Quiz: What Belongs in a Police Report?

Do you know what kinds of statements belong in a police report – and what kinds don’t? Try this report writing quiz, and then scroll down to check your answers.

Instructions: Put an X in front of each statement that doesn’t belong in a police report.

___ 1.  The house looked empty.

___2.  All the windows were dark.

___3.  Mrs. Brown was uncooperative.

___4.  Mrs. Brown left the room while I was talking to her.

___5.  Joseph Chang shook his fist at me.

___6.  Joseph Chang defied me.

___7.  I realized what was about to happen.

___8.  I grabbed his left wrist as his left hand moved toward the bat.

___9.  The clerk obviously had no intention of  asking Susan for her ID.

___10.  The clerk did not ask Susan for her ID when she handed him the money for the beer.

ANSWERS
Items in blue are correct. Items marked X are not observable facts and do not belong in a police report.

X 1.  The house looked empty. (An opinion, not an observable fact.)

2.  All the windows were dark.

X 3.  Mrs. Brown was uncooperative. (An opinion. Perhaps she didn’t answer your questions because she was afraid, or couldn’t hear you, or she was taking her time thinking about her answers.)

4.  Mrs. Brown left the room while I was talking to her.

5.  Joseph Chang shook his fist at me.

X 6.  Joseph Chang defied me. (An opinion. He might argue in court that he wanted to cooperate with you but couldn’t hear you or understand you.)

X 7.  I realized what was about to happen.  (An opinion. You can’t insert your thinking processes into a report.)

8.  I grabbed his left wrist as his left hand moved toward the bat.

X 9.  The clerk obviously had no intention of  asking Susan for her ID.  (An opinion. You can’t put your thoughts into a report.)

10.  The clerk did not ask Susan for her ID when she handed him the money for the beer.delete key

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Getting Yourself Noticed

I’m a big Denzel Washington fan, and last week I watched The Bone Collector for the second time (it’s that good). If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember that Washington plays a forensics expert confined to bed by a serious injury. Angelina Jolie plays a New York patrol cop who comes across a dead body in an empty train yard. Her quick thinking impresses the forensics expert, who makes her part of his investigative team.

A psychological thriller like The Bone Collector obviously has little in common with actual police work – but there’s one detail in the movie that I’d like to focus on for a moment: Getting noticed.

The Angelina Jolie character is an exceptionally quick-thinking, courageous, and competent officer. But no one notices her special qualities until she successfully deals with an unusual challenge: Stopping a moving train that’s about to destroy valuable evidence.

Many smart, ambitious officers at the beginning of their careers are hungry for a chance to show what they can do. Unfortunately, many of them choose an ineffective way to call attention to themselves: Through pompous, overblown writing. Instead of house, they write residence. For Johnson, they write the abovementioned suspect. The everyday word saw becomes the ridiculous ascertained.

But jargon and wordiness don’t impress – just the opposite. They create confusion and waste time. But there is a way to use words to showcase yourself, and I have an example for you. In April, New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith was fatally shot in connection with a traffic collision. Here’s an excerpt from the police report:

Officer Williams observed a Ruger semiautomatic, SR45 model, .45 auto caliber, serial number 380-09942, with the magazine removed, on the hood of an orange Hummer at the location. Officer Williams, while wearing latex gloves, cleared and secured the firearm.  EFFECTIVE SENTENCES

Did you notice anything?

The report consistently uses a professional sentence pattern that you won’t find in most high-school assignments. It’s called an interrupter, and I would guess that the officer who wrote this report has attended college.

If you read the sentences aloud, you can hear your voice change. Try this one:

Officer Williams, while wearing latex gloves, cleared and secured the firearm.  EFFECTIVE SENTENCE

Notice that there’s no jargon or overblown language. It’s a short, simple sentence – but it sounds sophisticated. Now try contrasting it with this version of the same sentence:

Officer Williams was wearing latex gloves. He cleared and secured the firearm.

That’s a perfectly acceptable sentence – but it doesn’t have the same level of professionalism.

If you’re hoping to climb the career ladder in criminal justice, you need to learn how to write professional sentences that are efficient and clear. Gobbledygook won’t do the job for you. How can you learn how to write at that level?

One possibility is to sign up for college writing courses. Another is to read daily with an eye to sentence patterns and vocabulary choices. Another is to practice writing professional sentence patterns (which you can do, free, at this website: Part I and Part II.)

A few minutes a day doesn’t sound like much, but over time you’ll build new skills that will help your writing stand out. Why not start today? It makes a lot more sense than hoping for an opportunity to stop a moving train!

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The Ron Minegar Police Report

The Arizona Cardinals have suspended Ron Minegar, the team’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, for a minimum of six weeks without pay. Minegar pleaded guilty to DUI on August 10 and served two days in jail.

Click the link to read the police report.   It is objective, accurate, and professional. But it also points out the need for updated policies about efficient report writing in our electronic age.

Note this unnecessary sentence:

On 08/10/2019 at approximately 2328 hours, I was dispatched to East Pecos Road and South Arizona Avenue, in the city of Chandler to assist Officers Kerie #700 and David #793 with a traffic stop.

All of this information was probably entered into spaces on the officer’s laptop. There’s no need to repeat it. Now take a look at these two sentences:

I arrived on scene and made contact with Officer Kerzie #700. I asked him if he could explain to me what occurred prior to my arrival.  WORDY

Here’s a more efficient way to begin the report: When I arrived, Officer Kerzie #700 told me….  That’s 8 words instead of 60.

You should eliminate any unnecessary repetition. The following sentence is too long, and it’s written in passive voice. Who repeated the instructions multiple times?

It should be noted that Ronald had to be instructed multiple times not to move his head and follow the stimulus with his eyes only.

Here’s a more concise version in active voice:

I had to tell Ronald multiple times not to move his head and follow the stimulus with his eyes only.

And there’s one more important point: save advise for actual advice. Use tell and told for information:

He advised me he was dispatched to the area of East Pecos Road and South Gilbert Road for a possible DUI driver.

Dispatch advised him that the Gilbert Police Department received a call from a concerned citizen about a 2009 Chevrolet bearing Arizona registration driving erratically.

Better:

He told me he was dispatched to the area of East Pecos Road and South Gilbert Road for a possible DUI driver.

Dispatch told him that the Gilbert Police Department received a call from a concerned citizen about a 2009 Chevrolet bearing Arizona registration driving erratically.

Think about all the reports you write – and all the people who read them. Saving 100 words on each report really adds up over many shifts – saving time for you and for administrators and others who read what you’ve written.

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 Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from Amazon.com for the low price of $17.95. For a free preview, click on the link or the picture below.

Updated, with a new chapter on Writing Efficiently

“It will definitely help you with your writing skills.” – Joseph E. Badger, California Association of Accident Reconstructionists Newsletter

Criminal Justice Report Writing is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.

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What to Omit from a Police Report

There’s an intriguing topic! Officers often worry (and rightly so) about leaving something important out of a report. But it’s also true that some things don’t belong in a report. Here are some examples. (I’ve included revisions in blue when I thought they’d be helpful.)

OPINIONS
Because of Mrs. Brown’s age, I knew she might not have heard the noise outside.

THOUGHTS
I decided the suspect had probably exited through the bedroom window.

GENERALIZATIONS
Foster seemed confused.

HUNCHES
I had a hunch that Casey had put the money in the freezer.

PASSIVE VOICE (unless you’re describing an action by an unknown person)
Clark was questioned by me.

BETTER:
I questioned Clark.
A wallet and a diamond ring were taken. (Acceptable if you don’t know who took them)

JARGON
“Mirandized,” “Baker acted,” “this officer,” “I processed the area.”

BETTER:
I took him into custody and began Baker Act proceedings.  

I read him his rights from my Miranda card.  
I examined the front and back doors. I found pry marks by the outside door handle on the back door.  

REPETITION
I asked what time she got home from work. She said 5:20 p.m. I asked what happened. She said she noticed the open window and got worried. I asked if she was sure it had been closed when she left that morning. She said yes, she was sure it had been closed. 

BETTER:
I asked what happened. She said she got home from work at 5:20 p.m. She saw the open window and got worried. She was sure it had been closed when she left that morning.

A concise and objective report saves time and shows off your professionalism. Make it your goal to write an excellent report every time.

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A Look Back at Antonio Brown

Antonio Brown is a wide receiver who was recently signed to the New England Patriots. But there are problems. Although Brown is involved in a sexual assault lawsuit, he didn’t tell the Patriots about it before they signed him. (Brown is not involved in a criminal case.) You can read more here: https://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/antonio-browns-camp-knew-lawsuit-was-coming-but-heres-the-reported-reason-why-they-didnt-tell-the-patriots/

This is a good opportunity to look back at a police report involving Brown. On January 18, 2019, the mother of one of his children told police about a fight between her and Brown the day before. No charges were filed. You can read the reports at this link: https://deadspin.com/here-are-the-police-reports-from-the-domestic-disturban-1832400256

I always encourage officers to read as many reports as possible. Ask yourself these questions: What parts of this report are effective? Would I suggest any changes?

I’m going to make two comments about this report.

1.  The paragraph below includes the officer’s thinking and conclusions – something not ordinarily permitted in a police report:

Antonio Brown

The officer explains why he couldn’t act on the allegation of battery – it had happened the day before. Usually an officer won’t give a reason for a decision. He also says that the woman admitted that Brown asked her to leave. Admitted is an admission of wrongdoing. Said would be a more objective word.

Perhaps there’s a good reason for the subjective language in this report. In general, though, reports need to be as objective as possible. The officer is acting as a pair of eyes and ears: no thoughts, conclusions, or reasoning.

2. The report is sometimes too wordy. Here’s an example: “By the complainant’s own volition, she stood in the doorway.” The report could simply say, “She stood in the doorway.”

Here’s another paragraph that could be more efficient:

The complainant then stated she wished to ‘cancel’ her report and stated she just wanted to leave without creating the complaint,” the report said. “The complaining was advised that Hollywood police would be authoring a report. The complainant left the police department at that time.

Here’s a more concise version:

The complainant said she wished to cancel her report and leave. I told her Hollywood police would be writing a report. She left.

Overall, though, this report is a detailed and accurate account of what happened. It shows that the situation was handled with courtesy and professionalism.

____________________________________________________________

Sign up for our FREE Police Writer e-Newsletter and receive a free copy of “10 Days to Better Police Reports,” ready to download! Your privacy is protected: We NEVER share emails with third parties.

 
 
 
____________________________________________________________

 Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from Amazon.com for the low price of $17.95. For a free preview, click on the link or the picture below.

Updated, with a new chapter on Writing Efficiently

“It will definitely help you with your writing skills.” – Joseph E. Badger, California Association of Accident Reconstructionists Newsletter

Criminal Justice Report Writing is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.

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An Excellent Police Report

Last week an academy instructor made a useful suggestion about my blog. He told me that I do a good job when I’m explaining some of the mistakes that can appear in a police report. But he wished I would give more examples of excellence so that new police officers have models to learn from.

I think that’s a great suggestion! I went into my files and found a very professional repot about a 2013 arrest. Actress Reese Witherspoon was charged with disorderly conduct after her husband, James Joseph Toth, was pulled over for a DUI.

You can read the story and the police report online. The report is worth a careful look because it exemplifies many of the qualities that supervisors look for: accuracy, objectivity, clarity, and professionalism. I didn’t see a single example of police jargon. There’s no passive voice. The events are chronicled in clear, simple English, and the officer used “I” when he reported his actions. Well done!

But I’m going to follow up on my previous post about efficiency. I thought the officer took a long time to recount what he saw and heard. (I’m always encouraging officers to get their paperwork done efficiently.)

Listing some of the information – instead of writing a sentence for each fact – would save a great deal of time. (Because there’s usually a little “tick” or “bullet” in front of each item, this type of list is called a “bullet list.”)

For example, here’s how the officer could have recorded what he saw Toth’s Fusion doing:

I saw a silver Ford Fusion fail to maintain its lane while it traveled in the left lane. It:

-traveled on the white dashed line

-traveled from left to right

-traveled on the double yellow line

-blinked its left turn signal

-traveled on the double yellow line again

-straddled the solid white line

-crossed the double yellow line again

And here’s how he could have recorded Toth’s statements:

Mr. Toth told me he:

-was 42 years old

-had one drink in a restaurant

-agreed to perform field sobriety testing

-had a problem with his left leg

-would continue with the testing despite the leg problem

-was chewing a mint

A list is an efficient and effective way to list information in a report. I encourage you to use lists in your own reports.

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Handling Official Correspondence Efficiently

If you’re planning a long career in law enforcement, you’ll need to know how to handle many types of professional writing tasks. One of the most important is official police correspondence. Today we’re going to look at a response to a request from a media representative.

Suppose a reporter asked made a public records request for a police report. Here’s one way (the wrong way!) to respond:

Dear Mr. Calfin:
The Department of New York Highway Patrol received your New York Public Records Act (NYPA) request of August 19, 2019, which you submitted to this office in person. Please accept this notification of the Department’s response regarding your request.
In your request, you asked for copies of police reports filed by any individuals between July 7, 2019 and July 11, 2019 pertaining to a series of incidents on Powell Street in Homeville.
With respect to your request, we are enclosing copies of the reports in question.
Sincerely, 

What impression will Mr. Calfin have of you and your agency? That you’re hopelessly old-fashioned and inefficient. The first 71 letters of your letter tell him what he already knows: he asked your agency for copies of some reports.

What’s the point of telling him that “We received your request?” Why else would you have written to him? It would be like answering the phone by saying, “Hello. I picked up the phone because I heard it ringing.” (Once I really did work in an office that programmed the phones to say, “You have a caller” when an employee answered the phone. Crazy!)

Here’s a revision that creates a much better impression (and saves you time):

Dear Mr. Calfin:
Here are the police reports you requested about a series of incidents on Powell Street, Homeville, between July 7 and 11, 2019. We’re happy to fulfill your request.
Sincerely,

Of course there are situations where you need to go into much more detail. Use your critical thinking skills and experience to decide when you need to put details in writing. That’s a way to showcase both your agency and your own professionalism.

Efficiency is important in today’s busy world. Long-winded correspondence is exasperating to read. “Business as usual” writing practices need to be replaced when they’re no longer useful.

Efficiency

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Recommended Reading

I just came across an article from PoliceOne.com that I think you’ll enjoy: “Five Keys to Great Report Writing.”

The author, Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D., says that “Patrol officers’ reports are the foundation of the successful investigation and prosecution of a crime, so make sure you’re giving your report the attention it requires.”

Here’s a link where you can read Chief Shults’ article:  https://www.policeone.com/investigations/articles/6049898-5-keys-to-great-report-writing/

Keyboard with computer skills written on one key

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First Person or Third Person?

Should you use the first-person pronouns “I” and “me” in a police report? For many years the answer was no. Third person (he, she) was required by most police agencies. You couldn’t say “I talked to the driver.” You had to say, “This officer talked to the driver.”

In recent years, however, many agencies have told their officers that’s it’s okay to use  “I” and “me.” Is that a favorable trend – or a practice that should be deplored?

The answer is that the change is a good thing. The old-fashioned rule that officers should never use “I” and “me” was…quite simply…a mistake. It was based on magical thinking, not fact – inappropriate in a law enforcement agency.

Here’s what I mean. Criminal justice professionals used to believe (wrongly) that “I” and “me” were subjective words. Officers who wrote “I heard a scream” might be lying. But if they wrote, “A scream was heard by this officer,” they were certain to be telling the truth.

That is absolute nonsense. Honesty and objectivity are character traits, not verbal tricks. You can’t turn a dishonest person into an honest one just by banishing the words “I” and “me” from their vocabulary.

And here’s something else to think about. If you were testifying in court, you would use the words “I” and “me” repeatedly to describe what you saw, heard, and did. “I” and “me” are perfectly good words.

There’s one more point: The verbal gymnastics needed to avoid saying “I” and “me” waste time and lead to tangled sentences. Try spending a day without saying “I” and “me” and you’ll see exactly what I mean. “This person would like a cup of coffee, please.” “No, coffee is taken black by the person who ordered it.” Good grief!

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