09/03/2000

Ten Steps to Improve Your Written Reports

By Lt. Fran Hart

During a quiet shift at your agency, pay a visit to your department’s case files. Pick out about fifteen reports from different officers. Then sit your-self down, with the requisite cup of coffee, and spend a half-hour reading through these reports. If your agency is like most, you will probably find a wide array of writing styles in these reports. You will also probably find many sentences that just don’t sound right when you read them. They may be confusing and not convey what the writer intended. They may have pro-found spelling errors which are distracting and cause you to question the author’s attention to detail. They may sound stilted and cause you to wonder why the author failed to use a simple, direct approach to the sentence. You may come to the conclusion that there must be some simple ways to improve your department’s reports, short of sending everyone back to English class. The ten steps outlined below should help any officer do a better job in communicating more precisely, with less distractions.

1. Drop the Awkward Police Lingo
Consider the following sentence: “This officer alighted from his police vehicle and asked the operator of the suspect vehicle, one Ms. Anna Brown, for her driver’s license.” Would an officer really talk this way if this was simple conversation? Not likely.

This is a clumsy sentence. Particularly annoying is the use of the third person phrase “this officer.” It’s as if the author were describing someone else. It seems like law enforcement officers of the past have felt the need to pass down this ancient ritual of using stilted police jargon to the newer officers when instructing them on the art of report writing. It must seem to them that their reports will be viewed with more credibility when composed with this peculiar police phraseology. What it really does is draw the reader’s attention away from the content of the report. A better sentence would be: “I got out of my cruiser and asked the driver, Ms. Anna Brown, for her driver’s license.”

2. Don’t Make the Reader Search for Information
A lot of report writers expect the reader to search forwards or backwards for information. For example, many officers include the date and time in the heading of their reports. Then they begin their report like this: “On the above date and time, I was on duty in cruiser 43.” This causes a disruption in the reader’s flow, because the reader must now look elsewhere to find out which date and time the author is referencing. Similarly, authors often put the names and addresses of suspects, witnesses and victims in the heading, assigning each one a number.

Then the author continually refers to each person described in the report as “Subject #1” or “Victim #2.”This is extremely confusing and causes lots of eye shifting for the reader. It is far better to identify each person by their name in the report so that such confusion is minimized. Don’t make your reader hunt for information. Make it easy for them to follow your story logically and clearly.

3. When Will it End?
Another commonly seen element is the “never-ending sentence.” The sentence goes on and on and on, leaving the reader gasping for breath. An example: “I asked the victim if he could identify the robber and before he could answer, he was interrupted by his mother, who was urging him not to say anything because she was afraid that if he answered, he might find himself in harm’s way and end up hurt somehow.” Whew! Forty-nine words in that sentence. It’s just not an efficient or effective way to communicate. It would be far better to break that sentence down into several shorter sentences. Besides being easier for the reader to digest, it will probably cause the author to omit some of the “fluff” that tends to get included in such sentences.

A corollary to this is to avoid the “never-ending paragraph”. There are an amazing number of police reports that go a full page or more and never exceed one paragraph. Your readers expect a break every now and again. These pauses help the reader ponder your message in a clear and logical way.

4. To Spell or Not to Spell
Let’s face it - most report writers have adopted the philosophy that it’s too late for them to become better spellers. And from an administrative view, it’s not very practical to try and teach these officers how to spell. So the title of this tip might be more aptly renamed “To Spell Or To Be Lazy,” because even if you are not a great speller, there are steps you can take to eliminate most common spelling errors.

First of all, you should be using a word processor to compose your reports. Any decent word processor has a spell checker, which will correct most of the common misspellings that find their way into reports. Next, you should never misspell a person’s name, because you can always ask them the correct spelling. It is particularly embarrassing when you misspell a coworker’s name. At the very least, you should have a list of officer’s names near your computer for easy reference.

Finally, although no one will expect you to go back and learn spelling all over again, you should at least learn how to spell the words that are particular to law enforcement. Complainant, alcohol, and warrant are just three examples of words used all the time in reports, yet frequently misspelled. There is no excuse for not knowing how to spell words that are so truly relevant to your profession.
There is a related concept that you should understand about spell checkers.

They will not correct words that are spelled correctly, but used improperly.
For example, if you write “there dog barked at me,” the spell checker will not detect a misspelling for you, because there is none. The error here is in the word’s use. It is up to you to learn the difference between “there,” “their” and “they’re.”

5. The Proof is in the Reading
The previous example emphasizes the immense importance of proofreading the report even if the spell checker reports no errors. There are a couple of good reasons for this. First, as stated previously, the checker will not report improper use of a word that is spelled correctly. Second, sometimes you may use the checker incorrectly. For example, most spell-checkers offer you several options when an unrecognized word is encountered. Typical options would be “Change,” “Ignore” or “Add to Dictionary.” If you accidentally press “Change” when you meant to press “Ignore” -as when encountering a proper name- you could have some disastrous results.

In one instance, an author inadvertently allowed the checker to change all instances of the proper name “Maggio” to the word it proposed, “Magic.” Because the author didn’t proofread the report before submitting it, this error was not detected. The next day, the prosecutor was reading the reports in preparation for court and thought he was the butt of a practical joke when he read all the references to “Officer Magic.” He was not a happy man that day - nor was the author.

The best way to proofread a report is to give it to somebody else and let them read it. It is always better to have fresh eyes look for mistakes. Encourage
them to point out anything that looks wrong or sounds awkward. Then read it yourself and see if you can improve it. One of the best features of a word processor is that mistakes are easily corrected, without having to type the whole thing over. (You are saving your reports to disk, aren’t you?)

6. A Capital Idea
Another classic law enforcement report writing technique is to use ALL
CAPS! The officer simply presses the “Caps Lock” key and types away.
Many studies have demonstrated that it is much easier on the reader if the sentences are made up of a combination of upper and lower case letters -the
same way you did it in grammar school.

On a related topic, try sticking to good business fonts like Courier or Times New Roman. A good font size for reports is 13. Using a wild type face or an unusual font size makes your report less effective and more distracting. A good policy is to adopt a standard format that dictates style of headings and closings, font size and font type for all police reports.

7. Don’t Be So Possessive
A frequent mistake seen in reports is the misuse of the apostrophe. No, this is not going to become a grammar and punctuation lesson. But here are a few quick tips:

•Do not use an apostrophe to show more than one. For example, “two car’s,” “three hat’s,” etc.
•Do learn the difference between its and it’s. Its is the possessive as in “the cat ate its dinner.” It’s is the contraction as in “it’s going to be a nice day.” An easy way to remember the difference: if you can substitute “it is,” then use “it’s.” A similar example involves “your” and “you’re.” If you can substitute “you are,” then use “you’re.” Both of these examples are misused constantly so it’s (it is) worth learning.

8. Eliminate the Abbreviations
Abbreviations are used all the time in police reports. While there is no hard rule against using common abbreviations that everyone will understand, officers use too many abbreviations for things that many outside law enforcement might not understand. Consider the following: PC, DEF, Y/O and PU.

While you may understand PC to mean “Protective Custody,” an outsider reading your report may think you mean “Politically Correct.” PU may mean “Pick-Up” to a cop, but a civilian may think of something smelly. For the most part, there is no need to abbreviate anything. It only takes a few keystrokes to spell out the word entirely, while it eliminates any confusion. It is worth the extra few seconds.

If you really need to abbreviate, consider setting up your word processor to work with so-called “auto text.” Most major word processors allow you to press a special function key, after typing an abbreviation, that inserts the full word for you automatically. For example, you could set it up to insert “Anywhere Police Department” whenever you type the abbreviation “APD.” This still allows you the convenience of abbreviations while making things perfectly clear for your reader.

9. Clear the Decks
After you type the report, read it from the viewpoint of your intended audience. Be critical and ask yourself “Will the reader know what I’m talking about?” Consider this sentence: “The victim looked at the suspect with rage in his eyes.” Who has the rage? The victim or the suspect?

When we write, we do not always write so that the reader gets a clear message. It may be clear to the author, but the reader may find the words ambiguous. Try to write clearly so that your intended meaning is not lost while the reader tries to figure out exactly what you meant.

10. Put It There
In the early eighties, a number of officers decided that their reports were going to be short and to the point, eliminating as much detail as possible. They were convinced that if they wrote less, they were less likely to be challenged in court on various points or to have their actions twisted by a clever defense attorney. They were wrong! It is important for you to include all relevant actions, statements and observations in your report. The prevailing attitude, as we have witnessed through prominent trials over the past few years, is that if it’s not in your report, it didn’t happen. If you testify in court to an action that you did not include in your original report, any good defense attorney will be all over you. The attorney will want to know why you didn’t include that action in your original report. The inference will be that you didn’t include it because it never really happened. It could affect your credibility, particularly in the eyes of a jury. So it is important to do a thorough job on your report, never leaving out details which could later be important at trial.

The ten steps above are suggestions for improving your police reports. As with any “step-method,” you are encouraged to pick out one or two that you find most useful. Incorporate these into your report writing habits and your reports should improve in quality. Of course, these are merely a beginning. There are many fine books on the subject and the emergence of the World Wide Web offers another means of getting resource material on report writing. If you find any of these tips useful or have other report writing tips of your own, I would love to hear from you. My e-mail address is: bpd@tiac.net.
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