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.