3 simple ways to instantly improve your report writing
Tactics keep you alive, but report writing keeps you out of trouble
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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Last year, I attended a weeklong regional technical training course tailored for first-line supervisors. The course covered best practices in managing large-scale chaotic scenes and conducting after-action reviews. After the training, I spoke to one of the instructors, a retired LEO, for more information on after-action reports. I was quickly met with an interesting and borderline discouraging comment: "Officer's don't care about reports; they care about tactics. Focus on tactics, and someone else will do the after-action report."
"Officers don't care about reports; they care about tactics." Was that statement true?
I returned to work and decided to review my internal training records. I had plenty of advanced defensive tactics, active shooter and mass casualty response training but to my surprise, I had nothing related to law enforcement report writing. My external training records were just as slim – lots of courses on teaching, fraud investigations and accounting, but very few on how to write a better police report.
My colleagues were in the same boat: lots of tactics training with little to no police report writing training.
Tactics keep you alive, but a well-written police report keeps you out of trouble; however, report writing is something most agencies dismiss as an important officer survival skill.
Luckily, there are three techniques you can do to instantly improve your police report writing, avoid case dismissal and protect yourself as an officer. And the best part is that you do not need formal training and it only takes minutes a day.
1. Don't write when you are tired
OK, I hear you: "I am always tired, so how can I write when I am not tired?"
Police exhaustion is such a major concern for police agencies that Police1 dedicated an entire podcast segment to fighting fatal fatigue in law enforcement. Unfortunately, being tired is part of the career. So, let me rephrase the heading: Write when you are less tired.
Writing while alert is necessary because the police report-writing process is mentally taxing. An officer starts by reviewing their mental and physical notes, then progresses through a series of prewriting, writing, responding, revising, editing and publishing (sending the report to a supervisor for review). When an officer is mentally exhausted or physically tired, this will lead to mistakes. Note I didn't say, "this may lead to mistakes." Being tired will lead to mistakes.
Most police agencies make bad report writing worse with write-it-before-you-go-home policies. After a 10+ hour shift, the last thing any officer wants to do is sit down and write a shoplifting or found property report. Of course, some investigations should be written before going home because of due process rights, immediate follow-up, or investigators are still on scene. But most police reports can be held until the officer returns the next day.
Having a small break between shifts gives an officer's mind time to process the information and organize their thoughts subconsciously. When an officer is alert and their thoughts are organized, they will be prepared to write accurate accounts of what happened.
Time helps the mind process information.
Even if your agency requires same-day reports, there is a little trick to help mitigate mistakes. In these cases, try to write your report directly after the incident but wait two to three hours to proofread it. You will be surprised at how much extra information your brain will naturally find during that short break. If you think of any additional information after you submitted your police report, just write a supplemental report when you get in the next day.
2. Use spelling and grammar checkers
Over the past five years, I have read thousands of police reports from around the United States. Many of these reports are packed full of simple grammar and spelling mistakes that a word processor’s spellcheck would have caught.
I know that many of these agencies, including mine, use Microsoft Word's spellcheck feature. So why do we continue making basic spelling and grammar mistakes? I decided to do some digging, and each time I read an exceptionally bad report, I called the agency, not to complain or call them out, but to ask questions. I found that most poorly written reports from 2010 to the present day share three traits:
- The officer wrote the report directly in the agency’s records management system (RMS);
- The officer did not configure spellcheck; or,
- The officer wrote in UPPERCASE.
RMS spell checkers are improving, especially in the new AI integrated RMS 3.0 versions. But as of right now, even the most basic version of Microsoft's Word spellcheck outperforms any RMS spellchecker. Try to write your report in a word processor first, then copy and paste it into your agency's RMS.
(If you want to learn more about how to set up spellcheck correctly, read the next article in this series, How to set up spellcheck to proofread your police report, available for Police1 members only.)
Writing in uppercase is an unnecessary annoyance. If you are writing in uppercase, please stop. Your boss, your prosecutor and all the agencies reading your report will thank you. Writing in uppercase is an old technique used to correct bad penmanship, but since we are writing in a word processor, all uppercase writing is not needed. Spellcheck also must be configured correctly for it to catch mistakes in uppercase.
3. Read your report aloud
The best advice I ever received in school is to read reports aloud. Even if your spoken grammar is not perfect, reading your report aloud will help you catch many small grammar and sentence mistakes not caught by spellcheck. If a sentence sounds weird, change it. Nine times out of 10, you will be correct.
Just remember, you don't need to read LOUD, just aloud. Be courteous of those around you by just whispering.
Good report-writing skills protect officers
You don't have to become a novelist or a professional writer to be a good writer. But you should put a little effort into becoming a better writer than where you are now. These three techniques are simple and easy to apply and more importantly, they work. Good police report-writing skills will not only protect you on the street from overzealous anti-police lawyers but also in the courtroom, internal affairs investigations and school.
Bonus content: How to train your ear to catch writing mistakes
If you spend time training your ear for writing, you will catch even more mistakes. An excellent way to train your ear for good sentence structure and grammar is to read good literature aloud. I recommend “The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov” not because it is an enjoyable read but because his sentences are as close to perfect as they come, and he really focuses on the sound of a sentence. Read one page a day aloud. Ignore the content, just listen to the words and sounds. Your mind will automatically notice sentence parallelism, assonance, rhythm and alliteration – all critical features of a good sentence. When you read your police report aloud, your ear will suddenly pick up the smaller mistakes in your writing.
Next: How to set up spellcheck to proofread your police report
A step-by-step guide to configuring Microsoft’s spelling and grammar checker