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5 keys to great report writing

Patrol officers’ reports are the foundation of the successful investigation and prosecution of a crime, so make sure you’re giving your report the attention it requires


There is still no better way to tell the world what happened at three in the morning in the mud and the blood and the beer in that alley than by the written word.


No recruiting brochure ever finds room for a picture of a bleary-eyed patrol officer in the station typing police-speak into a report for half her shift.

The cops on television don’t even take notes, much less write reports – unless, of course, the script calls for one of those chaotic stationhouse scenes where pimps and druggies are being jerked around in the background as our hero taps on the old manual typewriter one finger at a time (I’m an old school “Hill Street Blues” fan).

Despite all of our digital technology, there is still no better way to tell the world what happened at three in the morning in the mud and the blood and the beer in that alley than by the written word. We have so many time-saving boxes to check that sometimes we fail to provide a healthy narrative in the press of time.

Here are a few reminders to keep motivated to make good reports.

Good Field Notes

Having a good, consistent shorthand is essential to fast note-taking. Jotting down questions (notes to self...) that come to mind during interviews and observations can keep follow-ups fresh and focused.

Clearly identifying who did and said what at a scene – officers as well as witness and suspects – should be a priority. Quick clothing descriptions (supplemented by cell phone pictures) of persons involved can be helpful.

Notes on sequence, time, and environmental conditions should be part of your written record.

Establish Elements of the Crime

Looking at the statute is the best way to establish an outline for your report. Remember that every element of the offense must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

It’s not about the big picture – it’s about the tiny details. Defense attorneys will attack the element that is least supported or the one that gives rise to the likeliest defense. Anticipating defenses is the opposite side of proving the elements.

Any of us who have watched a defense attorney take a pick axe to our case knows that crazy theories can come from left field. Contemplating their game can help us nail down loose ends in our report.

Include Exculpatory Evidence

Recent cases have crucified police officers who fail to identify and follow-up on suspects (no matter how unlikely) or who fail to include names of all officers at the scene, witnesses, and digital audio or video material.

Just as the CSI effect (jury expectations of fancy science applied to every crime scene) makes us document what we did as well as what we didn’t do in terms of evidence collection and processing, leads unchecked and persons not interviewed will be leveraged to attack the credibility of reporting officers.

Good Reports Will CYA

Covering your assets NEVER means falsifying or fudging on a report. Better to lose a case than your reputation, job, or ability to testify.

However, expect that your report will be used against you in a civil suit or on the stand to discredit you. Defense attorneys seldom have an innocent client, so they have to fabricate a guilty officer. Therefore, be diligent about describing your professional behavior as well as the behavior of others at the scene.

We all know that dash-cam video, for example, can fail to show to an uninformed viewer what is going on outside the camera lens. It can also fail to show the micro signs of pre-aggression, and it can certainly not show the reputation of the suspect or the information you know about him or her that dictated your conduct during the contact.

The same is true of a report. The reporting officer must give the reader a close-up view of the event from as many angles as possible. Don’t ever assume that readers of your report are going to give you the benefit of the doubt, ascribe good or heroic qualities to you, or even think independently in assessing your conduct.

Tell them what you need for them to know, and be as detailed as you truthfully can.

The Long Haul

It is eye-opening to chart the progress of your report as it winds through the system. You know your supervisor sees it, the prosecutor sees it, and the defense attorney sees it.

Do you think about the victim who sees it? The insurance company? The victim advocate? The defense investigator? The probation/parole officer reviewing for the pre-sentence investigation? The parole board in considering parole?

Researchers seeking data for planning, budgeting, grant funding, crime prevention, and a host of other academic pursuits may also see your report. Their conclusions then eventually become policy and legislation (academic research does affect you!).

Juries, reporters, treatment practitioners, attorneys on both sides of a civil suit, internal affairs investigators and the list could go on. This is the equivalent of your English paper being read in front of the whole class in high school...and again next year, and the year after that, and every year following for the foreseeable future.

In other words, it had better be good.

No doubt you’ll be pressured to “get back on patrol” or “let the detectives deal with it” but the long-term effects of a poor report are too substantial to ignore.

This article, originally published 11/29/2012, has been updated with current information.

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.