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Home  >  Topics  >  Investigations

June 17, 2009
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John Bowden On Language, Communication, and Leadership
with John Bowden

The spaghetti sauce report

I love to watch all those police reality TV shows — and there are a bunch of them on TV nowadays — it’s a little like going home and watching work. In all seriousness, they always seem to have good examples I can use in class. And by that I mean good examples of doing it right and good examples of doing it wrong.

I saw an episode not too long ago where the trainee went in to take her first report. She wrote on her hand the things she needed to include in her report. This brought to mind the problem many officers have when going in to take a report, the question of “what do I need to put in here?”

This includes new officers and seasoned officers. I know that the seasoned officer knows how to take a report and what goes in it. However, how many homicides have you handled lately, or perhaps a fraudulent document, a kidnapping or drive-by shooting. God forbid you handle so many of these types of calls that you could gather the proper information and write the report in your sleep. We all have those incidents we handle on a regular basis but, there are those incidents we handle only on an occasional basis. There is a need to have an aid to insure we write the best and most complete report we possibly can. My search for the methods to write the best report began while training recruits on the street.

I first volunteered to teach police report writing at the academy when I was an FTO on the street. I would be given the responsibility to train a recruit, fresh out of the academy. He or she would investigate the incident and write the report. When I reviewed the report, I found their errors and began their instruction on report writing. Just when my recruit had mastered the skills of report writing and we could turn our attention to more interesting endeavors, the recruit would be taken away and I would be given another recruit that could not write reports. I would begin again, and when that recruit had mastered the task of report writing the recruit would be taken away and I would have to start all over again with another recruit. It dawned on me that I was teaching the recruit class one person at a time. Then eureka, I had an idea. If I could teach the entire basic academy class report writing, at least they would know how I wanted it done, when they were assigned to me on the street. Very selfish of me I know, but I volunteered to teach the class.

I was accepted as the report writing instructor and given my first class of 64 recruits. When they wrote their first report, I discovered a horrible fact. I now had to read and critique the 64 reports by tomorrow, so the students could review and learn. In my reading of the reports, I discovered a couple of things. Some of the reports were pretty good and easy to critique. However, some of them were a train wreck. The number one problem was organization. Once I taught them to organize it was all down hill. How to organize is the subject of other articles and my book “Report Writing for Law Enforcement and Corrections.”

The next problem is knowing what to put in the report. In the academy class, I gave them a writing scenario, ensuring they had all the information they needed to write the report. I was very pleased with the result. I found the reports in class were often better than what I had reviewed from officers on the street. My mission was accomplished and I returned to the street.

Once my recruits hit the street, the other FTOs held me responsible for the recruits’ report writing. I was sure they would shine and show their stuff. My fellow FTOs brought me the reports and I discovered they were not the exemplary product I had seen in the academy. I was crestfallen.

What had happened? In reading the reports, I found that it was not their ability to write that was at fault; it was their ability to investigate. The reports were well composed and grammatically correct. The problem was the lack of necessary information in the report. They had not gathered and included the required information that had been available during the investigation of the incident.

As I started to look into this problem, I included the review of reports of seasoned officers. I found the same problem; they were leaving out information that should have been included in the report; and, it was not being caught by supervisors. A chat with the investigators that used the reports revealed they were not happy with the information they were receiving from the reports. An interview with other users of reports revealed that the information they needed was also not placed in the report.

For example: Administrative reviewers of reports are responsible for coding the incidents, for the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) which is used to compare crime statistics around the country. The problem is, that different jurisdictions title the crimes differently based on local statutes. In one jurisdiction the entry of a detached garage to steal a lawn mower is a burglary. In another, it may only be a trespass and a theft. To equally compare these incidents, the uniform crime report would classify the theft as a burglary if the garage was attached to the house and only as a theft if it was detached from the house. To code this incident, the reviewer would need to know if the garage was detached from the house. Not an element many report writers would include in the narrative.

When I began to look at the way we composed and wrote reports, I knew we needed a guide to help the new and the seasoned officers, to insure they included all of the information needed, by all users of the report. To address the issue, we formed a working committee at the department to address the problem. The committee was composed of representatives from all groups in the department that used the report; patrol, investigations, records, report processors, information officer and administration. The following is a guide we came up with to assist in the gathering and composing of police reports. It outlines the information that must be gathered and included in each report for each type of incident.

I provide a version of this guide to all my students in all of my report writing and FTO courses as well as some of my management courses. It is a way you can be sure to always write “the spaghetti sauce report” because when you use this report writing guide, and people ask you about whether or not you included a bit of information, you can say, “It’s in there.” Just like the woman said in that classic TV commercial about the sauce.

The following is a description of the guide, its use and how it was developed. You may download the complete guide from PoliceOne. I believe you will find it to be a great asset for new and seasoned officers. However, it may need to be modified to make it specific and relevant to your jurisdiction. I give permission to use this version of the guide to all law enforcement organizations that have a need.

The guide is composed of different sections that outline what is required to be included in the report and is broken into the following sections:

• Table of contents
• General report requirements
• The description of the crime
• The elements of the crime
• The narrative requirements including the events that occurred, the suspect information, the evidence and testimony and follow-up actions taken
• The event log
• The witness statements

The General Report Requirements
This section covers general issues in report writing that are common to all reports. For example: The fact that reports should be written in chronological order, using the names of people instead of addressing them as victim, witness and suspect; Issues of property, dealing with juveniles and the information that should be put in the administrative blocks common to all reports and other general issues.

Incident Types
We realized you could not write one guideline that would cover all incidents that might occur. We needed a way to categorize the types of incidents we write about. The report for each type of crime has its own special needs. These needs are defined by law, investigative procedures, prosecutorial guidelines and administrative processing. To establish our writing guidelines we created a list of categories of incidents we would be called to investigate and would then necessitate a report. The categories were created from the state criminal statutes. We added two more categories; information on suspicious events report and all other reports not specifically covered by specific guidelines. We combined some criminal categories that were similar in nature or were lesser included crimes.

For example: combining child abuse, child neglect, elderly abuse, and neglect. As well as combining battery, battery on LEO, and battery on a firefighter. Combing similar types of crimes reduced the bulk of the guide. Each incident type contained the specific information needed to document and investigate a particular type of crime. The categories addressed for each incident type were as follows: The type of crime, the elements of the crime, the narrative requirements and whether or not to make an event log entry, a log read by the administrators and news media.

The Crime
The type of crime is listed including similar and lesser included offences.

Elements of the Crime
This is a list of the elements of the crime as described in the statute. These elements must be present for the prosecution of the case. For example: In Florida, battery is the unlawful touching of another without permission. If we do not include that the perpetrator did not have permission to touch the victim, we do not have a case. Of course, when a person hauls off and slugs the person next to them for no apparent reason, we assume there was no permission. Most report writers would not include the fact the victim did not give permission to be hit, as it would be stating the obvious. However, the prosecution must show this in court to make the case, and cannot know it for a fact, unless it is stated in the report that there was no permission.

Narrative Requirements
This section details what information is needed to be documented in the narrative. It is divided into four sections: The events, the suspect, evidence, and testimony and follow-up actions taken.

Events
The events section describes the type of information that is needed to document the actions of the incident — basically, what happened. This includes the specific facts we need to look for and include in the description of the events.

Suspect
This section asks for all of the details that are known about the suspect and what is specifically needed for this type of crime.

Evidence and Testimony
This section details the type of evidence that is collected for this event. It describes specific evidence or lack of evidence that must be documented for this particular crime. It also describes the type of testimonial evidence that is to be collected.

Follow-up Actions Taken
This asks the writer to document all follow-up actions taken in the case. But more especially, the particular follow-up needed for this case. For instance, a canvass of a neighborhood may be required. The investigating officer must list the people contacted that had no information as well as the ones that did have information. This will save the investigator time by not going back and talking to the people again to find out they saw nothing. This is one of the reasons people ask us “Don’t you people talk to each other?”

Notifications
In many cases there are specific requirements to make notifications. Some are within the department such as investigations, youth investigator or management personnel. Other notifications are to outside organizations such as social workers, FBI, Treasury etc. The types of notifications required to be made are listed and must be documented in the report.

Event Log
The event log is a running list of significant events that have occurred and is used to brief oncoming personnel, administrators and the press as what major events have occurred in the last 24 hours.

Witness Statements
The last section is a description of the types of statements that are needed to support the case. It describes all of the situations in which a statement is required and the information that is needed from each principal involved in the case.

I hope this information will help you be able to say, every time you are asked about a piece of information in your report, “It’s in there, just like the sauce.”


About the author

John Bowden is the founder and director of Applied Police Training and Certification (APTAC). John retired from the Orlando Police Department as a Master Police Officer In 1994. His career spans a period of 21 years in law enforcement overlapping 25 years of law enforcement instruction. His total of more than 37 years of experience includes all aspects of law enforcement to include: uniform crime scene technician, patrol operations, investigations, undercover operations, planning and research for departmental development, academy coordinator, field training officer, and field training supervisor. As the director of APTAC, John is responsible for coordinating operations and conducting training for law enforcement organizations across the United States. APTAC clients include law enforcement agencies, state police academies, sheriff departments, correctional institutions, military law enforcement, as well as colleges and universities across the United States. John has written numerous books, including Report Writing for Law Enforcement & Corrections, Management Techniques for Criminal Justice, Today's Field Training Officer, and others. Contact John Bowden





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