You undoubtedly were told many times in your training that police reports have to be objective. Officers are prohibited from referring to their training, experience, or reasoning processes in reports. The objectivity requirement means that officers must avoid sentences that begin with:
“Based on my experience, I….”
“My intuition told me that….”
“I had a hunch that….”
“It was obvious that the suspect….”
This prohibition often puzzles recruits. Training, experience, and intuition are important—even lifesaving—assets for police officers. Why must they be excluded from police reports?
Experienced officers know the answer: The information in a report has to stand up in court if there’s a trial later on, and the processes that go on in an officer’s head don’t meet that standard. If you write that a suspect was “aggressive,” he could respond that he was simply trying to explain himself. If you say that a driver was “reckless,” she can argue that her driving was spirited but well within legal limits. If you describe a victim as “fearful,” the attorney defending her alleged attacker could say that the victim was just feeling shy about talking to an officer.
To ensure that your report will stand up in court, you need to limit yourself to observable, objective facts:
- Describing an aggressive suspect: He clenched his fists, stepped right in front of me, and shouted, “You’d better stop messing with me.”
- Describing a reckless driver: She swerved across the center line and back again four times in less than a minute.
- Describing a frightened victim: She spoke in a whisper. Her hands shook, and she kept turning her head and glancing at the bedroom door.
Police reports also need to avoid bias and stereotyping. Don’t write, “I couldn’t get any information from Mr. Johnson because he was old and feeble.” An objective statement would be, “Mr. Johnson kept asking me to repeat my questions. He told me he couldn’t remember what happened. Twice he asked me who I was and why I was there.”
Avoid terms like sexy, dishonest, manipulative, and unreliable. A woman who used sex appeal to manipulate you could be described as “wearing a short, tight dress with a low-cut neckline.” To convey that a suspect was dishonest or unreliable, you could record contradictory statements he made—or contrast them with facts from witnesses: “Wilson told me that on Tuesday he worked a night shift from midnight to eight. But his boss told me that Wilson had worked the eight-to-four day shift all week.”
Experienced officers say that objective police reports are far less likely to be challenged in court by a defense attorney. The bottom line is that you don’t have to set aside your experience, reasoning processes, and intuition when you write a police report. You do have to remember to transcribe your thoughts as objective, observable facts.
Here’s a useful tip: As you go through your day—both on and off duty—practice converting your observations into objective facts. What behavior tips you off that someone is angry, happy, sad, suspicious? What gestures and facial expressions are you seeing? What do you notice about the person’s voice? Can you recall the exact words you heard? Sharpen your ability to observe and remember, and you’ll have no difficulty writing professional, objective police reports.