7 deadly sins of police report writing
Common errors that will get your report rejected by your supervisor or the courts
If you have been in law enforcement for any length of time, you’ve probably felt the frustration that comes from putting enormous effort into a police report, only to have your supervisor send it back for numerous corrections. Or maybe you’ve been transferred to a different squad and discovered that your new supervisor’s expectations for your reports differ from those of your old supervisors. Perhaps you’ve even shown up to court months after an incident, only to pull out your report and find that it’s missing key information the prosecutor needs to successfully try your case. Any of these events can make police report writing a frustrating and intimidating part of police work.
Much of the advice about police report writing focuses on the mechanics of writing, such as spelling, grammar, punctuation and sentence structure. While these areas are important in order for officers to clearly, accurately and objectively convey the facts of their case, there are bigger barriers to consistently writing effective police reports; after all, cases are not typically won or lost on the placement of a comma.
While everyone is entitled to their own writing style and grammatical pet peeves, officers and supervisors would do well to focus primarily on those elements of police reports that may bring the legality of an officer's actions under review, cause the reader to question the officer’s investigative abilities, or jeopardize an officer’s case in court.
In my experience writing and reviewing hundreds of police reports, and in teaching both new and seasoned officers how to write better reports, I have identified seven common areas of concern – what I call the seven deadly sins of police report writing. These areas are almost certain to get your report rejected by your supervisor or to raise concerns when a prosecutor reviews your case. Each of the seven deadly sins is presented here with a brief explanation, one or more examples of how the problem may manifest itself in a police report, and examples of how you may correct the problem or avoid it altogether. Each of these examples is given with the understanding that the larger police report from which it is drawn doesn’t correct the problem through some other means.
1. Factual errors or omissions
It should go without saying that lying is unacceptable in police reports. Intentionally inventing facts or misrepresenting the truth can get you fired, sued, or prosecuted. While most officers would never blatantly lie in a police report, even unintentional factual errors or omissions can mislead readers into thinking something happened that didn’t, or something didn’t happen that should have.
In the following example, note how the uncorrected version leaves important questions unanswered. What “rights,” specifically, did the subject understand? If the author was referring to Miranda rights, was the subject ever advised of these rights?
Not this: After I detained Mr. —, he said he understood his rights. I interviewed him and he confessed to tossing the knife into a neighbor’s yard.
But this: I detained Mr. — in handcuffs. Prior to questioning him, I read him his Miranda rights from my department-issued Miranda card. During my questioning, he confessed to tossing the knife into a neighbor’s yard.
2. Insufficient legal justification
Every police-citizen encounter can be categorized in one of three ways: consensual, investigative detention (based on reasonable articulable suspicion), or arrest (based on probable cause). Anything beyond a consensual encounter requires that you provide sufficient facts to legally justify your detention, search, seizure, arrest, etc.
What type of encounter is described in the example below? Note how the corrected version of this encounter leaves little room for doubt that the officer was justified in the presentation of their weapon.
Not this: I arrived on scene and saw two subjects standing in the parking lot. I drew my gun and told the subjects to get on the ground.
But this: I arrived on scene and saw two subjects standing in the parking lot who matched the description given in the lookout. One subject was holding a machete in his right hand. Immediately upon exiting my cruiser, I drew my pistol, pointed it at the subject with the machete and commanded both subjects to lie down on the ground. They both immediately complied.
3. Incomplete or missing elements of the crime
Each crime has specific elements that must be satisfied if you are to develop sufficient probable cause for an arrest and then prove your case in court. Failing to articulate each element of the crime may also call into question the legality of your actions (see sin two). The simplest way to avoid this sin is to obtain a copy of the statute for the crime you are investigating. Highlight each element of the crime and then make sure to address each element in your police report.
In the following example, can you determine what crime was being committed? Was this a robbery or a larceny? Note how the uncorrected version doesn’t satisfy the elements of a typical robbery – there is no “force, threat, or intimidation” – whereas the corrected version makes it clear that a robbery took place.
Not this: Ms. — told me she was walking down the street when she felt her purse being tugged away from her. She yelled at the subject to stop, but he succeeded in getting her purse and then ran away down the street.
But this: Ms. — told me she was walking down the street with her purse slung over one shoulder and across her body. She said she felt someone tugging at her purse. When she turned around, she saw a male subject gripping her purse with both hands. She immediately yelled at the subject to stop and grabbed the purse with her hands. The male subject pulled more forcefully, eventually breaking the strap and causing Ms. — to fall to the ground. The suspect then fled on foot down the street.
4. Conclusory statements unsupported by facts
Conclusory statements describe conclusions you have made based on your knowledge, training and experience, such as “the subject was drunk,” or “Ms. — appeared agitated.” While these conclusions may be factually accurate, they need to be supported by objectively reasonable facts and circumstances that led you to your conclusion, and, subsequently, will lead your reader to the same conclusion.
Note how the uncorrected examples below provide only the author’s conclusion, without any factual basis. The corrected examples either present sufficient facts to allow the reader to come to the same conclusion as the officer, or they explicitly state the officer’s conclusion while also offering supporting facts.
Not this: The subject was drunk.
But this: Mr. — was unsteady on his feet and had bloodshot eyes and slurred speech.
Not this: The subject appeared to be having a psychotic episode.
But this: Ms. — told me she had not had anything to eat or drink for three days. Her clothing appeared dirty and soiled with human excrement. She told me that she was hearing voices telling her to harm herself. I concluded that Ms. — was in need of mental health services.
5. Telling the future
Police reports document what has happened, not what will happen. As any officer who has made lunch plans during their shift can attest, there is no shortage of circumstances waiting to ruin your plans. Because of this fact, statements like “I will collect video footage on Monday” or “I plan to interview Mr. Jones next week” become problematic in police reports. Inevitably, something will come up that prevents you from fulfilling what you have now promised to do in an official written record.
A good defense attorney will use such unfulfilled promises to impeach your credibility as a witness: "If this part of your report is untrue, officer, what else is also untrue?" To avoid this problem, simply take the actions you intend and then document them in a follow-up, supplemental report. Keep in mind that statements like, “Ms. Brown told me she would send me the video on Monday” are acceptable because they are your record of someone’s past statement about something that will happen in the future.
Not this: I will collect video footage on Monday.
But this: Ms. — agreed to send me the video footage.
Not this: I plan to interview Mr. Jones next week.
But this: This case remains open for further investigation.
6. Passive voice
In the passive voice, the subject of your sentence receives the action of the verb: “The room was cleared by officers.” When written this way, your reader has to wait until the end of the sentence to find out who is performing the action. This makes your report wordy and slow-paced. Use the active voice to keep your writing short and snappy: “We cleared the house.” The passive voice also risks eliminating the subject of the sentence altogether: “Mr. — was arrested.” Who, exactly, performed the arrest?
In the examples below, note how the subject of the sentence is obscured or eliminated through the use of the passive voice. This can cause problems in court when it is time to determine which witnesses to call or to establish an evidentiary chain of custody.
Not this: The room was cleared by officers.
But this: I cleared the room with Officer —.
Not this: Mr. — was arrested.
But this: I arrested Mr. —.
Not this: Surveillance video was reviewed.
But this: I reviewed surveillance video.
7. Unexplained police jargon
Jargon describes words that are unique to a particular profession. Each law enforcement agency also has its share of unique terms, abbreviations and acronyms. In today’s age of information sharing and multi-jurisdictional investigations, it is important that your report is understandable by agencies other than your own, or even by the law enforcement community as a whole.
Police jargon is acceptable when it is unmistakably clear to the reader what is meant – “I conducted a search incident to arrest,” or “I double-locked the handcuffs” – but jargon becomes problematic when its meaning is vague or unclear.
Take this jargony phrase, often used to describe use-of-force encounters: “I assisted him to the ground.” The word assist implies that you helped someone do something they already intended to do, but the phrase “assisted to the ground” when used in the context of a use of force, describes exactly the opposite action. Notice how the examples below replace jargon with plain language to more clearly articulate what is meant.
Not this: I assisted him to the ground.
But this: I grabbed the subject by the right arm with both hands and pulled him to the ground.
Not this: 29s returned negative.
But this: Dispatch told me the subject was not wanted.
Not this: I made contact with the victim.
But this: I spoke to the victim.
Avoiding each of the seven deadly sins described above will help you write reports that are less likely to get rejected by your supervisor or questioned in court. Just as important, avoiding these sins will give you a solid foundation on which to build effective police reports and investigations. Although repeated grammar, spelling and punctuation errors may still reflect poorly on you as a writer, the larger problems discussed in this article threaten to tarnish your reputation as a competent police officer, which is arguably a more important issue to worry about.