Writing Clear, Effective Police Reports: No English Degree Required
By Jean Reynolds, Ph.D.
Report writing continues to be a vital task for law enforcement. Police officers often have heard that the most powerful instrument they carry is a pen.1 Unfortunately, writing reports sometimes intimidates recruits, instructors, administrators, and even seasoned officers.
Law enforcement reports become scrutinized more than most documents.2 Fear of mistakes often triggers memories of school days spent diagramming sentences, memorizing parts of speech, and laboring over complex writing assignments.
As a result, recruits often dread report writing more than any other subject in their training. Experienced officers higher up in the career ladder say that they could do a better job teaching report writing or reviewing statements if they possessed a stronger background in English.
Individuals who share those feelings may be surprised to hear that they know more about English than they think. They can find solutions for the writing problems they encounter. With extensive experience in all types of police writing, the author has learned that almost anyone who meets law enforcement entrance requirements can learn to write effective reports without a lengthy detour into academic English.
Instructors and administrators can apply some basic principles when working with officers who need to build confidence and improve writing skills.
1) Formal grammar is not the problem or the solution. People associate writing with workbooks and grammar tests from their youth. So, it seems natural to think that diagramming sentences, identifying parts of speech, and conducting similar tasks will sharpen writing skills. However, the facts indicate that most issues with police reports result from usage and diction errors, which are easier to work with than the arcane terminology of grammar theory.
2) People know more than they think they do. Effective writing involves organizing and expressing facts and ideas—skills people develop from the time they learn to speak. Officers’ brains already contain the hardware necessary for police writing. This also holds true for writers whose first language is not English. Often, they just need to partner with someone who speaks well to ensure their diction and usage meet the required standards.
Dr. Reynolds, an author and retired professor, manages a website on writing police reports.
3) Simplicity proves to be the key to success. Officers encounter trouble when they try to make reports fancy. Intricate writing works for an English class; however, it wastes time and enables errors when writing reports. Police officers must remember that they write to inform, not to impress.3
4) Accountability matters. Usually, the people in charge determine the level of writing in classrooms and agencies. If they demand quality, the people they are teaching or supervising will slow down, proofread, seek assistance, and submit superior reports. But if those in charge tolerate mistakes and mediocrity, individuals will produce poorly written reports.
5) Partnerships build brainpower, and appropriate writing habits follow. In a typical classroom, the teacher serves as the only person critically reviewing and correcting students’ work. This results in individuals who never learn how to find and fix their mistakes. The solution can be found in individuals partnering with other recruits or officers to review work and recommend corrections. This may appear counterintuitive. Would an English teacher serve as a better resource? Surprisingly, the answer is no. Often, writers identify common errors when they slow down and look for them. Similarly, people’s minds work better when checking someone else’s work.
Most important, active learning builds intellect more effectively than if someone else does the work.
The main problems of diction and usage appear in police writing, as well as in other career writing. Conversational English differs from professional text. Often, slang words and colloquialisms, such as has went, don’t have none, and me and my partner arrived, slip into reports and other documents. These classify as diction errors. Most punctuation mistakes and syntax problems fall into the category of usage.
Many high school graduates who watch TV and movies have years of exposure to suitable diction and correct usage. Often, the real obstacles appear to be haste and apathy—writers hurry, refrain from checking their work, or do not care about what they write.
The solution occurs when individuals slow down and double-check their statements. Partnerships and accountability contribute to this accomplishment. Instructors and supervisors need to avoid grabbing a pen to correct mistakes themselves. Some useful guidelines can help any writer.
- Begin sentences with a noun—person, place, or thing. Writing simple, straightforward sentences often eliminates fragments, run-on sentences, dangling modifiers, and other syntax errors.
- Do not tolerate “textspeak” (e.g., u instead of you, or omitted capital letters). Refrain from fixing those errors. Return the report to the writer for corrections.
- Avoid unnecessary transitions, like upon hearing the gunshot or whereupon she ran out the door. Keep it simple.
- Use everyday language, such as I, me, saw, heard, and house instead of this officer, ascertained, or residence.
- Resist the temptation to flaunt your skills. Writing extinguish the illumination instead of turn out the light sounds pompous and does not impress anyone.
- Remember that possessive pronouns—his, hers, ours, theirs, yours, and its—never use apostrophes. Avoid mistakes with it’s and its by thinking of the apostrophe as a small i (i.e., itis = it’s = it is). Link its and his and remember to omit the apostrophe when using the possessive form (e.g., he doubled his speed or the car doubled its speed). Never put an apostrophe after the s in its.
- Be careful with woman and women. Writers often use women to refer to a single female: I spoke to a women who witnessed the assault, instead of I spoke to a woman.
- Use apostrophes only to show ownership (Linda’s car) and omission of letters in contractions (didn’t, couldn’t). Avoid decorating plurals with apostrophes (e.g., I saw bruise’s on Tom’s left cheek).
- Develop the habit of using resources—a dictionary, Internet search, or quick question for a fellow officer who writes well.
- Remember that professionals never say, “I think I did this correctly.” They make sure they did. Suppose you heard your physician say, “I think I know how to do this procedure.” Would you stick around or find another doctor?
“...almost anyone who meets law enforcement entrance requirements can learn to write effective reports....”
Picture an officer typing on a laptop in a patrol car late at night. It is easy to understand why people often describe writing as a solitary activity. However, from another perspective writing appears communal. People’s lives are filled with language activities, and the constant flow of words means that opportunities to sharpen writing skills exist everywhere.
Whether officers serve as cadets, instructors, supervisors, or seasoned officers, they already have encountered a wealth of language experiences. It is important to be generous with sharing expertise and seeking opportunities to sharpen skills and expand knowledge. This will benefit the individual’s reports, as well as the organization and fellow officers.
Dr. Reynolds may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.