Report writing creates difficulty for many officers – and for many men and women who would like a career in law enforcement. A friend who teaches in a police academy tells me her students are more afraid of writing police reports than any other aspect of the job. Another friend who’s a lieutenant says writing problems sometimes block officers from promotions. And many officers are quick to confess that their writing skills need improvement.
So what’s holding them (and perhaps you!) back?
Often it’s motivation. After you’ve finished a long, stressful shift, you’re not likely to feel like working on your writing skills. So here are some ideas that can fire your enthusiasm and make this the year when you become a topnotch report writer:
- Good writing practices save time (always in short supply for busy officers). You’ll learn to eliminate repetition and organize your information efficiently. Modern police style (active voice, bullet points, jargon-free style) is much easier to work with than old-school police writing.
- You’ll be better prepared if you have to go to court. Poorly written reports can be wordy and confusing. The old-fashioned practice of avoiding names and pronouns (“this officer,” “Victim 1,” “Witness 3”) can make reports difficult to review, especially if the case is a complex one. Learn a more efficient way to write your reports, and you’ll find be prepared for court in less time.
- You may be able to avoid court completely. Vague reports (“He was obviously planning to steal the car”) are easy to challenge in court. Details and objective facts (“I saw a hammer in his right hand. He swiveled his head to the left and right five times in less than a minute”) are much harder to dispute, so an attorney might choose a plea offer rather than try to challenge you in court.
- You’ll improve your relationships with your superiors. Well-written reports make life easier for busy supervisors: There’s no need to schedule a meeting to correct mistakes.
- You’ll stop dreading report writing. Good writing skills make the process smoother and easier, saving you time, energy, and brainpower that can be channeled to other areas.
- You’ll build confidence. Why keep apologizing for your writing skills? You have the power to improve them, starting now.
- The pathway to good writing is easier than you think. A few minutes a day is all the time you need to refresh your knowledge and update your skills.
Are you beginning to feel motivated to improve your writing skills? Great! Here are some tips to help you get started:
- Use names and pronouns (I, he, she, Jane Thompson, Victor Patel) rather than confusing labels (this officer, Suspect 2).
- Use active voice (“I saw”) rather than passive voice (“was observed”): Active voice is easier to write and read, and you’ll be less prone to make mistakes in sentence structure – and active voice is just as truthful and objective as passive voice.
- Start every sentence with a person, place, or thing, and keep your sentences short – effective ways to avoid usage errors and problems with sentence structure.
- End sentences with periods, not commas.
- Remember that apostrophes signify “of” ideas (John Wilson’s car): Don’t use them for plurals.
- Avoid unnecessary wording (“I asked her what happened, and she told me she came home from work and found the kitchen window open. I asked her what she did next, and she said she called 911”). Just write down what the person told you: “She told me she came home from work, found the kitchen window open, and called 911.”
- Avoid jargon. For example, substitute about for “with respect to.” Near is better than “at close proximity to.”
- Be as specific as possible. This is the gold standard for report writing. Residence is vague: Was it a house, apartment, condo, or mobile home? Threatened is another vague term: What did the suspect say and do? Write down the exact words you heard and the actions you saw (clenched his fists, kicked a chair, told you she would slash your tires)
Don’t let these suggestions overwhelm you. There are only a few of them, and they’re probably just reminders of principles you’ve heard before. Choose one, and keep reviewing and practicing until it feels natural to you. Then choose another one. Soon you’ll see a dramatic increase in both your confidence and competence.