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How the investigation-report cycle can help you become a more effective report writer and police officer

Writing a police report is not just an exercise in documentation, it is also an opportunity for evaluation

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Taking an extra moment to work through the Investigation-Report cycle will give you a clearer description of your actions, refreshed legal knowledge and the ability to better articulate your decisions.


The following is adapted from “Police Report Writing: The essential guide to crafting effective police reports” by Ben Smith

When writing a police report, it’s important not to lose sight of your most important reader: you.

Other people may read the words you’ve written, but you are the one who experienced everything you have written about. Your report won’t be giving testimony in a courtroom, briefing out a search warrant execution, or answering questions in an internal affairs investigation. You will.

This article describes how considering yourself as the most important reader of your reports makes you not only a more effective report writer, but also a more effective police officer.

Effective reports lead to effective policing

Many officers view report writing as the last step in their response to an incident. Chronologically, this is accurate. You respond to a call, conduct your investigation, take necessary actions and then document what happened in a police report. Your report is the last thing you must do before you can “cross the incident off your list” and move on to the next call. Thinking about reports in this way may look something like this:

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But viewing police reports in this way overlooks a crucial element. Writing a police report is not just an exercise in documentation, it is also an opportunity for evaluation. Writing forces you to think about what you did and why you did it. By articulating your decisions, you may expose errors in your thinking or gaps in your knowledge.

Imagine you have just detained someone in an investigatory detention. When you sit down to document this detention in your report, you may ask yourself:

  • Why did I detain that person in handcuffs instead of telling them to sit on the curb?
  • Were they making furtive movements?
  • Which furtive movements specifically?
  • Which case law supports a detention based on furtive movements?
  • What is a furtive movement, anyway?

This type of internal questioning is the difference between using your report as an evaluation tool and using it simply for documentation.

In the latter case, you see report writing as the culmination of your incident. In the former case, you see it as the culmination of your incident and the foundation for your future interactions with the public. Yes, your report may still read, “I placed him in handcuffs,” but taking a few minutes to reflect on the legal justification for your actions helps you come away from the incident with knowledge that will help you in future investigations. The process of using your reports as tools to evaluate your actions is called the Investigation-Report Cycle.

The Investigation-Report Cycle

Rather than having a linear view of police report writing, consider your reports as one part of an ongoing cycle of investigating and reporting. Effective investigations lead to effective police reports. In return, effective police reports lead to effective future investigations. Thinking about your reports in this way may look something like this:

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To expand on the Terry stop example presented earlier, consider this scenario:

You respond to a larceny at a convenience store. Upon arriving on scene you detain two individuals you suspect of being involved in the larceny. In your resulting police report, you write a sentence like this:

Upon arriving at the scene, I immediately detained two subjects who were standing outside the front door of the convenience store.

Take a moment and ask yourself:

  • What are the requirements for a legal Terry stop?
  • Does this sentence contain all those elements?
  • What am I missing?
  • What questions will my readers ask to determine if my stop was legal?
  • Have I answered those questions?

If you took a moment to consider the answer to any of these questions, congratulations: you just used the Investigation-Report Cycle. By considering why you took the actions you did and how well your writing captured those reasons, you evaluated not only your writing but also your policing.

With that knowledge, you can now take a moment to articulate your Terry stop in more detail and thereby cement those lessons in your mind:

As I arrived on scene, I saw two male subjects standing outside the front door of the convenience store. One was wearing a red shirt and blue shorts. The other was wearing a green shirt and blue shorts. These subjects matched the lookout description given by dispatch; consequently, I told both subjects they were being detained.

Taking an extra moment to work through the Investigation-Report cycle gives you a clearer description of your actions, refreshed legal knowledge and the ability to better articulate your decisions. Most important, it gives you a better understanding of why you did what you did, making you more competent and confident when you must detain people in the future. Conversely, if you fail to work through the Investigation-Report Cycle, you end up with nothing more than a poorly articulated sentence and a questionable Terry stop.

Part instructional guide, part reference manual, this book gives you proven techniques for communicating the details of even the most complex police incidents to your readers.

Five tools to successfully use the Investigation-Report Cycle

The Investigation-Report Cycle doesn’t mean that you need to scrutinize every word in your reports to death — you don’t have time for that, anyway — but only that you shouldn’t waste obvious opportunities to improve both your writing and your policing abilities. The tools discussed in this section will help you move through the Investigation-Report cycle more quickly.

Tool 1: Mini-debrief

Debriefs are meetings where multiple stakeholders discuss lessons learned during a police incident. Such meetings usually occur after major incidents because of the increased risk and liability those incidents entail. On the other hand, mini-debriefs can be conducted by yourself or with another officer. They are a powerful tool to help you articulate your actions, identify areas for improvement, see the incident from others’ perspectives and document lessons learned.

To conduct a mini-debrief, review your report and identify key decisions you made during the incident. Try to come up with reasonable alternatives to those decisions. Practice articulating the pros and cons of your decision versus the alternative choices.

Tool 2: Cross-examination

In court, a cross-examination allows opposing counsel to discredit a witness. If you have ever been cross-examined, you know it is an uncomfortable but beneficial experience because it forces you to clarify details and explain the rationale behind your actions.

To conduct a cross-examination on your reports, find another officer you trust. Have them read your report and attempt to find holes in your investigation or areas of poor articulation. Let them ask you questions as if you were the one on the witness stand. Try to answer their questions using only the information you have written in your report. If this isn’t possible, work through the articulation aloud and then revise what you’ve written.

Tool 3: Lessons learned

When you learn something that will help you with a future report or investigation, write it down on paper or in your phone. Routinely glance at the list to remind yourself what you’ve learned. Plus, just the act of writing down what you’ve learned will make you much more likely to remember it in the future.

Tool 4: Unanswered questions

Similar to keeping a list of lessons learned, when you come across something you don’t know and don’t have the time to figure out at the moment, add it to a running list of things you want to learn later. Each time you have a few spare minutes, look up the answer to one of the questions and write it on your list of lessons learned.

Tool 5: Swipe file

A swipe file is a collection of writing samples you can use as a pattern for your reports. These samples may come from other officers’ reports, books about report writing, or reports you’ve written in the past.

One of the most effective ways to learn how to write police reports is to read other officers’ reports. If you review a random report or two every shift, you’ll read a few hundred reports in a year. When someone’s writing style or articulation resonates with you, collect a snippet of their writing in your swipe file. Next time you have to write a report, adapt an example from your swipe file to your specific incident.

You can do the same thing with your reports. The first time you deal with a drunk person, it may take you significant time and effort to articulate their signs of intoxication in your report. But if you take the time to properly document what happened the first time, you will have a pattern to use the next time you have a similar incident (the specific facts will be different, of course). Putting this time and thought into the reports you write early in your career, will allow them to serve as helpful templates long into the future.


Policing is a dynamic and ever-changing profession. No two situations are exactly identical. Because of this, you must make difficult choices by applying broad principles — Terry stops, the Carroll doctrine, plain view seizures, pat downs, etc. — to the specific facts and circumstances of your incidents. You must then clearly articulate these decisions in your police reports so your readers understand that you acted lawfully and reasonably. Taking a few extra minutes to evaluate your decisions using the Investigation-Report Cycle makes not only this articulation easier, but your policing abilities more effective.

Ben Smith is a lieutenant with the City of Fairfax Police Department in Virginia. He is a certified general instructor, defensive tactics instructor and Force Science analyst. Smith holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Brigham Young University and a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Arizona State University. He has served as a patrol officer, detective, crisis negotiator, training coordinator and adjunct academy instructor. Among other topics, he teaches classes in police report writing. He is the author of “Police Report Writing: The essential guide to crafting effective police reports.”