The Importance and Craft of Report Writing
“Saw drunk, arrested same”. For those of us who are “seasoned” enough to remember the J. D. “Buck” Savage parodies, none is more poignant to report writing than Officer Savage reading his “it’s all there” DWI report in criminal court (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJbuyC9KaJg). That’s right; those four words represented his entire police report.
As a former Field Training Officer (FTO), I remember grinding my teeth as I read through rookie officers initial attempts at acceptable report writing. I was consistently amazed at the volume of spelling mistakes, syntax errors, omitted information, disorganization, and unessential verbiage. Unfortunately, this training concern continues to be a major subject for law enforcement supervisors, criminal prosecutors and judges alike.
The primary function of writing a police report is to clearly and effectively “communicate” in chronological order, who, what, when, where, why, and how. It is not meant to astonish the reader with big words and/or redundant babble. For example, how could the following sentence been written more clearly? “It should be noted, according to this officer’s constitutional right to deny a person their freedom, I physically placed Mr. John James Smith III into official detention”. What the officer is really saying is “I arrested Smith”. Many new officers start their careers thinking they need to amaze and impress their coworkers with complex sentences and unnecessary detail. Exactly the opposite is true. The officer’s report should be kept reasonably straightforward so that the majority (not the minority) of the people, who read the report, will have the same comparative understanding of what the officer is communicating to them. AKA-keep the report simple, but comprehensive.
“It Should be Noted That”
At some points in our careers, most of us are guilty of using the phrase, “It should be noted”. This expression should be excluded from every officer’s written vocabulary. As an officer writes or dictates his/her report, he/she suddenly remembers that he/she neglected to include an important element of information in sequential order. Rather than going back and inserting this information where it chronologically belongs, the officer introduces it (“it should be noted that”) at a point that glaringly displays the officer’s disregard to the linear and interrelated parts of his/her report. Visibly, he/she is projecting “I neglected to put this crucial information in the exact order that it occurred, so I am going to introduce it here and highlight my organizational lapse in this permanent court document instead”.
And what about constantly referring to oneself as “This Officer”? Don’t we really mean “I”? Report writing is not an out of body communication experience. Report writing should be written in the first person, which helps to clearly identify who the speaker is and what action he/she was plainly involved in. Certainly, we would not refer to ourselves as “this person” in a typical conversation. Police report writing should depict exactly that tenet and use a spoken, albeit professional tone. Any FTO’s and first line supervisors grinning and nodding their heads yet?