TMZ.com, which often post police reports.
Or – just keep coming back to this website. I often post links to actual reports, along with comments of my own. (There’s a link where you can subscribe – free – on the home page.)
This “read lots of police reports” advice is particularly useful if you’re hoping to climb the career ladder. The higher you go, the more paperwork you’ll be doing – and in the criminal justice field, it will often involve evaluating police reports.
Here’s why this advice is so useful: Your brain is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the more improvements you will see. With practice, reading and evaluating reports will become easier, and you’ll be able to identify both the strengths and weaknesses whenever you read a report or – better yet – write one yourself.
Here’s an opportunity for you to sharpen those skills right now. A British newspaper, the Daily Mail, recently found and posted an old police report involving actor Sylvester Stallone. You can read it here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5081605/Sylvester-Stallone-accused-forcing-teen-threesome.html
Back in 1986, Stallone was in Las Vegas to film Over the Top. A 16-year-old girl saw him at the Las Vegas Hilton and agreed to go upstairs with him. Afterward she told the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police that she had felt pressured her into having sex with him and his bodyguard. She didn’t want to prosecute.
A retired Las Vegas detective has confirmed that the report was true. Stallone denies the allegations.
I hope you’ll read the report yourself! It is thorough and professional, and the writing is excellent.
I have a few suggestions (and these are the kinds of issues you should be thinking about whenever you read or write a report):
1. I would have liked to see more details. The generalizations in the sentences below (marked in red) lack objectivity and might be open to a challenge from a defense attorney:
She appeared to be very embarrassed and reluctant to discuss the situation with these officers.
[Name redacted] appears to be a little slow. She has difficulty in relating her thoughts to someone, and she was very emotional.
Specific actions would make a stronger case: “cried,” “hesitated,” “wouldn’t make eye contact with me,” “covered her face with her hands” “tried to talk but couldn’t get the words out.”
2. Some of the writing could be more concise. Busy officers should strive for efficiency. Repetition and unnecessary words waste time without adding anything useful. Here’s one example:
She indicated to these officers that Mr. Stallone said to her, “If you tell anyone about this, we will beat your head in.” WORDY
Here’s a more efficient version:
She said Mr. Stallone told her, “If you tell anyone about this, we will beat your head in.” CONCISE
The revised version has another benefit: it’s more specific (always desirable in criminal justice). “She indicated” could mean that she pointed, wrote, used sign language, tapped out a message in Morse code, or found some other means to communicate. “Indicated” is too general for a police report. “She said” makes it clear that she spoke to the officers.
What were your thoughts as you read the report?
Police and corrections reports have to be complete. It sounds easy – just write down everything that happened, right? But surprisingly often, officers forget to record a piece of essential information.
Problems can arise later on when an investigation stalls or a court hearing has to be postponed because important facts are missing.
Here are some tips to ensure your report is complete:
1. Make an extra effort to get contact information from anyone who might assist in an investigation, especially in a major case. If you suspect you might have difficulty reaching a victim or witness, ask for a backup telephone number for a friend or family member.
2. Always include the results of an investigation, even if the results were negative. It’s embarrassing not to have an answer ready if a defense attorney asks about the results of a sobriety test. Here are some examples of things you might look for that should be documented in your report, no matter what results you get:
3. Be particularly careful to document evidence that establishes probable cause, especially in a Type 4 report (when you, the officer, set the case in motion – a traffic stop, for example). Even a strong case against a suspect can be thrown out of court if you can’t establish a solid reason for your initial involvement.
Note that “solid reason” means something specific that you saw, heard, smelled, touched. It’s not enough to say that a suspect was “behaving suspiciously.” What did he do? The classic example is a person carrying a wire hanger who’s looking into parked cars on a quiet street after dark. But a person who’s simply walking down a street in an expensive neighborhood after dark isn’t “behaving suspiciously,” even if you suspect that she doesn’t live there.
4. Start every sentence with a person, place or thing, and use active voice. These practices ensure that you’ll be documenting who performed every action at the scene. You don’t want to write a sentence like this one:
Kettleman was transported to the county jail. PASSIVE VOICE
WHO transported him? The sentence doesn’t say. Omitted that essential piece of information can be embarrassing if later on there are questions about that ride to the county jail. Active voice eliminates the problem:
Officer Jay transported Kettleman to the county jail. ACTIVE VOICE
Criminal justice investigators are seeking answers to a troubling question: How is it that no one noticed that Devin Patrick Kelley was a potential killer? Kelley allegedly killed 26 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs on November 5 – the worst church killing in American history.
This sad story ultimately points to a seemingly unimportant police report dated June 13, 2012. Kelley – an airman in the US Air Force – had a troubled past that included death threats and illegal possession of firearms. A TV station has obtained an incident report describing Kelley’s escape from a mental health facility: click on this link to read it.
The report is worth reading, for several reasons. It’s professional and objective, and it drives home the point that even a routine report can become national news at any time.
Imagine that one of your reports was featured on a TV news show years after you had written it. What message would it convey about you and your agency? That’s a question worth asking. It can happen to any officer – and any report – at any time.
Bruce Maxwell is a catcher for the Oakland A’s. On October 28, 2017, he was arrested at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona on a felony charge of aggravated assault. He allegedly pointed a firearm at a female food delivery driver. Police in Scottsdale, Ariz., have released 20 pages of reports. You can read about the arrest here.
I informed him police were called to his unit due to him pointing a handgun at a delivery person. I asked him if he had ordered food to be delivered and he stated he did but stated he had “cancelled” the order and was not expecting it to be delivered. I asked him if he had any weapons (specifically guns) and he stated he had a Sig Sauer 9mm subcompact handgun and another A5 caliber handgun inside his apartment. He stated he had a “concealed carry permit” and was allowed to carry his guns. He admitted basing the 9mm handgun holstered on his hip when he came to the door….I asked if he pointed the gun as it was alleged he did and he now became verbally aggressive and stated he should have never been detained. He began making anti-police statements and utilized excessive profanity.
This is a thorough and professional report that could, however, be improved. My concern would be inefficiency. There are many unnecessary words – a waste of the officer’s time, and a problem for everyone else who read about the arrest (media reporters, district attorney, defense attorney, etc.)
I would recommend listing the facts in Wallace’s statement, like this:
When I questioned Wallace, he told me the following:
– he had ordered food to be delivered
– he had cancelled the order and was not expecting it to be delivered
– he had a Sig Sauer 9mm subcompact handgun and another A5 caliber handgun inside his apartment
– he had a concealed carry permit and was allowed to carry his guns.
and so on. Other parts of the report would not be in list format, of course.
Another problem is that the two final sentences lack objectivity (“…he now became verbally aggressive and stated he should have never been detained. He began making anti-police statements and utilized excessive profanity”).
The officer should have written Wallace’s exact words instead of stating an opinion – that Wallace was “verbally aggressive” and using “excessive profanity.” What if Wallace’s attorney argues that Wallace’s language was a normal response to the stress of the situation? If the report stated exactly what Wallace had said, it would be obvious that Wallace was aggressive and out of line.
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 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
This is police jargon. Substitute “I read him his rights from my Miranda card.”
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.”
Too vague for a report. Be specific: Was it a double-wide mobile home, a house, an apartment, or a condo?
This old-fashioned word is often an unnecessary waste of time.
10. Take cognizance of
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 www.fbi.gov/ucr/ucr.htm (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.