By Tim Dees
You can still write police reports with a pencil and a blank sheet of paper, but most agencies want something a bit more efficient and sophisticated. Report writing software (RWS) makes this possible. Here are some things to consider when purchasing report writing software:
Ironically, some RWS packages cause more frustration and take more time to use than the "dead tree" (paper) versions. Forcing the writer to scroll through sections and pages that are irrelevant to the report, or worse yet, requiring that the irrelevant fields be filled in with a "NA" or some other placeholder, shows bad design. Another classic design flaw makes the user re-enter demographic information (name, date of birth, address, etc.) more than once, multiplying the chance for error and doubling the time required to enter it.
Most RWS comes as a module or add-in to a computer-aided dispatch/records management system (CAD/RMS) application. If it works well, this is the preferred solution. Information that starts with an officer's report of onsite activity or a citizen's call for service begins the incident record, and is passed directly into the report form when the officer is ready to write it. When it doesn't work well, you have one of the problems described above, or a system that crashes and loses all of the report writer's work.
Well-designed RWS uses smart forms that hide any unneeded information fields or sections. A burglary case with no suspects should require the investigating officer to do no more than check a "Suspects? Y/N" box to include or omit that set of fields from his display. When there are multiple victims, suspects, vehicles or other items, the RWS should provide as many entry fields as necessary to include all of the details, displaying the extra fields only if they are needed.
When the agency is moving from paper to electronic forms, the computer version should mimic the paper forms as closely as possible. People become accustomed to entering information in a certain order, and forcing them to change without good reason introduces errors and omissions.
Importing & Exporting
Another feature that is really popular with the officers in the field is auto import or export. This is the ability to automatically import demographic data from a driver’s license, for example. Another case of automatically importing or exporting data is the ability to take the data that is returned to the officer from the local, county or state wants or warrants query and exporting it from the within the application and importing it into the field report (i.e. accident, citation, tow). This eliminates time and error as well as you can simply copy the information from the response and insert it into the report. Most systems allow the user to import/export person data and vehicle data.
Because officers often need to drop what they are doing to answer another call, reports should be auto-saved at any point without input from the user. When complete, the officer should be able to transmit the report to his supervisor immediately, and the supervisor should be able to approve and file the report, or to return it to the officer with comments when details are missing. It's nice to have flags that pop up when critical information is absent, but allow the user to override all of them—there will always be situations that don't fit the norm.
Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement websites who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.