Even if you’re a top-notch report writer, it’s easy to overlook something important when you’re writing a criminal justice report. Interruptions, fatigue, and the stress of dealing with offenders and emergencies can get in the way of good writing.
Recent research has shown that a simple checklist can boost efficiency and performance even if you’re already a high performer. (See Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right to learn more.)
If you’re an experienced officer, use this checklist to do a quick once-over for your reports. If you’re new to report writing, use this checklist as a refresher course in report writing requirements. Results: better reports, greater efficiency, and a fast track to professional report writing.
Report Writing Checklist
1. Think about the 5 W’s: who, what, when, where, why. If you’re writing on paper, most of this information will go into your opening sentence. If you’re writing on a laptop or using a template, make sure you’ve filled in the spaces accurately and thoroughly.
2. Include full names and contact information for witnesses, victims, and suspects (if available). If you interview someone who may be important to a future investigation, get a backup phone number, such as a relative, friend, or workplace. Many people change phone numbers frequently, and an alternative number can help solve a case.
3. Include the results of each investigation you did: fingerprints, footprints, point of entry/exit, bloodstains, and so on. Omitting results is one of the most common mistakes that officers make. Result: Confusion, wasted time, and sometimes a missed opportunity to solve or prosecute a case.
4. Start each sentence with a person, place, or thing UNLESS you have absolute confidence in your writing ability. Keeping sentences simple prevents a multitude of writing errors.
5. Avoid outdated report practices. Old-fashioned words like “abovementioned,” “ascertained,” and “respective” waste time and cause confusion when you’re preparing for a court hearing. For example, what did you mean when you said you “ascertained” something? A witness told you? You saw it? You came across a useful piece of evidence? Explain in detail.
6. Clearly state who did what (in other words, use active voice). Contrary to popular belief, passive voice doesn’t magically make you honest, objective, or professional. Those are qualities you have to commit to and work on. Passive voice (“Harris was handcuffed”) can create confusion if several officers are working a scene: Six months later, in court, are you going to remember who took the suspect into custody?
7. Make sure the disposition part of your report is complete: If you found useful evidence at the scene, did you thoroughly cover the chain of custody? Did you describe injuries in detail? What was the outcome for victims and suspects?
8. Avoid generalizations and hunches, which can open you up to challenges in a courtroom later. Statements like “I knew Harris was lying” and “Johnson seemed nervous” don’t belong in a professional report. Stick to factual descriptions: “Harris told me they were heading to Porter City, but his wife told me they were going to Hicksville.” “Johnson’s hands were shaking, and he looked over his shoulder 10 times in less than five minutes.”
9. Avoid slang and insensitive language unless you’re quoting someone’s exact words. Sexist language, vulgarities, and other unprofessional terminology can embarrass you if a district attorney, newspaper reporter, judge, or community leader reads your report.
10. Use the spellchecker and grammar checker if you’re writing on a computer. If you’re writing on paper, use the dictionary to double-check words you’re unsure of. Make a list of words that give you trouble and write them neatly on a piece of paper that you can keep handy while you’re working on a report. Memorize words that are commonly misspelled: For example, A lot and all right are always two words; occurred has a double “c” and double “r.”
Don’t be alarmed by the length of this checklist! Most of these items are probably familiar to you already from your professional training. After you’ve used the checklist a few times, you’ll find you can scan it quickly to ensure that your reports meet the highest standard for criminal justice writing.