On Language, Communication, and Leadership
with John Bowden
A simple way to improve your report writing
What does police report writing have in common with "the beautiful people?"
Editor’s Note: We welcome the return of our friend John Bowden to the editorial mix here on PoliceOne. Long-time readers will recall that Bowden, who runs APTACTraining.com, is also author of the book Report Writing for Law Enforcement & Corrections, published by the University of North Florida.
You submit your report to the supervisor. He reads it and says, “This is terrible.” When you ask what is wrong, he stutters, he stammers, he looks at the report and perhaps picks out some phrase or word he doesn’t like. You think, “That’s it?” He hands it back to you and tells you to fix it. You scratch your head and begin the rewrite, not sure what he wants. What’s wrong with it? You don’t know and he doesn’t know exactly how to articulate why he thinks it’s so bad. He only knows he doesn’t like it.
Well, it is probably ugly.
You know what I mean. You know it when you see it, but it is hard to define. Look around you, look at the people you see everyday, look at the people on TV in magazines and the movies. We all pretty much agree on who is pretty, good looking and who is not. Well what makes it so, we all agree, but we cannot describe it. We can point to examples. If you have the talent, you can draw it. Most people do not know what it is, but most of us fail to really think about it.
Well, here it is. It is organization. When you look at a person, your brain sizes up the organization of the face. Is it balanced? Are the eyes even? Are the ears the right size for the head? Are the features balanced? This is the same thing the new technological application is doing. It is looking for organization and balance.
Back to our reports. What is it that the supervisor is subconsciously picking up on in your report? It is the organization. If it is not organized, it is ugly and the supervisor sees it. Many times they don’t exactly know what it is they are seeing, like looking at the ugly person, the supervisor sees ugly, you know, ugly. How do we fix it? Answer, get organized.
Most reports police officers write are written in first person. They are telling the story of what happened to them. Unfortunately, this is a backwards report. Most of them start, “I responded to a crime, I talked to the victim and they said….” and it goes on with the writer telling us what happened to them, the writer. They are telling us what happened to them. This can make for a confusing story as it is told from back to front, or middle to back and then back to front. Rarely do we tell the story from the true beginning to end, unless we were there when it started.
How often does that happen? Right... rarely!
Here is my solution to the problem. Tell the story in the order that it occurred. Gather all of your information from the victim, the witnesses, sometimes the suspect, your observations, and the evidence. Put the information back in the order it actually occurred. Time order is easier to write and easier to read. Some people have criticized this method because you did not see the incident happen. My answer, it is not a statement, it is a description of what happened and it is supported by the testimony of the people and the evidence. To clarify this at the outset, make this statement:
“On date and time, I Officer Name, responded to location reference to crime. My investigation revealed the following information.”
This statement tells the reader that you responded to a crime, talked to a lot of people, looked at the evidence and this is what you have discovered. Remember, you are not writing a statement (what happened to you) or an arrest affidavit (sworn testimony of your opinion) leading to the probable cause. You are merely telling the reader what happened.
The process is easy. You go to the scene and gather all of your information, verify the facts, evaluate your evidence. The next step is to put those facts in true chronological order. For example, you respond to a spouse abuse. You arrive and talk to the wife. She tells you the husband comes home, hits her, and leaves a bruise on her face. She called 911, you arrive, you investigate and he goes to jail. The first thing that happened is not you arriving, the first thing is, she was at home. The facts in true order may be as follows:
• Wife is at home
• Husband comes home
• Husband hits wife
• The hit leaves a bruise
• The wife calls police
• You arrive
• You investigate
• You arrest husband
• Husband is taken to jail
This is an admittedly simplistic example. However, it is an example of putting the even back into order. When the supervisor reads it, it will look good, because it is organized. In the instruction of report writing, I’ve found this to be an easier way to write the report and the end result has been well received by supervisors. In one case, a deputy came to class and shared with me the fact that her report writing was bad and she would be terminated if she did not improve. Her Sergeant tried to tell her how to write the report, but was having a hard time explaining it.
After learning this method, she told her sergeant about it. He did not understand and told her, “You write the report, and I will tell you if it is OK.”
During the weekend, she had the opportunity to work a complex call of a robbery, a pursuit, and an arrest. She used this simple process to write her report. The sergeant read the report and exclaimed how good it was. The bottom line: she was previously not organized and the sergeant saw it as ugly. She organized it, and now it is good looking. The sergeant recognized the organization as a good report.
So I say to you, organize it first and write it right.