"We're not report takers. We're the police."
Posted inside the New York City Police Department's Crime Strategy Center, this sign is one of the first things a visitor will see. And as far as some cops are concerned, they can take that sentiment to the bank.
That the quality of police reports runs the gamut shouldn't be surprising. For when it comes to report writing, the street cop is not allowed the more romantic idiosyncratic luxuries afforded some. He writes when he must, not in the morning when fresh nor in the late evening when reflective. Working under a dim yellow bulb, over a misshapen posse box and on two pints of coffee, he's lucky to compose a report that'll survive a statute of limitations, let alone withstand the test of time.
Sadly, sometimes he doesn't get that far.
Besides being a homicide detective for Miami-Dade Police Department, Ramesh Nyberg writes a humorous column for the department. Police reports give him plenty of humorous inspiration.
"On one police report, the charge line read: 'Resisting Arrest With Violets." One wouldn't think "violence" would be that much of a spelling reach, but then, it was written after the assault." Nyberg chuckles. "I had a field day with that one: 'Willful Throwing of Tulips? Crime is blooming?'"
But then Nyberg is of the mindset that if he didn't laugh, he'd cry, and feels that given its import, police report writing is one of the least emphasized training issues in law enforcement today.
"That and court testimony. Of course, they're intertwined. The success of the latter is dictated by that of the former. We go over an officer's report meticulously.
"Unfortunately, we often end up doing damage control, reviewing cases in a D.A.'s office, trying to decipher just what a cop intended to say in his police report."
It's been said that he who tries to please everyone pleases no one. Unfortunately, report writing is one arena where anything less can be most displeasing for the author. Like it or not, officers write for criminal and civil attorneys, detectives, social workers, supervisors-and the victims they represent. Rejection slips come in the form of frustrated detectives, unimpressed lawyers, irate judges, and cases that don't get filed or end up dismissed.
How do our reports fail us? Sometimes, the nexus of the suspect to a crime is never established; or the probable cause for an officer's search and seizure is in doubt. Or, as John Quinn, a county prosecutor in Vermont notes, "the report may content a crime when the facts do not cover the elements of the statute."
The irony is that often the officer has done the requisite legwork in establishing a case; and few trial lawyers will argue that many of these cases might have been successfully tried if the arresting officer had been as vigilant in his documentation as he was in his investigation.
The tragic legacies of such apathies are legion. Beyond releasing offenders, we put ourselves on the defensive, face potential civil actions and the likelihood of recidivist acts by persons who wouldn't have been in the position to commit more nefarious doings if we'd done our jobs in the first place.
Sometimes, we in law enforcement learn from our mistakes. Sometimes, we don't.
Cerritos, Calif. Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputies respond to a loud-party call. The situation deteriorates to the point where several deputies, including a sergeant, are injured and numerous revelers arrested.
In-house, many feel the department has done no wrong, and are surprised to find themselves the defendants in a civil suit. Jurors feel otherwise, finding the department and the county and it s contract cities are culpable for excessive force to the tune of $24 million.
In the wake of the civil suit, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department turned a critical eye upon itself. Department members reviewed the highly publicized case, concluding that some familiar factors came into play throughout the course of the trial. Among their conclusions was that the incident had been poorly documented: Officers' reports were disputed by those of other deputies, lacked information, or were refuted by videotapes.
In other words, it was Rodney King all over again.
Why is this?
A variety of factors come into play. First, while we may occasionally find ourselves going up against lawyers with Ivy League backgrounds, few of us have such pedigree: It's left to the police academy to remediate its fledging scribes in the rudimentary rules of grammar and spelling. But the time allocated is often shared with other topics, subjects that run the gamut from sexual harassment training to cultural sensitivity training to force training to physical conditioning. Once out of the academy, these cops find themselves under pressure to get the job done and get back in the field. Finally, reports are as good-or, at least as credible-as the witnesses we quote. Taking such factors into account, it's easy to see why the effort is often executed with a butcher's finesse, and not a surgeon's.
Some even take pride in their report deficiencies. Years ago, I heard a deputy bragging about all the court overtime he was getting. Unimpressed, his partner said that he should start writing crappy paper, too. That way, his defendants would be able to offer an affirmative defense.
Joke or not, there's some truth to the sentiment. Examine the converse, a reality of the judicial system: Faced with a well-documented police report, defendants are more apt to cop a plea than go to trial, in hopes of a more lenient sentence. Indeed, it's not unfair to say that plea bargaining is often a trial by police report.
What can be done?
The cop gets a report call. He gets an overview of the situation, asks pertinent questions-and writes. And when he's done, he'll review his product, trim a little here and there, clean it up, and turn it in.
In a bid to make their reports more legible, some officers have migrated from the posse box to laptop computers. Unfortunately, too few have explored the grammar and spell checking functions. As a result, first reviews of most police reports by supervisors often constitute little more than line editing.
While inexpensive and portable dictionaries have theoretically obviated any excuse for the presence of misused or misspelled words, I nevertheless find some officers doing their part to speed up the evolution of the American lexicon. It is estimated that Shakespeare coined approximately 8 ½ percent of his written vocabulary. In know cops who have eclipsed the Bard's record.
Dennis Sloman, a captain with the Chicago (Ill.) Police Department, recalls some of the reports that have come across his desk.
"I've seen a lot of reports with poor spelling and no punctuation. Poor penmanship. We've gotten reports where there were no spaces between the words-all the letters were written together. There might be punctuation; there might not. I've seen troops try to write in third person, only to switch back and forth from third person to first: "R.O. interviewed subject X who told me...'
"Add another trooper in the interview and you can have a lot of fun: 'Assisting R.O. asked subject X what he knew about the crime and he told Trooper Jones that he didn't know anything about it.' Drives you crazy trying to figure our how many people were in the interview! Is ARO Trooper Jones? Or did Trooper Jones talk to the subject earlier?
"Another problem is too many pronouns: 'He told him that he and she had a camera and a tape recorder.'