By Jean Reynolds

Stop and think about the people who are likely to read your police reports. One obvious person is your supervisor—a sergeant or other official in your agency who routinely scrutinizes your reports. But there’s a long list of other personnel, both inside and outside your agency, who are likely to read what you’ve written.

The reason is that your reports serve multiple functions in your service area. Detectives will use them to conduct investigations, the district attorney will make decisions about filing charges, and defense attorneys will advise clients about a challenge in court—and that’s only a partial list.

One important red flag that these readers will look for is a tendency to avoid specific details in your reports with wording like these examples:

  • “The suspect was belligerent” (or “evasive,” “hostile,” or some other negative quality)
  • “I processed the area”
  • “I contacted the victim”
  • “The suspect was transported to jail”

Perhaps this list surprised you, since sentences like these appear frequently in police reports. The problem is that these sentences—and others like them—are vague. A smart defense attorney might use hem to challenge your report, cast doubt on your professionalism, or request a hearing postponement.

Here are suggestions for more effective wording:

“The suspect was belligerent” (or some other negative quality) is an opinion, not an objective statement. In court the suspect could claim that she was politely asking you to explain what you wanted. A better course is to write down exactly what the suspect was said, along with a description of the person’s body language and any other details that indicate belligerence, evasiveness, or hostility:

“I asked her how the necklace came to be in her purse. She pushed her finger into my chest. She told me it was none of my business, and her attorney would get me fired if I didn’t backoff”

“He told me he was tired and couldn’t remember what happened in the parking lot. Then he started walking back to his car.”

“He clenched his fists and shouted that a pussy like me had no business being a cop.”

“I processed the area” sends a signal—whether intended or not—that you were too lazy to write down what you found at the scene. Did you process latent fingerprints, photograph muddy footprints, find scratch marks near a lock?

“I contacted the victim” (or “witness” or “suspect”) sends a similar message that you don’t value accuracy. “Contact” could mean a phone call, in-person interview, email, or text. Explain exactly how you got in touch with the person.

“The suspect was transported to jail” doesn’t state who drove the vehicle. If it was another officer who’s not in court on the day you’re testifying, the defense attorney can say that she has questions about the trip to jail and wants a postponement.

Specific details aren’t hard to write up in a report: just document what you saw, heard, or did. Start every sentence with a person, place, or thing (especially if there were two or more officers at the scene). Spending a few extra moments on your report can make a much stronger case against a suspect; sometimes you can even avoid a trip to court. Most important, you’ll be building a reputation for accuracy and professionalism that will serve you well throughout your law enforcement career.