Book Excerpt: Write to Protect and Serve – A Practical Guide for Writing Better Police Reports
Written for officers at all levels, this book discusses proper note-taking at the scene of a crime, different elements of police reports and compliance writing
The following is excerpted from "Write to Protect and Serve: A Practical Guide for Writing Better Police Reports" by John Cagle, who is the former chief deputy for the Dawson County Sheriff's Office and a special agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. He is a member of the Peace Officers Association of Georgia and has over 30 years of experience. Purchase the book here.
Chapter 4: Notetaking
Watch and listen to this episode of Dragnet titled, “The Big Thief.” Take notes of the details of this event.
Chapter Learning Objectives
- Understand the importance of taking good field notes.
- Learn the supplies needed to take notes.
- Develop one’s own style of taking notes.
- Understand the need to proofread and edit reports.
- Recall specific details depicted in “The Big Thief.”
There are three stages of every police report. It starts with collecting content (facts) about an event, then organizing notes and writing the report itself, and proofreading and editing the final document.
Learning the facts usually starts with interviewing a victim or witness, or seeing something unfold in front of us. That’s where we find information such as the who, what, when, where, and how (4-W+H) of events that we should include in all reports.
There will be events that are more complicated and may cause each of these “content” sections to become lengthy. For instance, an interview with a victim of an assault must go into great detail regarding the description of the offender to include sex, race, height, weight, hair color and length, facial hair (if any), distinguishing marks or tattoos, and clothing description (the who). Specific details of the attack need to include weapons used (if any), statements made by the offender, and a complete description of each injury sustained by the victim (the how). I think you get the idea. Some events are more serious than others; therefore, documenting the who, what, when, where and how will need a great deal of attention.
Organizing Notes and Writing the Report
We are all human. We forget things. Many times throughout the day, officers learn certain details of suspected criminal activity and the only way to remember them all is to write them down. Learning to take good notes is the first step in report writing.
You need to make sure that you always have available the proper tools and supplies for taking notes. Now, this is not rocket science. I’m talking about a simple notepad and pen. In order to collect all the information needed, officers must have sufficient supplies on hand that meet their needs for any situation. By supplies, I mean multiple notebooks, pens, business cards, Miranda cards, forms, recorders, and even cameras.
Most investigators use what is called a portfolio binder. These contain storage compartments and allow for quick access to these supplies. They are a good way to organize materials in a professional looking manner.
Most patrol officers carry a small notebook in their uniform shirt pocket. This type of notebook should only be used to write down information such as a tag number, a phone number, or a name. They are not sufficient to write down details of an event. Certainly, patrol officers should not be expected to approach cars at a traffic stop holding a notebook, but they should have one available in their car.
Some suggest that pens with black ink are the best to use when taking notes because black ink will last longer. I agree, but my position has always been that I would rather have something written in crayon than nothing written at all.
Take notes so that you can make sense of them. When interviewing someone and taking notes, you control the pace of the interview. You have the ability to stop at any time to ask for clarification of facts or even how to spell something. Don’t get in a hurry. Develop your own style of notetaking. By style, I mean the ability to organize the information on the page in a manner that will allow you to use it later in order to complete the report more efficiently.
You should cover simple things, such as remembering that every report must note the date and time. Also, notes must be legible—not necessarily legible to someone else, but certainly to you. There are occasions when you are required to maintain or keep your rough notes before a court proceeding. I suggest that once you fill up a notebook, write the date range somewhere on it. Doing so will help you recover it easily if you had to. You should not write personal messages, personal phone numbers, or other personal notes on your business notepad just in case you have to provide it to the prosecutor or others.
Your notebook will also likely contain notes pertaining to different events. Each event is issued a unique case number; therefore, beginning your notes of that event with that case number is essential. These case numbers, sometimes called file numbers, are issued by the agency.
One thing that will keep you on track while preparing the report is organizing your notes first. Make an outline of the topics you need to cover. Inevitably, during an interview with a victim or witness, they will think of something that relates to what you wrote down on page one. Now you're on page ten. Remember, our reports should describe events in chronological order, and that's how you should do your interview. However, sometimes your notes don't turn out like that.
When reviewing your notes, I suggest you develop a system that you can use to organize your thoughts. I would always try to review my notes and place a number by a sentence containing a topic that I thought should go at a certain place in my report. If my notes consisted of five pages, there would usually be some information out of chronological order.
During an interview, there are often multiple topics discussed, so organizing the report by topic is a must. If at the beginning of the report you write about injuries to the victim, and in the middle of the report you write about injuries to the victim, and then more injuries are discussed toward the end of the report, you will lose the reader’s attention. Finish all the facts about one topic before going to the next. That is why the numbering system worked for me.
Many times, especially for follow-up investigations, detectives’ notes might consist of twenty or thirty pages. That is another reason to come up with a system that you can use when preparing your report, so it will tell the story the way it must be told. Covering all the "number one’s" before going to "number two's"—and placing a line over them as you go—will ensure that you write about every topic in your notes. Doing so can speed things up at the end. Once each paragraph of your notes is crossed out, you're through with the report.
Proofreading and Editing
Once you have completed writing the report, check it for errors and correct them. I suggest you follow this simple outline:
- Does the report comply with agency formatting guidelines? In other words, does it look like it should? Most agencies have specific requirements, such as the use of first-person vs. third-person sentences or military vs. civilian reporting times. Some agencies have specific requirements as to font size and spacing. After writing a few reports, such requirements will become easy to remember.
- Ensure that the report is grammatically correct. Remember, this report and the way you write it reflects on you and your agency. Misspelled words and improper use of punctuation must be corrected. Most writing software contains programs that can help you identify these errors as the report is being completed. However, you should not rely on this software totally. Take your time and read each line with a sharp eye for errors.
- Look for any omissions of required “content.” That’s the 4-W+H information. If any of this information is missing, you should attempt to recover it. This might involve a simple phone call to a victim or witness to follow up on an earlier interview.
- Make sure the report properly tells the story in a way that can be easily followed and understood by everyone. If it sounds confusing to you, it will most certainly sound confusing to others.
- Don’t worry if you struggle in the beginning. Before you submit a report, have a trusted colleague review it and offer suggestions and feedback. This will increase your confidence level for future reports.
The objective here is to develop your skills to a degree where you feel comfortable and confident writing reports. Preventing reports from being kicked back by supervisors due to errors should be your goal. Writing the same report many times over should be avoided.
Discussion Topic Review
Below are questions relating to facts contained in the Dragnet episode. Search your notes for the answers:
- In what city did the crime occur?
- On what date did the first crime occur?
- What are the names of the two Detectives assigned to the robbery case?
- What is the name of the first Doctor who was robbed?
- What was the location of the hotel where the first robbery occurred?
- What items were stolen from the first robbery victim?
- What was the alias used by the robbery suspect?
- What was the address where the shooting took place?
- How old was the suspect who was shot and killed by the Detective?
Here are the answers. Compare them to your notes. How did you do?
- In what city did the crime occur? Los Angeles, California
- On what date did the first crime occur? Wednesday, June 17
- What are the names of the two Detectives assigned to the robbery case? Frank Smith and Joe Friday
- What is the name of the first Doctor who was robbed? Dr. Aaron R. Platt
- What was the location of the hotel where the first robbery occurred? At the corner of Pembroke and Columbia
- What items were stolen from the first robbery victim? Watch, wallet, solid gold lighter, narcotics
- What was the alias used by the robbery suspect? Timothy Allen
- What was the address where the shooting took place? 9276 South Dixon
- How old was the suspect who was shot and killed by the detective? 22-years-old
This exercise illustrates the need to take good notes. If you don't write it down in a way that makes sense to you, you will not remember details when it’s time to do the report.