Writing a Police Report That’s Complete
Before you submit your police reports, double-check for completeness. Make sure that you’ve used active voice, included the results of any search you performed, and documented probable cause. Paying extra attention to your reports before you submit them can help you avoid a legal challenge later on.
The “completeness” requirement for police reports sounds simple: Just record everything that happened during a call. But completeness isn’t always that simple. Three types of problems tend to occur again and again in police reports.
The good news is that these problems are easy to find and fix. The even better news is that awareness of these problems can be a huge help if you need to testify about your report in a court hearing. In fact you may be able to avoid a court hearing altogether because thorough police reports are much less likely be challenged in court.
Here are the three issues to think about:
- Passive voice
Police academies teach trainees to use active voice in their reports, for a good reason. When you use active voice, your report is much more likely to be complete because each sentence names the person who performed the action.
Officer Warren patted down Ferris and found an x-acto knife in the left pocket of her jeans. ACTIVE VOICE
After a few months on the force, however, officers tend to revert to old-school report writing practices. The result is passive-voice sentences:
Ferris was patted down, and an x-acto knife was found in the left pocket of her jeans. PASSIVE VOICE
Who patted her down? The sentence doesn’t say. If there’s a question about the search a few months later, you may not remember which officer at the scene performed the search. Or—worse yet—you could be testifying in court and suddenly remember that Officer Warren performed the search—and he’s not present in court. Result: A postponement (and embarrassment for you and your agency).
Passive voice (“was searched,” “were transported to jail” and similar wording) is a leftover from bygone days when criminal justice believed that if you used “I,” you might be lying.
That kind of thinking was discredited years ago, but passive voice lingers on. It’s especially likely to occur in the disposition at the end of a report, where you tell what happened to the evidence, the victim, and the suspect.
Never use passive voice, and always state who did what right at the beginning of each sentence.
- Omitting the results of a search
This is another practice that can lead to embarrassment later. Police reports often state that an officer looked for latent fingerprints, footprints, pry marks, broken glass, bloodstains, and so on…but then forget to mention whether anything was found.
If you conduct a search, include the results. If you found nothing, say so.
- I looked for latent fingerprints but found none. COMPLETE
- I searched for footprints near the broken window, but a recent rainstorm had washed them away. COMPLETE
- I looked for bloodstains on Carter’s shirt. I found some small brown spots on the right sleeve. COMPLETE
- Probable cause
Officers often justify a traffic stop or stop-and-frisk search with terms like “reckless driving” or “suspicious behavior.” When physical force is necessary, officers tend to use the words “aggressive” or “dangerous” to describe the suspect’s behavior. Unfortunately those words and phrases make a legal challenge much more likely.
To understand why, think back for a moment to when you were younger. Were you ever told to “Take that look off your face!” when you thought you had a completely neutral facial expression? Or were you ever told to “Stop the sarcasm!” when you thought you were speaking calmly and respectfully?
Perceptions tend to be subjective. For example, a defense attorney might argue that a client who seemed “aggressive” was simply trying to explain his actions. What an officer calls “reckless driving,” an attorney might say is well within legal limits.
Never label a suspect’s emotions or behavior. Focus instead on objectively listing the actions you saw:
- Babson’s car swerved across the center line three times in less than a minute. OBJECTIVE
- Hansen took a step towards me, shook his fist in my face, and shouted out at me to “Back off and shut up.” OBJECTIVE
- I saw a woman in a parking lot walking from car to car, peering inside each car, and twisting the door handles. OBJECTIVE
Following these three guidelines can help you ensure that your police report is complete. It takes just a few moments to review what you’ve written, check it for completeness, and add anything you’ve omitted. That extra effort will increase your confidence and help you earn a reputation for writing thorough and professional reports.