WRITTEN BY: Captain Robert Fanelli
As a supervisor in both patrol and detectives, as well as, an instructor of report writing, I have had the opportunity to read and discuss ways to improve thousands of police reports. Over the years I have seen the same opportunities for improved report writing. Realize, if you are looking to improve your report writing, the first step is to identify two or three weaknesses you can focus on and work to improve upon them. Improving is a progression, not a single moment. Work on the weaknesses you have identified then once you feel good about the progress, identify other ways to get better. Here are the top five tips for improving your reports.
- The basics: Spelling, grammar, and sentence structure are boring and may seem like a small thing, but a report riddled with mistakes simply reduces your credibility in the eyes of those that read the report. It also makes the report difficult to read. The most common mistakes that you can do a simple web search on and start mastering are: When to use a new paragraph, verb tense, passive versus active voice, run-on sentences, and wordiness. Reports should be in active voice, first person, categorical and chronological, and succinct. When structuring your sentence KEEP IT SIMPLE!
- Avoid police jargon: This comes down to knowing who the audience of a police report is. So, who is the audience? Well, the list is extensive: supervisors, detectives, advocates, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, media, community…the list goes on. Think about your report as a form of communication to a wide array of audience members. Pay attention to and leave out words and phrases that are unique to your agency and the profession.
- Details, Details, Details: Have you ever viewed your report in the eyes of an attorney? Do you write your report with enough detail and explanation to move past probable cause and see down the road to successful prosecution? Your report should provide enough detail that a mental picture can be formed in the mind of the reader. If you make a declarative observation, follow it up with detail. For example, the statement, “The suspect’s actions caused me concern for lives and property in the area.” This should be followed up with a description of what those actions were, “The suspect avoided using sidewalks and kept to dark areas…as vehicles approached the suspect hid in the shadows or concealed himself in vegetation…the suspect was wearing dark clothing”. You get the picture.
- Describe Modus Operandi: Modus Operandi or MO simply put is criminal habits. People are creatures of habit and habitual behaviors show up in criminals. For example, burglars who kick in doors, don’t crawl through windows and robbers who point a gun at the clerk, use profanity, and threaten to shoot, don’t ask politely for the money on the next robbery. Generally speaking, criminals may adjust their behavior if they feel like something isn’t working, but once they feel comfortable, they will stick to a routine. You should be working to describe that “routine” with enough detail to link cases. Answer things like MOT (mode of travel), clothing, POE (point of entry), POX (point of exit), weapon, behavior, location, objects of theft and things that are unique to habitual behavior.
- Get good at victim and witness interviews: Most police reports begin with a victim or witness interview. Simply put, we need to get statements to establish a crime. Without a doubt, understanding trauma and memory will help you improve upon your interview skills. Stop looking at your interviews as a checklist of information you need to gather and start looking at them as a way to work collaboratively and cooperatively to elicit the best recollection from victims and witnesses. Structure your interviews to allow victims and witnesses to focus on what they are able to remember. If you work to elicit accurate detailed information and view an interview as a process, not an event, you will get more detail. This will result in a better investigation and that will lead to a better report.
Captain Rob Fanelli is currently an operations commander at the Gainesville Police Department. Prior to his promotion to captain, he was the Criminal Investigations Division Commander. He has 18 years of law enforcement experience with a diverse career. He has supervised and worked in Robbery/Homicide, Sexual Assault, ICAC, Domestic Violence, and the Forensic Units. He is an IACP and RTI consultant and is currently a Johns Hopkins Fellow in the School of Public Health.