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:
The General Report Requirements
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.
Elements of the Crime
Evidence and Testimony
Follow-up Actions Taken
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.”
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