Welcome the Red Ink

Don't get your feelings hurt, but if you think your FTO won't mark up your first police report until it's bleeding red ink you're in for a surprise.

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You have completed your first police incident report and are very proud of your work. The FTO takes your report in one hand and a red pen in the other. Don't get your feelings hurt, but if you think he won't mark up your report until it's bleeding red ink you're in for a surprise.

Writing an acceptable police report is an entirely different style of writing than what your grammar teacher taught you in school...or is it?

Empty Blocks and Abbreviations

Most police reports have two elements: "fill in the box" and the narrative summary. One teaching point here is to take it block by block. I do not care if you are typing it or using traditional pen with ink; take it step by step, block by block. If you jump around, you will always accidentally skip a block.

Abbreviations are abundant in police work. I have often wondered if there is not an Office of Acronym Development whose sole purpose in life is to design more of them for us. Matters not. Stick to your departmental and state officially accepted abbreviations. Do not make up your own and inject them into the report either. Not everyone will understand your terminology. I recall one detective cryptically wrote "BB" for "been by" instead of writing out "went by the business/residence for follow-up."

Like Writing a Love Letter

One old police instructor used to tell his students that writing a narrative report is no more than writing a love letter. Now, I am not going to disagree with this advice. Both contain the investigative quotient: who, what, when, where, and why. But a police report requires more than a simple love letter. And do not sign it to your sergeant, "love you," either.

Do not forget that if you use an acronym in your narrative report you must explain it the first time. For example, "Field Training Officer (FTO)." 

Be consistent with the titles you give all actors in the report. For example, I have seen reports where the bad guy was called a citizen, suspect, person of interest, violator, perpetrator, arrestee, detainee, interviewee, and nearly all in one police report! Find out what is acceptable with your department and stick to it. We are not having a workout with the criminology thesaurus.

Final Advice

A very wise old sergeant once explained to me the benefit of developing your own trademark. He told me that in a large department it can be hard to surface to the top and be noticed for better assignments such as detective. But excellent officers are often recognized by the quality of their police reports, which become their trademark.

If you write an excellent preliminary investigative report you will be known by others who use your product: the detectives, the district attorney, and later parole/probation officers, for example. Your report has many end-users. Start off your career with a goal to prove your worth by the quality of your report writing.

As chief, when I'm evaluating a candidate for a detective position I often review at least 10 of the candidate's reports from the past six months. I don't just look at the "important ones, either. I include a few that are considered insignificant such as a neighborhood complaint, barking dog, and a minor criminal mischief. If you pay attention to the small reports the big ones will take care of themselves. Additionally, I also like to see the simple accident reports (no "red car hit blue car") and basic burglary reports (no "window broke and stuff missing").

If you are proud of your work, it will show through in the simple, basic reports just as much as the ones that you know everyone will look at.

Make every call important; you never know when your work can make a difference.

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