Requirements for Effective Police Reports
If you’ve taken standard writing courses in school, you may have to make some adjustments when you start writing police reports. In school your instructors probably encouraged you to write lengthy papers that featured complicated sentences, a sophisticated vocabulary, and original thinking. But police reports require you to stick to the facts and avoid original thinking. Sentences need to be straightforward, and you have to employ ordinary vocabulary words. Here are some guidelines:
Use names and pronouns (I, he, her) when you write about yourself and others at the scene. Avoid outdated expressions like “this officer” and “the above mentioned witness” or “victim 1.” In the past some officers were taught that impersonal terminology guaranteed objectivity and accuracy. Not true! You have the same integrity whether you’re calling yourself “I” or “this officer.”
And think about this: if you were testifying in court, and sworn to tell the truth, you would use everyday language (“I,” “me”) in your testimony. Follow the same practice in your reports.
Limit yourself to one idea per sentence. Short, straightforward sentences are easy to read and understand, saving time for everyone. (You’ll especially appreciate this time-saving tip when you’re reviewing a report to prepare for a court hearing.) The longer a sentence is, the more likely you are to make an error.
Start every sentence with a person, place, or thing. Normal sentence structure in English begins with a noun, and the grammar is simple: Just put a period at the end. Complicated sentences, on the other hand, require complicated punctuation, and they open the door to sentence errors.
Try to limit yourself to three commas per sentence. If a sentence has more than three commas, it’s probably too complicated to be read easily, and it may contain usage or punctuation errors.
Use active voice. A widespread (and mistaken) notion in law enforcement says that passive voice guarantees objectivity and accuracy. False. Writing a sentence like “A baseball bat was seen on the sofa” does not guarantee that you’re telling the truth. It’s much simpler just to write “I saw a baseball bat on the sofa.”
Of course you can’t write an entire report in list format. But lists can save time when you’re recording evidence from a scene or statements from a witness. Here’s an example:
When I entered the living room, I saw:
- a baseball bat on the sofa
- a trembling woman sitting on an armchair
- a man (later identified as Paul Rosen) standing over her
- pieces of a broken vase on the carpet
- He didn’t touch her
Don’t use fillers. Avoid empty words and phrases like “…whereupon I proceeded to,” “upon seeing this,” “at this point,” and similar expressions that don’t add anything useful. Many phrases can be simplified to save time: “members” rather than “individual members,” and “returned to their homes” rather than “returned to their respective homes.” Remember that police reports—unlike school assignments—don’t have minimum word counts.
Eliminate repetition. You don’t have to write “I asked him…he told me…. I then asked him… whereupon he told me.” Just record what the person told you, as in this example:
Paul Rosen told me:
- He and Gail have been “fighting a lot”
- Dinner wasn’t ready when he came home from work
- They started arguing
- She threw a vase at the wall
- He didn’t touch her
These tips can transform your report writing, making you more professional, more up-to-date, and more efficient.