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Report Writing Battle Tactics

Report writing strategy becomes the legal hammer.

January 01, 2002  |  by James Celentano


When I arrived in court that day, I confidently showed up for work with the most powerful weapon contained in the modern law enforcement arsenal. That weapon wasn't the .45 caliber Sig Sauer P220 strapped to my right hip; it was my police report.

As I looked across the packed municipal courtroom, I observed the now clean-shaven, well-dressed, mild-mannered John Q. Public who I arrested two years ago after he physically assaulted me. I realized the presiding judge had absolutely no idea the defendant was actually a degenerate, alcoholic, repeat offender. Most importantly, the defendant's lawyer had no idea that I came mentally prepared for battle and armed with a heavy legal hammer to relentlessly pound sharp, previously documented nails into the wooden lid of his client's judicial coffin.

Prior to testifying that day, I tactically disarmed the defense attorney by blatantly answering all of his potential questions months before he had the opportunity to question me in open court on the witness stand. Most successful criminal defense attorneys bet the farm on the unfortunate fact that many professional police officers don't bother to answer the vital questions that need to be thoroughly addressed in the initial officer's police report. This attorney found out that my combination of work ethic and report writing strategy would effectively neutralize his predictable plan of attack from the moment he obtained a copy of my report through the discovery process.

The method to my madness is simple. I pride myself and I train police recruits to beat the lawyer to the first and final punch in order to end the potential legal fight before it begins.

A few months ago, I had an intense conversation with a highly regarded, seasoned criminal defense attorney about police reports. During the course of that heated debate, the attorney brazenly stated, "I specialize in tearing apart police reports and making fools out of guys like you in court." As I stared down the gun barrels of this pompous and presumptuous jerk, I replied to his condescending insult, "I guess you haven't read one of my reports."

Now, I clearly didn't sign up for this profession to be a bookworm or a librarian. I proudly signed my first and last name on the bottom of the police department application form in order to become a cop. However, ever since the day I signed that form, I realized that for a modern police officer to survive in this sometimes strange and challenging profession, he or she must enter the patrol car with a solid blue-collar work ethic that is complemented by an intelligent white-collar mind.

When I walk out of the squad room after roll call for a tour of duty, I never forget the fact that I am an expendable employee. Therefore, if I fail to thoroughly document my professional actions within the justified parameters of the law, I will certainly stand alone to face the after-the-fact supervisor, the criminal, the victim, the lawyer, the judge, the media, the concerned public, and most importantly the disgruntled employee who stands behind the service window at the local unemployment office.

Despite the growing adversity that we encounter while working in the field and the disheartening rumors that many within the ranks of our chosen profession hear, it still is and has always been a great time to be a cop if you simply do your job to the best of your ability and follow up by documenting a solid police report. When we signed up, we knew what we were getting ourselves into. For those of you who didn't, I suggest you quit and find a new job.

When you encounter the John Q. Publics of the world, be cognizant of the proven fact that you will be handling them at their worst. Don't fool yourself into believing that the public doesn't have the right to always challenge our actions. Never forget that we work for the public and the public has the right to call us on the carpet at any time. To combat this, always function at your best both in the field and on paper.

It doesn't take a Harvard law school graduate to figure out that police work is not an exact science. As you already know, police officers are required to make split-second, life-changing decisions under some of the most extraordinary circumstances.

Because I perform this job every day, I strongly contend that it takes a higher degree of common sense, intelligence and guts to perform and document official actions in the field than it does to merely exploit our mistakes and tear apart a police report within the safe confines of a posh defense attorney's office.

Patrolman Celentano is assigned to the patrol division of the Wayne Twp. (N.J.) Police Department and is the lead report writing instructor at the Passaic County Police Academy.

Tags: Officer Court Testimony, Communication Skills, Crime Reports


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