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Writing Police Reports: Ten Questions and Answers
Writing an effective police report is a special skill. Whether you’re a new recruit or an experienced officer looking to brush up on your skills, you’ll find useful tips and helpful information here.
1. If I am a sworn police officer, why can’t I include my professional opinion in my reports?
Rest assured that no one is questioning your judgment or training! The problem is that opinions cannot be verified in a court of law. A statement that a victim was scared, a suspect was belligerent, or a witness was uncooperative may not stand up in court. Descriptions (“Farrell’s hands were shaking”, “Patel fisted his hands and raised them to my face”, “Linton answered my questions with silence and tightly closed lips”) are far more convincing than generalities.
2. Why is brevity important in a police report?
Unnecessary repetition slows down the report-writing process. The problem arises again if you need to review your report for a court appearance later.
For example, you don’t have to write, “I asked Mason if she knew the color of the car. She answered that the car was blue in color.” It is more effective to write simply, “Mason told me the car was blue.” Similarly, “September” is more concise than “the month of September”, and you often don’t need words like respective, an individualand at the moment.
3. Should I avoid police jargon in my reports?
Yes, most of the time. It is not wrong to write expressions like BOLO for “be on the lookout” and APB for “all points bulletin” if your supervisor accepts your use of them. But problems can arise when outsiders (government officials, lawyers, media reporters, family members) read your reports and have trouble understanding the jargon. And timeworn police expressions can make you sound old-fashioned and unprofessional. When is the last time you heard “I realized” in normal conversation – and what does it really mean? “I heard” or “I saw” is easier to write and understand and sounds more professional. Similarly, “to advise” does not mean to say: It means to give advice.
4. What does “clarity” mean in a police report?
Clarity means clearly stating what you saw, heard, smelled or felt with your touch. Specific details (“I saw his right hand slowly move to his back pocket”) are much more likely to stand up in court than generalities (“He was acting suspiciously, and I knew I was in danger”).
5. Does passive voice and third-person writing ensure that a report is objective?
No. And you can check that yourself. Remember a time when someone you know (or maybe you) told a lie. Now turn that lie into a passive voice sentence, and use third person (“A piece of chocolate cake was not eaten by this six-year-old boy”). Does the statement change from false to true? Of course not. Honesty and fairness are character traits that we all must develop through training and effort. Phrasing tricks will not turn a dishonest officer into a professional.
6. Do I have to study grammar?
No. Grammar (the terminology and structure of language) is not the same as usage (the conventions of what most people consider good sentence structure and effective word choices). Part-of-speech tagging and similar grammar-related tasks are not very helpful to working writers. A good way to improve your usage is to establish relationships with people who speak and write well. Ask them for suggestions, feedback and corrections. If possible, have someone you respect read everything you write before you send it. You will learn a lot very quickly.
7. What are the most common mistakes officers make in their reports?
- describing an investigation (“I checked the front and back doors for signs of forced entry”) without stating what was found (“I found no scratches, splintered wood or broken glass on the front or back doors”)
- ending sentences with commas instead of periods
- stating opinions, guesses, or intuitions instead of sticking to observable facts
- writing long, involved sentences instead of short, direct ones
- jumping back and forth between events and people instead of organizing relevant information carefully
- making spelling and word choice mistakes (such as writing there instead of they are, yours instead of you are, ok instead of ok)
8. How can I ensure that I write effective and professional sentences?
Start each sentence with a person, place or thing, and end it with a period. Simple sentences are the easiest to punctuate – a boon for busy officers. Remember that “it” is a thing and means a new sentence with a period and a capital letter: “I examined the baseball bat on the shelf in the hall closet. It was covered in dust.”
9. Should I use the real names of witnesses, victims and suspects in my reports?
Yes. Remember that gimmicks (“victim 1”, “said suspect”), do not ensure honesty and accuracy. Using real names also helps avoid confusion so that later, if you have to prepare for a court hearing, you will find it much easier to review the facts in the case.
10. How can I avoid spelling mistakes in my reports?
If you’re writing on a computer, always use the spell checker before you submit your report, no matter how pressed you are. If you don’t have a spell checker, keep a pocket dictionary handy. A good long-term project is to buy a pocket notebook, label a page for each letter in the alphabet, and record words that give you trouble. Study the notebook whenever you have a free moment.
And there you have it. With practice and patience, any officer can learn to write accurate, efficient, and professional reports. The information in this article can help you identify areas you need to work on. Resolve to start today!
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