The importance of report writing skills for career development
There are two rules to follow for writing excellent reports
The PoliceOne Academy features over 40 hours of training in all aspects of police investigation skills, including report writing. Complete the courses to improve your effectiveness and efficiency as an investigator. Visit PoliceOne Academy to learn more and for an online demo.
Report writing skills are just as important for career survival as any other police skill, such as defensive tactics, firearms handling, and knowledge of statutes and codes.
I’ve been teaching report writing to students for more than 15 years. I don’t make it complicated. There are only two rules to follow for writing excellent reports:
- Write in the first person/active voice.
- Do not make legal conclusions.
First Person/Active Voice
Writing in the active voice means that the subject of a sentence does the action indicated by the verb.
Active voice sentences are structured as “This (he, she, etc.) did that.” For example, Officer Smith drove his patrol car to the morgue. When an officer uses active voice correctly, it reduces confusion.
Active voice sentences directly answer the question, "Who did this?" They center on the active verb, which allow the reader to quickly grasp who performed the activity.
Understanding active voice also enables a writer to use natural language. Natural language is one a writer writes the same way that people talk. The opposite of this is institutionalized language.
Let’s look at institutionalized language first:
Upon arrival, I made contact with…
People don’t generally talk like this, but for some reason we have decided that writing like this in reports makes us sound more intelligent. Does the previous sentence mean a person landed on top of their arrival? When they made contact with someone, does that mean that, before anything else, they walked up and touched them? This could be awkward.
The natural language equivalent would be something like:
“When I arrived, I talked to…”
Sometimes, institutionalized language sounds like total nonsense. For example, officers might write, “He was ambulatory, so the ambulance crew did not use a gurney.” Instead, how about, “Smith walked into the ambulance”?
The worst violators of institutionalized language use are traffic accident investigators. Writing that, “The point of impact was arrived upon by the damage to Vehicle 1 and scuff marks on the pavement,” is just awkward.
Writing the same way as we naturally speak becomes important when we use our reports to refresh our memory on the stand. We can simplify language by using the active voice and natural language:
The two of them became engaged in an argument.
The vehicle appeared in good repair and appeared new in appearance.
The car looked new.
As of this date, the anticipated response has not been delivered.
I don’t have an answer yet.
The two of them were engaged in a physical altercation.
Is there a time when passive voice is appropriate in a report? Yes, but only when it is productive to emphasize the object of the sentence. For example:
After a few minutes, Blanco was finished with Chief Sill’s boring monologue.
Perhaps the most uncomfortable cross examinations stem from officers who make legal conclusions in their reports. It happens like this:
Officer Blanco, according to your report, you stated that “…the car careened off the guardrail, causing it to strike the pickup truck in the other lane.” Is this correct?
What sort of training do you have in physics, Officer?
Let me rephrase. How did you know that the car bounced off the guardrail, rather than the driver steered the car into my client after hitting the guardrail?
You can see where this is going. Creating a conclusion or an assumption in a report is dangerous, especially when it comes to criminal cases.
The way to avoid making legal conclusions is to look for language that suggests “this caused that” or things that the officer could not possibly know from their vantage point.
Sometimes officers string facts together creating a conclusion. Not only is this problematic, it is a poor investigatory habit. For example:
Marie Smith said that she was in the bedroom when suspect Scranton approached the front porch. Scranton banged on the door, then Scranton kicked it in. Smith opened the bedroom window and crawled out.
If Marie Smith didn’t actually see or hear Scranton bang on the door, the information cannot be confirmed. This is not only poor writing; it is poor investigatory technique. That is, what if there was a second suspect and Scranton was not the one who banged on the door?
Sometimes officers will make legal conclusions that stem from information they could not possibly know. For example:
By this time, Smith was thinking that he was going to assault Dean for molesting his daughter.
Imagine the question on the stand:
Officer, what degree of clairvoyance do you have?
Oh, you didn’t know this question was coming? Why not?
Investigators cannot possibly know what someone was thinking, but I see this in reports all the time.
Becoming a better report writer
It probably would not surprise anyone to know that I have students with graduate degrees who have trouble with simple incident report writing. I encourage recruits to take a writing class before they enter the police academy.
Just like many college writing classes, my incident report writing classes are entirely online. I work closely with local agencies and often get the “My rookie needs to take your short course” phone call occasionally.
I also encourage students to read. Even reading popular novels will mold language skill development. Many “college-ready” students have not read much beyond an 8th-grade level. If you are a potential recruit, pick up something like “Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins. I read the trilogy over a weekend. There are plenty of similar reading experiences from “The Cold Dish: A Longmire Mystery” to “Orange is the New Black.”