Many new recruits harbor secret fears
about the future—making an embarrassing or dangerous mistake, failing the basic
standards course, or getting fired from an agency. With good training and a
supportive FTO program, most of
these young men and women can overcome their apprehensions and achieve success
as police officers.
One fear, however, is almost
universal among recruits and exceptionally difficult to eradicate: Failing at
report writing. Why do well-trained, intelligent recruits continue to have
difficulty producing competent police reports? Experienced academy instructors
say that one problem is the misconceptions—myths—that many applicants cling to
as they embark on their careers.
Picture a recruit who has
just stepped into the alien realm of criminal justice with customs, traditions,
and regulations that must be mastered in a frighteningly short time. In this unfamiliar environment, some recruits
start to mistrust the verbal skills they have been using all their lives. They
convince themselves that police reports have to be written in an arcane
language using strange sentence patterns totally removed from ordinary speech.
The result is awkward wording and clumsy organization—and huge headaches for
academy instructors and, later on, administrators in the agencies that hire
Most police academies do an
excellent job teaching the principles and requirements of police report
writing. But good writing is a skill that develops over time, and the hectic
pace of most standards courses does not allow for repetition and practice. The
good news is that experienced officers with good interpersonal skills can be a
tremendous help to novices who are apprehensive about report writing.
Here are four myths that
contribute to confusion and anxiety about report writing—along with suggestions
for replacing them with common-sense information and good writing practices.
Myth 1: Report
writing requires an alien language.
Traditions die hard in many
areas of life, and that principle is certainly true of police reports. Some
vintage crime shows and popular books reinforce misconceptions about how police
officers talk and write. TV cops don’t talk about a “house” or “apartment”:
They use the word “residence.” A simple statement like “I spoke to Betty
Wilson” gets twisted into “The abovementioned witness was contacted and
interviewed by the undersigned officer.”
New officers may need
reminders about what constitutes good police writing: clear, specific language
(“He wore a red plaid shirt with a torn right sleeve”) and straightforward
sentences (“Tanguy told me he’d known Lopez for about six months”). In bygone
days, agencies used to believe that passive voice (“Broken glass was seen by
this officer”) guaranteed honesty, objectivity, and professionalism; by
contrast, an officer who wrote “I saw broken glass” was immediately under
suspicion. Thankfully, those practices are vanishing, replaced by common-sense
principles about clarity and precision.
To ensure accuracy,
effective word choices are vital. For example, recruits may need to be reminded
that “advised” means “counseled” or “suggested”; it’s not a synonym for “told.”
Sentences like “He advised me that the dog started barking at midnight” are
still too common in police reports, and they confuse readers like attorneys and
reporters who don’t have a criminal justice background: What was the advice?
Of course police jargon can
be a useful timesaver, and officers need to know precise definitions of terms like
“burglary,” “robbery,” and “assault”—but they also need to know that in most
reports it’s both professional and practical to use clear, specific English
words and simple sentences.
Myth 2: Every
report is different.
To a novice officer, every
situation is new and every report is different. Organizing a jumble of actions,
observations, and interview notes into a professional report can seem
Experienced officers can
help newcomers see that police reports fall into four types, and each one has
predictable features. It’s true that almost every call is likely to have unique
features, and many officers enjoy the variety in their law enforcement careers.
But knowing how to classify reports into four types, and recognizing the
special requirements for each one, can simplify the writing process and
eliminate many mistakes.
Type 1 is the simplest. The
officer records the information simply, clearly, and thoroughly. An example
might be taking a report about a stolen bicycle.
Type 2 is more complex. In
addition to recording information, the officer conducts an investigation and
records the results. An example might be a burglary involving footprints,
fingerprints and a broken window. (A common mistake in Type 2 reports is
recording an investigation—“I looked for footprints”—without mentioning the
result: “I found none.”)
Type 3 is still more
complex. In addition to recording information and completing an investigation,
the officer intervenes as the situation unfolds. An example might be subduing
and arresting a spouse in a domestic dispute. The special challenge here is
moving from a backstory (what happened before the officer arrived) to another
story in which the officer plays a central role. One useful strategy here is to
write a separate paragraph for each person involved in the backstory—witnesses,
victims, and suspects—before moving on to what the officer did at the scene.
Type 4 is the most complex.
Instead of being dispatched, the officer makes the decision to get involved in
a developing situation. An example might be pulling over a driver who’s
exceeding the speed limit. In addition to recording information, completing an
investigation, and making an intervention, the officer must remember to
establish probable cause.
Classifying reports this way—Type
1, 2, 3, 4—simplifies the thinking and writing process because officers know
immediately what kinds of information should be included in each type of
report. An officer who just stopped and patted down a suspicious person (Type
4) knows that probable cause will have to be documented, but it probably won’t
be an issue when the officer is dispatched to stop a fight (Type 3).
Myth 3: Good writers need
extensive knowledge of English grammar.
Most academies and agencies
use a screening process to weed out candidates who don’t have the basic
literacy skills needed for police writing. When a recruit misspells a word or
writes a clumsy sentence, it’s usually because of haste or carelessness rather
than inadequate grammatical knowledge.
Traditional workbook exercises
(“Underline every adverbial clause”) and sentence diagramming activities
(“Label the subject, predicate and modifiers”) have little application to
professional police writing. Cadets and recruits may benefit more from
reminders to use the spellchecker and grammar checker, proofread each report
before handing it in, avoid texting abbreviations and slang, and strive for
clear, straightforward sentences.
Some agencies have found
that setting up a buddy system for below-par writers is an efficient way to
reduce writing problems and enforce accountability. The new officer shares
drafts of reports with someone in the agency who has developed good writing
habits. After errors have been corrected, the report is officially submitted to
the appropriate administrator for final approval. Novice officers quickly
realize that dashing off a sloppy report is not the pathway to success, and
soon they’re able to produce effective reports without assistance.
Myth 4: Traditional English courses are good
preparation for police writing.
Not everything that’s taught
in a high school or college English course is helpful in police writing. Useful
content includes proper English usage, instruction in editing and proofreading,
and practice in critical thinking. Less useful is the emphasis on lengthy
description and elaborate style found in many English courses.
Some agencies have found
that writing problems disappear almost magically when a recruit realizes that
writing a police report is very different from putting together a high school
or college essay.
For example, an English
teacher would probably be delighted with a complicated sentence like this one:
“The argument continued, and Mrs. Brown, who was infuriated by the news of Mr.
Brown’s affair, tried to cover her distress by hurling a cup of steaming coffee
at the wall.” But an objective police report requires more straightforward
writing, like this sentence: “Mrs. Brown told me she was angry about her
husband’s affair, and she threw a cup of coffee at the wall.”
Novice officers with strong
memories of past English classes sometimes worry that their writing skills
don’t meet the standards for effective police reports. Don’t they need to
master embedded clauses, appositives, participles and adverbial modifiers? The
answer is usually no. What sets apart an exceptional police report is the
officer’s ability to deal with the situation at hand—and to record what
happened, precisely and accurately, when it’s time to write the report.
Effective law enforcement demands professionalism and experience, not advanced
Avoiding Common Mistakes
Administrators who have
spent years evaluating police reports know that many writing errors are
predictable—and avoidable. There are many common mistakes that are easy to
correct. Choosing the wrong spelling of a common word, i.e., your/you’re; it’s/its;
their/there/they’re. The website, www.dictionary.com is a useful resource for
clearing up confusion about these words.
Mistakenly using apostrophes
to mean “more than one,” i.e., “I saw three bicycle’s in the driveway.” Writing
“all right,” “a lot,” and “a little” as one word instead of two. Ending a
sentence with a comma. Overusing capital letters. A good rule of thumb is to
think of a sign (St. Mary’s Church) or a place on a map (East
Palatka). Directions (east, south) and buildings (school, church,
hospital) shouldn’t be capitalized.
Recruits also may need to be
reminded that resources can help. Even professional writers make a habit of
double-checking spellings and seeking a second opinion about their work. Many
good writers create their own writing guides—for example, a small notebook that
lists words they have trouble spelling: commitment, Chihuahua, separate, definite.
Most important, busy
officers need to know that “the simpler, the better” is a good basic principle
for most report writing. Starting every sentence with a person, place or thing
eliminates most punctuation problems. When the sentence ends, insert a period.
(And remember that “it” often starts a new sentence and requires a period
followed by a capital letter: “The shirt was torn and bloody. It smelled like
liquor when I sniffed it.”)
Jean Reynolds, Ph.D., is the author of The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers (Maple Leaf Press). She may be
reached through her website, www.YourPoliceWrite.com. Photos by Mark C. Ide.