3 simple ways to reduce redundancy in police report writing

Redundant question and answer phrases can cause confusion and make your reader (usually the charging attorney) lose interest in your case


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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I asked this. He said that. Then I asked this. Then he said that. Then I asked this, and he replied saying that. Back and forth, and back and forth it goes.

Redundant and back-and-forth question and answer phrases can make a police report hard to read. It can cause confusion and make your reader (usually the charging attorney) lose interest in your case. Luckily, there are a few tricks that can help you eliminate nearly all sources of redundancy in your report writing.

The history of redundant report writing

I spent years tracking down why police officers write the way they do. Most of the time, I can find an old text, old police report, or an old person to explain where these issues came from. Unfortunately, redundancy issues in writing date back before Aristotle’s time.

Aristotle and Plato were frequent complainers about the overuse of “repetitive words” in written text. [1] This repetition of words and phrases can easily lead to sentence and punctuation mistakes. But surprisingly enough, redundant writing was not widely accepted in police report writing until the 1960s and 1970s. And by the early 1990s, the repetitious use of words in police report writing was everywhere.

What does redundancy look like in a police report?

Many redundancy issues I have found in police reports start with the same three words: ask, told, said.

Here is an excellent example from a 1975 assault case:

So, does repetitious writing look different in the twenty-first century? No, it looks the same. Below is an expert from a real 2020 DUI case:

I asked Jake how long he had been in Vegas, and he told me that he had just flown in earlier that evening. I asked Jake how he was doing this evening and he told me he was upset I asked him why and he told me he was trying to find his hotel room. Jake told me he had just flown up from Las Vegas. I asked Jake how many alcoholic drinks he had consumed on the plane on the flight. He told me he had a couple of drinks. I asked him how many he has had since he landed and he said, none, not many. I asked him if he had stopped for dinner after he got off the airplane and he told me that he had. I asked him what he had, and he told me tacos. I asked if he had drank any alcoholic beverages at dinner and he told me that he had not. I asked Jake to put the truck in park and shut the truck off and he said he would not.                                 

In this single paragraph, the writer used had ten times, I asked nine times and told me eight times.

English teachers teach their students to change the words if they see repetition, but a simple word change will not solve the readability issue and can lead to more confusion.

How to fix redundancy in writing

Fixing redundancy in police report writing is simple if you follow these three steps.

Step 1: Start with one short statement that leads to the rest of the paragraph

Most police writers use redundant words with question/answer-type paragraphs.

In the DUI excerpt example, the officer asked questions and documented the responses. A simple fix is summarizing what the officer and suspect were doing together:

I spoke with Jake, who said the following:

I was talking with Jake, who said:

I interviewed Jake, who said:

Step 2: Summarize what was said

The second step is summarizing what was said by both parties. Police reports should not include every word quoted verbatim, and the courts understand that. In fact, in most investigations, you do not need to include the questions you asked the suspect. You are writing a detailed, objective summary of your interpretation of what happened, not an exact step-by-step narration.

In the case above, what was our suspect Jake doing?

He was in Vegas and just flew in earlier that evening. Jake was upset because he was trying to find his hotel room.           

It is unnecessary to write the question that led up to those responses.'

Noticed how I also paused after hotel room. Why? Because it brings us to the next step.

Step 3: Identify the natural breaks in the conversation

Every conversation has a natural break or shift in topic. Breaking up your large paragraph into smaller, more manageable chunks will help your reader remember what was said during the investigation. The use of smaller paragraphs is a vital skill to master in technical writing.

Start a new paragraph if there is a natural break in the conversation/investigation. It will look something like this:

I spoke with Jake, who said the following:

He had been in Vegas and had just flown in earlier that evening. Jake was upset because he was trying to find his hotel room.

Jake continued saying: 

He had a couple of drinks on the plane but did not drink any alcoholic beverages since he landed at 1500 hours. Jake later recanted that statement saying he had “not many” drinks after landing. Jake then ate tacos for dinner but did not drink alcohol with his meal.

I asked Jake to put the truck in park and turn the ignition off and he said, “I will not.”

There is a natural break after hotel room since the writer moved the topic from the suspect’s travel to the suspect’s drinking and dinner. Then another natural break between the did not drink alcohol with his meal and the continuation of the investigation.

Top tip: record interviews

Recording your interviews is critical to a case. It doesn’t matter if it is a witness, suspect, or business owner. Get into the habit of recording your interviews to make sure you are capturing the most detail possible. If you choose to use direct quotes, you will need the audio recording to support that statement in your report. In fact, more than 25 states require officers to record all custodial interviews. [2]

Relying on just body-camera recordings for interviews can also be an issue if your agency restricts the use of post-incident viewing. In those cases, a simple audio recorder will be beneficial.

And if you are in any detective unit, picking a good interview software or voice dictation recorder can make documenting interviews in a police report quicker. You can tag key points in the recording and reference the exact spot of the recorded statement in your police report.

Conclusion

This month, focus on reducing redundant words and phrases in your police reports. Pay close attention to the phrases, “I asked this, then he said that.” Don’t just change your words; change your format. Once you identify a section that needs to be revised, likely the question-and-answer section of your report, apply the three steps:

  1. Start with a short statement that introduces the paragraph’s content
  2. Summarize what was said by the suspect
  3. Identify the natural breaks in conversations and start a new section

To see what this technique looks like in a police report, please see the fictitious police in "The Future of Police Report Writing."

Remember, report writing should not be hard. But just like anything we do in law enforcement, practice is key to making writing easier. Pick a few of these topics outlined in this article and apply them to your next report. Once you feel comfortable with one topic, move on to the next.

References

1. Parks MB. Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West. Routledge, 2016.

2. Bang BL, Stanton D, Hemmens C, Stohr MK. Police recording of custodial interrogations: A state-by-state legal inquiry. International Journal of Police Science & Management. 2018;20(1):3-18.

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