A Report-Writing Refresher

Clear, accurate, and thorough reports are the mark of a true law enforcement professional.

Let’s start by defining a “professional police report” as, “An investigative process that documents the scene as a public, historical record, accurately describes the facts, identifies evidence and the actual or suspected participants and their statements and actions, supports prosecution, limits liability, and demonstrates police professionalism.”

Police reports have legal, historical, and statistical value. They help law enforcement agencies prove or disprove what happened at a specific time and place. They make it easier for chiefs, sheriff’s, elected officials, and federal, state, and local public and criminal justice administrators to make decisions about staffing, hiring, and protection and service to the community.

Writing a false, inaccurate, incomplete police report is unprofessional and unethical. Filing one can be grounds for dismissal or prosecution.

Understand that the chain of command for your police report—both sworn and non-sworn—could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Nearly as many civilians will read your report as other cops, investigators, or prosecutors.

Professional police reports demonstrate your knowledge of the law, probable cause, the various codes, your agency P&Ps, how evidence is collected, and how crimes, incidents, and accidents should be investigated, documented, and/or prosecuted.

Your reports are used to defend your actions regarding detentions, arrests, and use of non-deadly and deadly force. You must be able to explain, accurately and truthfully, and within the law and your agency policy, why you took the actions you did.

Be as detailed as possible when writing your justifications for your use of force; your steps from consensual conversation to under arrest; and your searches and seizures. These are most often where your court cases are won or lost. 

Use the Triple-A Rule to improve your reports.

1.  Keep your Average Sentence Length to About 15 to 20 Words. Longer or shorter is OK, but this word number guideline always leads to the highest comprehension by the reader. It’s easy to stay at this 15 to 20 words per sentence mark if you stick to one idea or activity per sentence.

2.  Avoid Jargon. Write like you talk and don’t talk like a cop on paper. It’s not a vehicle; it’s a car. Stop writing “I engaged in a foot pursuit with the suspect through the canyon” when “I chased the suspect through the canyon” is easier to read. Stop writing “approximately” and just say “about.” Don’t say “I utilized my TASER” when “I used my TASER” is much better.

3.  Write in the Active Voice. Don’t write, “The car was searched and a loaded gun was found under the passenger seat by me.” Write this: “I searched the car and found a loaded Glock pistol under the passenger seat.” Active voice sentences have more power and tend to be shorter.

Memorize the correct version of these common grammar usage errors and keep them out of your reports: their, they’re, or there; you’re or your; then or than; it’s or its; to or too; further or farther.

If your field notes are an inaccurate mess, fix that immediately. See how other officers create well-organized field notes and copy their approach.

Develop short cuts for field notetaking: V for victim, W for witness, S for Suspect, M for me (you said it, asked it, or did it), P for partner.

Little details can have a lot of importance. People involved in police reports may try to claim things later that didn’t happen, get payment for damage that wasn’t there, or file questionable or even false court or insurance claims. Get the name of the doctor at the ER, the nurse who did the blood draw, the name of the tow truck driver, the weather and lighting conditions at an accident scene. Get serial numbers for stolen equipment. Quote exactly how someone refused medical treatment at the scene. Describe specifically where a vehicle was damaged; don’t just write “front bumper dent.”

If not tape recorded or on your body camera footage, immediately note all spontaneous statements made by suspects (pre-Miranda), accurately and word for word.

All parts of your report are important but two subheadings: Origin (how you arrived on the scene) and Background (this event has happened before, with these victims, witnesses, or suspects) can really help report readers recognize the context of the situation.

Know when to ask more open-ended questions (used to get the person to tell his or her story) and fewer closed-ended questions (used to get yes/no answers). “And then what happened?” is an open-ended question. “Is that all you can remember about the event?” is a closed-ended question. Both are necessary, but you’ll get more information using open-ended questions.

If you routinely forget to ask for certain information on a specific field report, create a pocket-sized cheat sheet reminder card for each report and refer to it before you release the participants and clear the scene. This is especially important for reports you may rarely write: forgery/fraud cases, elder abuse, death calls, missing persons, runaway juveniles.

Know the elements of the crime and make certain those are described as being met by the suspect’s actions in your report. Crimes require intent on the part of the doer. Some events are not crimes: a watch that gets left in the bathroom at a restaurant and is not there when the owner returns is not a theft case.

Know the important difference between an eyewitness and an “ear witness.” Some people saw things; other people heard about things from others. It’s a critical distinction in your investigation and subsequent reports.

An important investigative step in burglary and robbery investigations is the neighborhood canvass. Adding this critical process to your reports adds to your professionalism, as defined by the other officers and investigators it helps. It’s part of your job as a patrol officer to make it easier for your detectives to do their follow-ups.

Depending on where you work, you could spend nearly half the hours in your career writing reports. The stakes are high for poorly written police reports. The rewards for writing truly professional police reports are just as high. Choose your words well. 

Steve Albrecht worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years. "His new book, "The Police Professional: 60 Ways to Lead," co-authored with Captain Andy Borrello (ret.), is available on Amazon Kindle. He can be reached at www.DrSteveAlbrecht.com

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