The future of police report writing
Artificial intelligence is changing the way police write reports
This article is part of a series, Report Writing for a New Generation: Merging Technology with Traditional Techniques, which covers general police report writing skills along with plain English instruction, professional and technical writing best practices, and how technology is changing the way officers write.
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Technology is changing every facet of policing. Police vehicles are outfitted with cameras, voice controls and advanced computers. Real-Time Crime Centers (RTCC) use license plate readers and mobile cameras to gather real-time intel. And police clothing uses biometric designs to provide the most protection while minimizing discomfort.
Police report writing, however, remained mostly unchanged until now.
A paperless report management system
When I first joined law enforcement, most police departments told their officers that police reports would be completely paperless by around 2010. But as many of you know, it seemed that with every form that went digital, two more paper copies took their place. More than a decade later, police agencies have more paper forms than ever before, forcing officers to carry a file box in the trunk of their cars just to keep organized.
The overuse of paper forms has led some agencies to look for a better, future-proof solution to report management, but they struggled because of the lack of available technology.
Police report writing technology is finally receiving the boost it needs through Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML). AI and ML technology advancements make the reality of a paperless reports management system (RMS) possible.
Most first-world police agencies use an RMS to electronically write, store and manage police reports. Until recently, many agencies were stuck using RMS 1.0 or 2.0 technology because of costly IT infrastructure requirements of newer RMS 3.0 systems. Luckily, cloud-based and hybrid RMS systems are easier to manage and support. They also do not require a complete overhaul of a department’s IT infrastructure, making them a much cheaper alternative.
RMS 3.0 system features
The capabilities of the new RMS 3.0 systems are nothing short of impressive. Here are just some of the features of the new RMS 3.0 systems.
Auto-populated forms are not new to RMS, but RMS 3.0 allows auto-population across all forms used in an officer’s report. The officer can complete the main face sheet of their report, then all the information from the face sheet will be automatically applied to all the forms required by that agency. No more filling out repetitive information on each form.
The coolest feature of RMS 3.0 systems is the new search algorithms. RMS 3.0 uses similar algorithms (data crawlers) just like the most common search engines. After the report is approved, the data crawler will scan and tag each page of the report, including the narrative, to make it easy for future searches.
Another added technology to RMS 3.0 is the ability to convert pictures or handwriting into data and words, making attachments searchable just as you would in search engine image search. Imagine using a Google-like search bar to search data in any report, any attachment, at any time.
Many companies are developing video tagging software that can be linked directly to RMS 3.0 systems allowing for searches across all platforms. An officer can search male + red shirt + white hat, and the system will check all police reports, attachments and videos for a male wearing a red shirt and white hat. RMS video search is still a few years away but will make searching body-worn camera video, RTCC video feeds and private video records easier and significantly faster.
Newer format for police report writing
RMS 3.0 uses SEO-like crawling tools to scan titles, phrases, headings, subheadings and keywords. If this technology sounds familiar, it is because private businesses have been using it for years with search engine optimizations (SEO) for websites.
Luckily, the basic structure of a police report will remain the same. The officer will have:
- The fact sheet: The fillable template at the beginning of each report.
- The narrative: Where the officer writes the where, when, what, why and how.
- The attachments: Everything else relevant to the case (pictures, witness statements).
The narrative section is where RMS 3.0 AI technology will be used the most and why officers need to learn how to write using headings. The use of headings in police reports is not a new concept. Police agencies sporadically used headings since the 1930s but universally adopted them in the 1980s when technical writing fields were merging with police report writing.
Headings help organize police reports by separating chunks of information. They also act as reading signals, guiding the reader (the lawyers) exactly where they need to go. As a result, headings make police reports more readable and is a reason SEO crawlers prefer documents with headings over documents without headings.
Because no two investigations are the same, every report will require different headings.
You can know where to place a heading by finding the natural break in your report and summarizing what the next section will be.
Here is a list of natural breaks in an average police report that you should use as your headings:
- Synopsis: A brief overview of what happened including dates, times, location
- Involved people: List of people and their roles e.g., witness, suspect 1, victim
- Narrative: including pre-arrival information of what the officer did before they arrived on the scene, and arrival information of what the officer did as soon as they arrived
- Investigation: What the officer did after they arrived
- Arrest and charges: Specific details used to establish probable cause for charging
- Case disposition: Specific request for follow up, or request to close the case
Because headings may be new to your agency, I created a downloadable PDF of a fictitious police report as a go-by. The downloadable police report is a good example of what an AI-formatted police report should look like. The downloadable police report also includes examples of white space, people identifiers, synopsis and case dispositions. Do not worry, I will cover those topics later. But for now, just focus on the use of headings.
AI technology is transforming the way law enforcement officers write police reports. Advanced AI technology will soon be able to highlight inconsistencies, mark questionable information, look for statutory specific information, and flag poor grammar and spelling. RMS 3.0 is just around the corner so let’s train now and be ready for when it comes.
Remember, report writing should not be hard. But just like anything we do in law enforcement, practice is key to make writing easier. Pick a few of these topics outlined in this article and try to apply them to your next report. Once you feel comfortable with one topic, move on to the next. Then rinse, lather, repeat.