Racine, Wisc, police officer Brian Neubauer fills out a report after an incident in which a blue SUV (in the background) was stolen with a baby inside. Neubauer recovered the SUV and the baby. Photo AP/Journal Time, Mark Hertzberg
FEATURED IN INVESTIGATION
Many entry-level police examinations now contain a writing component a reflection of the importance of the ability to write in the law enforcement profession. Almost everything we do gets recorded in writing. We write preliminary and supplemental investigative reports, arrest reports, affidavits in support of arrest and search-and-seizure warrants, use-of-force reports, forensic reports, etc.
As a test consultant, I often do a job-task analysis to determine the knowledge, skills, abilities and personal traits requisite for promotion up the ladder from officer to chief of police. Regardless of the rank and/or position being tested for, successful oral and written communication skills consistently appear at the top of the list.
Although great strides have been made in the forensic and scientific aspects of investigation, most would agree criminal investigation is still an art in which skills are enhanced through a combination of experience, training and the ability to apply investigative techniques to complex situations. Attention to detail, perseverance and common sense prove critical.
It s not just skilful investigation that brings the bad guy to justice, however. It s the investigator s ability to prepare a report that will withstand minute scrutiny by judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, citizens and the media. The report s ability to hold up under scrutiny may determine whether the guilty go free or justice is rendered to the victim. Why? Because in a democracy, the police are rightly constrained by a legal framework that not only presumes innocence, but places strict legal limitations on every police contact, detainment, arrest and search of its citizens. Every police report must jump over the substantial hurdle of the exclusionary rule which states that illegally obtained evidence can t be used against a defendant in a criminal trial by explaining in detail how and under what conditions a person s pre-existing individual rights were provided during the investigative process.
The Purpose of Reports
A police report serves five major purposes:
- Provide the official departmental permanent record of the who, what, when, where, why and how of a matter coming to the attention of the police;
- Provide a critical source of information for officers conducting follow-up or continuing investigations;
- Supply the judicial process factual information with which to make decisions relevant to arrest, search-and-seizure warrants and criminal prosecution;
- Equip management with information needed to plan for the future. (e.g., reports form the basis for crime analysis, analysis of offender modus operandi, personnel evaluations, proactive staffing assignments, etc.); and
- Provide information for local, state and national computer databases to process, coordinate and share, allowing immediate interagency access to everything from wanted persons and criminal records to crime-mapping statistics.
In my era, you brought your briefcase full of police-report forms to your cruiser and filled them out in pen and ink. We all carried a dictionary. If it was a major case, we got to use a typewriter, and we thought it was a big deal when the department got electric typewriters. Today s officers use vehicle-mounted computers or portable laptops. Software designed to assist report writing has made the task faster and more efficient.
Simply filling in the blanks of a form doesn't make for good police writing, however, and the report s narrative portion remains problematic for many officers. I use the following case scenario as a teaching tool on report writing to illustrate my point. It s simplistic, but depicts how poor report writing can hamper a criminal prosecution.
Case Scenario: A Sergeant s Review of an Arrest Report
Officer Paul Brown has placed a man under arrest for public indecency and interfering with an officer. His department requires all arrest reports to be reviewed, signed and notarized by a sergeant or above. After booking the suspect, Brown contacts his street sergeant, John Romero, to review and sign the report. After reading the report, Romero asks the following questions:
Sergeant: How much police experience do you have?
Officer: I ve been on the job three years.
Sergeant: That s not in your report. Why were you on directed patrol on foot in that area at that time of day?
Officer: You assigned me there because it s an area with a high incidence of street mugging between 1800 hrs and 2000 hrs.
Sergeant: That s not in your report. You heard a woman s screams coming from an alley between two bars, notified the dispatcher via radio and proceeded to walk down the alley to investigate?
Officer: Yes sir.
Sergeant: It s January. What was the lighting like in the alley?
Officer: It was dark and there were no lights in the alley, just a little light coming from the windows of the bars.
Sergeant: That s not in your report. Your report states you observed a naked man coming toward you and you instructed him to place his hands against the wall of the alley?
Officer: Yes sir.
Sergeant: How far away were you from the man when you first saw him? Was he completely naked? Isn t he about 6'5" to your 5'7"? Doesn t he go about 250 lbs. to your 150 lbs.?
Officer: He wore boxer shorts, but nothing else. You re right about his height and weight.
Sergeant: None of that is in your report. Why did you instruct the suspect to place his hands against the wall?
Officer: I told him he was under arrest. When he wouldn t put his hands against the wall, I used my Taser on him.
Sergeant: Were his genitals exposed?
Officer: No, he had boxer shorts on.
Sergeant: What crime did the man commit?
Officer: Public indecency. I heard a woman scream and went down the alley to see if she was OK. I saw this naked man come out of the dark. The guy was foaming from the mouth and had blood on his face. I wanted to handcuff him so I could locate the woman.
Sergeant: None of that is in your report. Why not write it exactly like you just told me? Why did you Tase the man?
Officer: When I told him to place his hands against the wall he yelled, F--- you, and came at me.
Sergeant: When you say the man came at you, what do you mean?
Officer: I grabbed the guy s right arm and told him to get up against the wall. He yelled, F--- you and broke away from me. He then balled his hand into a fist, and I thought he was going to hit me.
Sergeant: None of that is in your report. Did you warn the man you were going to use your Taser?
Officer: There wasn t time, but he saw I had the Taser out.
Sergeant: That s not in your report. What happened to the woman who was screaming?
Officer: I don t know. After I stunned the guy, backup arrived, and we brought the suspect to the hospital and then to booking. I never found the woman.
Sergeant: With the exception of bringing the suspect to the hospital, the rest of that isn t your report. I want you to rewrite this report detailing exactly what happened in chronological order. Begin by explaining why you were assigned to the area. Include all the details we just discussed. When you re finished, we ll go over it again.
Given the totality of the circumstances, did this officer have a right to detain the suspect? Yes. Was the officer justified in using his Taser to overcome the suspect s resistance to arrest and prevent him from assaulting the officer? Yes. Would the officer s report withstand judicial scrutiny? Not a chance. Could the lack of detail result in a real potential for civil liability? Absolutely.
Report writing is a learned skill. Writing a good investigative report proves difficult without significant knowledge of the legal concepts inherent to the profession. The tools
of our trade include exceptional knowledge of basic principles relative to local, state and federal law. These include knowledge of what constitutes a crime; probable cause; arrest, search and seizure; the exclusionary rule; the various U.S. Supreme Court decisions we deal with on a daily basis (e.g., Miranda v. Arizona); and departmental policy and procedure.
Opinions differ on how much information we should include in the police report narrative. Many believe reports should be short, concise and provide only the details necessary to relay the basic information required. Others (myself included) believe officers should record all facts that may be relevant to a case. With this in mind, here are some tips for writing your report:
- Review your investigative notes and organize them into key topic headings before beginning to write your final report.
- Write a factual narrative in chronological order. Begin by relating who you are (e.g., an 18-year veteran detective assigned to narcotics). Next, record how the matter came to your attention (e.g., you saw it happen). Then relate what you did after the matter came to your attention (e.g., you responded to the scene, determined whether a crime was committed, collected evidence, spoke with witnesses or the victim, etc.)
- Address the following questions:
- Have all leads in the case been thoroughly developed and investigated?
- What evidence supports (or doesn t) the determination that a particular person committed a crime?
- What conclusions would a reasonable person reach based on the factual evidence developed by the investigation?
All of us are strong in some areas and weak in others. If report writing isn t your strength, find a mentor. Every department has a few individuals known for their
report-writing skill. Ask them to show you a copy of a search- or arrest-warrant application, or an arrest report on a complicated case.
If you re a supervisor, don t just tell officers that their report is deficient. Provide some constructive input and give them copies of well-written reports. It s a lot easier to improve if you have a good example to go by.
If report writing is your strength, offer your services to officers who need help in this area. Mentoring used to be the main way we developed younger officers. Let s continue the tradition.
When I was a new officer with the Hartford (Conn.) Police Department, Main Street sported a couple of bars that catered to what we then referred to as motorcycle gangs. Hundreds of Harleys lined both sides of the street, and we were often called to one or another of the bars to break up fights between rival street gangs.
It was a rough area, but the times were different. This was before the 20-year contracts, and the old-time patrol officers were often in their late fifties or early sixties. You’ve heard of them—5'7", 200 lbs., hair growing out of their ears and noses, and bushy eyebrows that never stopped. They all had 20" necks, and their arms hung lower than they were supposed to. All featured broken knuckles and noses, and many were part-time boxers or wrestlers.
When they showed up at one of these motorcycle bars, anyone with the intelligence of an amoeba made their way out the back door. In that era, Miranda v. Arizona had not yet become the law of the land.
One evening in July, I was sent to one of these bars to back up one of the old-time beat officers on a report of a fight in progress. When I arrived, three cruisers and a sergeant’s car had already reached the scene, none of whom were sent to the call, and a huge mass of motorcycle riders were hightailing it in all directions.
I walked into the bar and saw four motorcycle gang members unconscious on the floor. The sergeant and four other officers were laughing and having a great time. When they saw me, they all filed past still hamming it up and apparently no worse for wear. The sergeant’s parting words were, “You got the paper, kid. The junior man writes the report.”
Write a report? I had no idea what happened. I had to find out from the bartender and the guys under arrest lying on the floor. That was report writing in my era.