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A simple way to improve your police report writing

What does police report writing have in common with “the beautiful people?”

This article was updated on July 10, 2017.

You submit your police report to your supervisor. He reads it and says, “This is terrible.” When you ask what is wrong, he picks out some phrases or words he doesn’t like. You think, “That’s it?” He hands the report back to you and tells you to fix it. You scratch your head and begin the rewrite, not sure what he wants. What’s wrong with it? You don’t know and he doesn’t know how to articulate why he thinks it’s so bad. He only knows he doesn’t like it.

Well, it is probably ugly.

You know what I mean. You know it when you see it, but it is hard to define. Look at TV and movie stars. We all know who is pretty or handsome. What makes it so? We all agree, but we cannot describe it. We can point to examples. If you have the talent, you can draw it. Most people do not know what it is, but most of us fail to really think about it.

Well, here it is. It is organization. When you look at a person, your brain values the organization of the face. Is it balanced? Are the eyes even? Are the ears the right size for the head? Are the features balanced? This is a similar approach as police report writing software, which looks for organization and balance.

Back to our police reports. What is it that the supervisor is subconsciously picking up on in your report? It is the organization. If it is not organized, the supervisor sees it. So how do you fix it? Get organized!

Police officers often write reports using the first person

Most police reports are written in the first person. The police officer is telling the story of what happened to them. Unfortunately, this is a backwards report. Police records often start with, “I responded to a crime, I talked to the victim and they said….” and it goes on with the writer telling us what happened to them, the writer. This can make for a confusing story, as it is told from back to front. Rarely do we tell the story from the true beginning to end, unless we were there when it started. How often does that happen? Right...rarely!

How to improve the chronology of police reports

Here is my solution: Tell the story in the order that it occurred. Gather all of the information from the victim, the witnesses and sometimes the suspect, your observations and the evidence. Put the information in the order it actually occurred. Time order is easier to write and easier to read.

Some people criticize this method of police report writing because you did not see the incident happen. My answer is that this is not a statement, it is a description of what happened, supported by the testimony of the people and the evidence. To clarify this at the outset, make this statement:

“On date and time, I Officer Name, responded to location reference to crime. My investigation revealed the following information.”

This statement tells the reader that you responded to a crime, talked to a lot of people, looked at the evidence and this is what you have discovered. Remember, you are not writing a statement (what happened to you) or an arrest affidavit (sworn testimony of your opinion) leading to the probable cause. You are merely telling the reader what happened.

The process is easy. You go to the scene and gather all of your information, verify the facts and evaluate your evidence. The next step is to put those facts in true chronological order. For example, you respond to a domestic violence call. You arrive and talk to the wife. She tells you her husband came home and hit her which left a bruise on her face. She called 911, you arrive, you investigate and he goes to jail. The first thing that happened is not you arriving, the first thing is, she was at home. The facts in true order may be as follows:

  • Wife is at home
  • Husband comes home
  • Husband hits wife
  • The hit leaves a bruise
  • The wife calls police
  • You arrive
  • You investigate
  • You arrest husband
  • Husband is taken to jail

This is a simplistic example, but it is a good example of putting the event in order. When the supervisor reads your police report, it will look good, because it is organized. In the instruction of report writing, I’ve found this to be an easier way to write the report, with the end result well received by supervisors.

In one case, a deputy came to class and shared with me that her report writing was so bad she would be terminated if she did not improve. Her sergeant had tried to tell her how to write her reports, but was having a hard time explaining it. After learning this method, she told her sergeant about it. He did not understand and told her, “You write the report, and I will tell you if it is OK.”

During the weekend, she had the opportunity to work a complex robbery call, a pursuit and an arrest. She used this simple process to write her report. The sergeant read the report and exclaimed how good it was. The bottom line: she was previously not organized and the sergeant saw her reports as ugly. She organized her report, and now it looks good. The sergeant recognized the organization as a good report.

So I say to you, organize it first and write it right.

John Bowden is the founder and director of Applied Police Training and Certification. John retired from the Orlando Police Department as a Master Police Officer In 1994. His career spans a period of 21 years in law enforcement overlapping 25 years of law enforcement instruction. His total of more than 37 years of experience includes all aspects of law enforcement to include: uniform crime scene technician, patrol operations, investigations, undercover operations, planning and research for departmental development, academy coordinator, field training officer and field training supervisor.