Print Article Rate Comment Reprint Information

The Myths of Report Writing

Written by Reynolds, Jean

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 them.

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 overwhelming.

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 grammar theory. 

 

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.


Published in Law and Order, Feb 2014

Rating : 10.0


Comments

Comment on This Article

My experience...

By Scrutator

"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."

This has not been my experience. Many trainees, even college graduates, simply don't have a clue. They don't read newspapers or books so they write things like "could of" instead of "could've" or "could have." Now that the writing portion of the SAT is being eliminated we're going to be in real trouble.

Submitted Mar 17 at 11:34 AM

Related Products

Police ReportsReport WritingReports
 
 
Close ...