Law Enforcement Report writing
If your agency is like most, you will probably find a wide array of writing styles in these reports. You will also probably find many sentences that just don’t sound right when you read them. They may be confusing and not convey what the writer intended. They may have distracting spelling errors that cause you to question the author’s attention to detail. They may sound stilted and cause you to wonder why the author failed to use a simple, direct approach to the sentence.
There are some simple ways you can improve your reports without having to go back to English class. The ten steps outlined below should help any officer do a better job in communicating more precisely.
1. Drop the Awkward Police Lingo
Consider the following sentence: “This officer alighted from his police vehicle and asked the operator of the suspect vehicle, one Ms. Anna Brown, for her driver’s license.” Would an officer really talk this way if this was simple conversation? Not likely.
This is a clumsy sentence. Particularly annoying is the use of the third person phrase “this officer.” It’s as if the author were describing someone else.
It seems like LEOs of the past have felt the need to pass down this ancient ritual of using stilted police jargon to the newer officers when instructing them on the art of report writing. It must seem to them that their reports will be viewed with more credibility when composed with this peculiar police phraseology. What it really does is draw the reader’s attention away from the content of the report. A better sentence would be: “I got out of my cruiser and asked the driver, Ms. Anna Brown, for her driver’s license.”
2. Don’t Make the Reader Search for Information
A lot of report writers expect the reader to search forwards or backwards for information. For example, many officers include the date and time in the heading of their reports. Then they begin their report like this: “On the above date and time, I was on duty in cruiser 43.” This causes a disruption in the reader’s flow, because the reader must now look elsewhere to find out which date and time the author is referencing.
Similarly, authors often put the names and addresses of suspects, witnesses and victims in the heading, assigning each one a number. Then the author continually refers to each person described in the report as "Subject #1" or "Victim #2." This is extremely confusing and causes lots of eye shifting for the reader. It is far better to identify each person by their name in the report so that such confusion is minimized. Don’t make your reader hunt for information. Make it easy for them to follow your story logically and clearly.
3. When Will it End?
Another commonly issue is the “never-ending sentence.” The sentence goes on and on and on, leaving the reader gasping for breath. An example: “I asked the victim if he could identify the robber and before he could answer, he was interrupted by his mother, who was urging him not to say anything because she was afraid that if he answered, he might find himself in harm’s way and end up hurt somehow.”
Whew! Forty-nine words in that sentence. It’s just not an efficient or effective way to communicate. It would be far better to break that sentence down into several shorter sentences. Besides being easier for the reader to digest, it will probably cause the author to omit some of the “fluff” that tends to get included in such sentences.
A corollary to this is to avoid the “never-ending paragraph.” There are an amazing number of police reports that go a full page or more and never exceed one paragraph. Your readers expect a break every now and again. These pauses help the reader ponder your message in a clear and logical way.
4. To Spell or Not to Spell
Let’s face it: most report writers have adopted the philosophy that it’s too late for them to become better spellers. And from an administrative view, it’s not very practical to try and teach these officers how to spell. So the title of this tip might be more aptly renamed “To Spell Or To Be Lazy, ” because even if you are not a great speller, there are steps you can take to eliminate most common spelling errors.
First of all, you should be using a word processor to compose your reports. Any decent word processor has a spell checker, which will correct most of the common misspellings that find their way into reports.
Next, you should never misspell a person’s name, because you can always ask them the correct spelling. It is particularly embarrassing when you misspell a coworker’s name. At the very least, you should have a list of officer’s names near your computer for easy reference.