What Did You Just Say?
Ever worked an overnight shift, gone home and crashed for what seems like five seconds, then wiped the drool from your cheek and went out the door again to appear in court by 8 a.m.?
Did it ever occur to you that maybe, just maybe, if you had answered all the attorney’s questions in your report six months ago, you could still be at home in bed — drool and all?
Those in leadership positions, or those who have been officers for a while, probably have seen thousands of reports and written thousands more. Officers spend more time writing reports than on any other single task in law enforcement, but there is more riding on a well-written incident or investigation report than one might think.
What’s in it for Me?
A written report is often the first impression an officer makes on commanding officers, lawyers or judges. It doesn’t matter if he is the department’s best shot, fastest runner, finest interviewer and looks like a perfect specimen in uniform, if he cannot write a clear, factual and efficient report, all the skill in the world won’t hold up in court.
“Weak reports can be a detriment to a case without officers ever opening their mouths,” said Fernado Alfaro, former DOCJT General Studies instructor who taught report writing to recruits.
Poorly written reports can make a first-class officer look incompetent. Failing to deliver the necessary facts to the judge or jury, leaves room for doubt and can be the difference between a rightful conviction and a guilty person’s appalling release.
The power is in the hands of officers.
- Well-written reports save time and energy. On a long night, with a lengthy list of incidents, brevity and lack of details may seem like the way to go to just get it done and over with. In reality, organizing information and eliminating repetition cuts hours out of report writing time.
- Clear reports better prepare officers for court. It’s been said, “If it ain’t in the report, it didn’t happen.” Because officers don’t go to court the day after an incident happens, reports detailing the incident help officer’s confidence and allows for a more logical testimony.
- Great reports can keep officers out of court. If the report is written clearly and leaves little room for questions, counsel may have no reason to call the officer into court.
- Thorough reports keep reputations intact. Identifying what happened in a situation, what was said and what you did leaves little to question. Truthfulness and clarity lead to respect with attorneys and judges, as well as supervisors and administrators.
So now what? Just knowing it’s important doesn’t make it easier to write reports — or less painful. How, exactly, can officers make their reports more efficient and clear? Glad you asked.
Write to Inform, Not to Impress
Officers usually aren’t too keen on journalists, but taking writing cues from a journalistic approach will help make reports more clear. Answer the who, what, when, where, why and how questions. Officers know the information, they just need to organize it. Paint a picture for the reader of what happened, starting from receiving the call and proceed in chronological order.
For example the first line can be the same (just different dates and names, of course.) “Sir, on Wednesday Jan. 23, 2014, while working with Officer J. Robertson as D#345, we received a call from 911 Dispatcher T. Baseheart to 123 Anywhere Street for a man with a gun.” This opening answers many questions up front and the reader immediately understands what’s going on from the beginning.
Next, provide the information given by the dispatcher, exactly the way it was received. Remember, the reader doesn’t know anything about the call and needs to be walked through what happened, just the way the officer experienced it. For example, “Dispatcher Baseheart indicated the subject was an ex-boyfriend of the caller, and described him as M/W (male/white), 6’2”, 210 lbs., wearing a black shirt and blue jeans. He was driving a newer model Dodge truck, black in color and was standing outside his vehicle in front of the house.”
From here, officers will explain to the reader what they observed as soon as they arrived at the scene. Don’t skip ahead, but tell the story.
“The key is to be concise and efficient,” Alfaro said. “Explain what happened, but any excess baggage in the report is irrelevant.”
Be as Clear and Specific as Possible
Make sure to use clear language, writing the report the way you would testify in court. Don’t use vague language, saying, “The officer approached the residence.” First, in a testimony, officers don’t refer to themselves in third person, it should be the same in the report. Using first-person pronouns, such as I and me, doesn’t make an officer sound uneducated; it makes the report more clear. Second, vague language doesn’t help put the reader at the scene. For example, ‘residence’ is vague. Was it a house, apartment, mobile home or condo? Likewise, ‘contacted’ is confusing. Did you visit, phone or email the witness?
Keep it Simple
Write straightforward sentences. Long sentences tend to lead to errors and misunderstandings. Limit each sentence to one idea. Start each sentence with a person, place or thing. In elementary English classes, we all learned that a sentence starts with a noun and the punctuation is simple — just put a period at the end. Complicated sentences require complicated punctuation, and they open the door to sentence errors.
The wrong punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence. A “Tails” magazine article headline about Chef Rachel Ray read, “Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.” Either she’s cannibalistic or the editor should have used commas. The correct headline should read, “Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking, her family, and her dog.”
Use Simple Language
In this case simple language just means clear language. ‘Since’ is easier to understand and write than ‘inasmuch as.’ ‘In the utilization of’ is a time-wasting way of saying ‘used.’ Officers don’t sound any smarter using complicated language and big words.
“Fluff is hard to understand, and it’s not necessary,” Alfaro stressed.
Stick to Observable Facts
Hunches, guesses and conclusions do not belong in a report. Stick to the facts. Writing the statements, “The victim was upset” or “He was aggressive,” won’t stand up in court. Tell the reader what you observed about the individual that lead you to that statement. “The victim, D. Patton, was crying uncontrollably, her body was shaking and she had a difficult time talking about the incident.” Or, “Mr. Williams clenched his fists, gritted his teeth and kicked a chair across the room.”
Statements that capture observable facts about the situation allow the reader to understand what you saw and experienced during the incident. These statements are clear and leave nothing to question. Writing simply does not mean the report should be devoid of detail.
Use Active Voice
Now, be honest — does anyone without an English degree really know exactly what active voice is? Maybe not, but it still is a characteristic of good, clear and efficient writing. In a sentence using active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action expressed in the verb. In a passive sentence, the subject is acted upon; he or she receives the action expressed by the verb. For example:
- Passive — “A revolver was seen on the floor board of the vehicle.”
- Active — “I saw a revolver on the vehicle’s floor board.”
Active-voice sentences tell readers who did or saw what, instead of telling them what was seen or done before telling them who saw it or who did it. Sentences in active voice also are more concise than those in passive voice because fewer words are required to express action in active voice than in passive. Passive sentences may make the reader work harder to understand the intended meaning. A sentence in active voice flows more smoothly and is easier to understand than the same sentence in passive voice.
Write in Paragraphs
Organizing incident-report information into groups helps the report flow more logically, and makes it easier to read and understand later. One way to organize paragraphs is into four, straightforward sections: How you received the call, what they said, what you observed and what
- How you received the call: Make it clear for readers whether the call for service came from dispatch, you were flagged down, you walked up to an incident in progress or it is a follow up. Include the date, time of call, who you were responding with (if anyone) and any other necessary details.
- What they said: This paragraph is where witness, victim, complainant and possible suspect interviews go. You can summarize and paraphrase each of their testimonies. To avoid redundancy, combine witness statements that agree and separate out those that are different. For example, “Mr. Wright, Mr. Strong and Ms. Thomas agreed that the suspect’s vehicle was a black, compact car. Ms. Smith described the suspect’s car as a dark blue, mid-size sedan.”
- What you observed: After completing interviews, write down what you observed. Again, keep it simple, but clear and explanatory. If the victim has been attacked, describe the injuries. If a business has been looted, describe the scene in detail. Also, if a witness, victim or suspect’s statement doesn’t line up with what you observed, write that down, too. For example, if a victim swears he was assaulted, but you see no signs of bruises, scrapes, swelling, torn clothing or anything that indicates he was assaulted, write that in the report.
- What you did: This last paragraph covers what the officer did while investigating the incident, such as processing the scene or arresting suspects. This portion of the report could have the biggest impact on an officer’s career. Especially in use-of-force incident reports, accurately and thoroughly explain what action was taken and why it was necessary. Don’t be ashamed to tell the truth and admit hitting, punching, kicking, scratching or otherwise getting nasty with an offender. Retired Livermore (Calif.) Sgt. Mark Tarte gave an example scenario to demonstrate how honesty and explanation about use-of-force paints an accurate picture for those who later read the account.
“The suspect swung his fists at me. I told him to stop resisting, and that he would be sprayed with OC if he did not. He again tried to hit me, and I sprayed him twice with my department-issued OC spray. This caused him to back away, but he still tried to hit me. I again ordered him to ‘Stop resisting,’ but he continued to swing his fists at me, yelling, ‘Screw off, copper.’ He again raised his fists and swung at me. I then struck him twice on the left knee with my baton. He fell to the ground, saying, ‘I give up, I give up.’ I handcuffed the now-compliant suspect and drove him to the General Hospital Emergency Room for evaluation and treatment by Dr. A. Smith. After he was medically cleared, he was booked into county jail without further incident.”
This example is clear to the reader, includes proper detail and potentially saves the officer in the event of a police brutality lawsuit by the suspect in the future. Tarte also suggests using available video documenting the incident to help write reports. In many cases, an officer’s testimony doesn’t seem to jive with the video. The officer’s perception of what occurred is valid, but viewing the impartial video may help him or her recollect details and aid in writing a more complete and accurate report. With so many video recorders in patrol cars, on witness cell phones and surveillance video footage, it is crucial that officers be accurate and factual in their reports. Don’t think about it as writing longer reports, but writing smarter reports.
Officers need to contemplate how it looks to a jury when they bring up facts that were never in the report. Lack of corroboration between testimony in court and the report gives ammunition to the defense attorney. Not to mention, it may be five years after the fact that an officer testifies. A well-written report will help him or her recall exactly what happened at a given incident, after he or she has experienced thousands more incidents.
Law enforcement officers use pen and paper and a computer significantly more than their OC, baton, TASER or sidearm, and they are just as important to officers’ successful careers. If weapons are not practiced with, when the time comes to use them, it could endanger the officer. The same goes for report writing. Practice, learn and protect yourself.