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The Dreaded Report: We Must Do it, So Why Not Get it Write?

If you put on the badge, there is no escaping the paper. Sometimes it seems like you’re drowning in it. Here’s another approach—and some tips—on handling this important daily part of your duties.

March 01, 2000  |  by Sgt. Dean Scoville

"Rather than draw conclusions in a report (such as 'the subject appeared intoxicated'), I try to get them to avoid conclusions and describe the details.  This not only forms a permanent record for future testimony, but it allows the lawyers and judges to see exactly what the police officer was seeing rather than guess at what symptoms the officer might have been seeing to come to the conclusion that the person was intoxicated."

Absent a photograph or videotape, proper documentation may be the sole difference between a misdemeanor or felony filing.  This is not an endorsement to lie, but it'd be equally disingenuous not to acknowledge the possible consequences of arbitrary verbiage.

At the same time, remember the maxim: A picture is worth a thousand words.

One never knows where and in what form one's report may end up.  California Highway Patrol Officer Greg Mason found a crime report he'd authored posted on the Internet by a disgruntled parent.

And in a federal court case, LASD Sgt. Bruce Prewett and two fellow deputies found themselves confronted with copies of their reports replicated to heights of 8 feet.  Prosecuting attorneys sought to use the reports against the deputies in a highly publicized trial that was coming on the heels of the Rodney King riots; in fact, the Los Angeles Times (parroting a prosecuting attorney) referred to the incident as "The White Rodney King."

In a case of "damned if you do, damned if you don't," federal prosecutors deemed the consistency in their reports to be indicative of a "conspiracy."  Indeed, among the charges brought against the deputies were "filing false police reports," "excessive force" and "planting evidence."  In other words, the same department that had been slammed for a lack of consistency in its documentation was now being indicted for the same.

But because the feds had introduced the reports at trial, the deputies were given the opportunity to get on the witness stand and read their reports; because they were "reading" their reports, they were not testifying, ergo, they could not be cross-examined: It gave the deputies a means of testifying without having to "testify."  Ironically, the same reports with which the feds had sought to nail the deputies factored considerably in their being found not guilty-on all counts.

Report writing isn't romantic, it's not dashing, and it sure as hell isn't why many of us got into the job in the first place.  Nobody ever saw Dirty Harry writing paper.  But it is an essential part of the job.

Despite this reality, the benefits of a well-written report are obvious.  It reflects well on both the officer and his department.  Doing it right the first time can save us time, energy and lives.  Coveted positions often require samples of one's written product; indeed, the documentation of an officer's actions is often the only tangible evidence of his work product.

Even Quinn acknowledges that police reports have improved.  "It makes my job easier."

We can use our improved technologies, improved tactics, and state-of-the-art firepower.  But if we fail to adequately document what transpired, to explain our actions or inactions, it may all be for naught.  Not only are the suspects released, but in this day of increased litigation we may find ourselves civilly and criminally liable to things we shouldn't be.

As our beloved Bard said, "The pen is mightier than the sword."

We may not wield sabers, and use a No 2 lead instead of a fountain quill, but the maxim still carries weight.

Finally, once an officer establishes himself as a good scribe, he probably won't be waiting around so long to get his report approved.

Sgt. Scoville is a patrol supervisor and a longtime, regular contributor to POLICE.  He can be reached at http://www.concentric.net/~comicdet.

[sidebar]

Want more pride in your final product that may end up being challenged in court?

Following are some techniques for producing seamless reports.

• Tone plays an important role in most languages, and English is no exception.  Maintain a professional tone throughout each report.

• Document as closely as possible the actual chronology of an investigation.  Use a patrol notebook to chronicle the order and content of witness's statements, noting specific times wherever possible.  Introduce witness's statements and evidence in the order they were presented to you during the field investigation

• Do not stray from the purpose of the report.  Fulfill the requirements of the six keys to successful journalism by asking Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How?  The ability to tie all of these elements together may result in the difference between a successful trial and a dismissed case.

• During the investigation, play devil's advocate: What do I naturally expect to find if___?  What else might I find?  How do I explain what I do find?  Or don't find?  How can I reconcile my observations with my personal/professional experience?

• Always check the spelling, punctuation, and grammar.  If a computer is used to compose a report, take advantage of the spell checking function.  Many word processing applications offer dictionary, thesaurus, and grammar checking features.  Invest in an electronic dictionary or, at the very least, a good portable dictionary.  Strunk and White's Elements of Style and Elements of Grammar are indispensable tools for all writers.

• Practice using different phrasing to describe common elements of arrest reports, keeping in mind future audiences, their knowledge and understanding of law enforcement policies and procedures, and their motives for reading the report.  Use your thesaurus to find the most appropriate words to describe a person, evidence, action, or scene.

• Be open to critique during the review of a report and learn from each correction.  Be prepared to rewrite, add or delete information as necessary.

• In detailed, complicated cases, or cases involving supplemental reports by multiple officers, see to it that one sergeant is responsible for reviewing each report.  In this manner, one can recognize where reports are lacking in information, or in conflict with one another.

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