How to Write a Police Report: A Step-by-Step Guide
Updated on August 1, 2023
6-minute read or less
Reports are a part of policing that over time get fine-tuned as new case law develops and agency policy and procedure changes. I have put together the best practices and tips when it comes to your goals to write the best narratives.
As a Field Training Officer, much of my time is teaching new officers how to investigate incidents, gather information, and write reports. One of the most important aspects for any police officer is to use everyday language that is easy to understand and to double-check your work before submitting it to your supervisor or an officer of higher rank.
2. Why is writing police reports important?
- Documentation is key. As a police officer, you need to document your presence at a call for service in which you take some kind of action. The action you take may be to forward an investigation to another division in the police department, make an arrest, file formal charges, advise parties, document the use of force, etc.
- Your incident report will be saved in your agencies database and may be used for many purposes including a lawful public record request, inquiry into discovery by the defense in a criminal case, subpoena by a law firm for a civil court matter, used to further an investigation, used by IA to conduct an inquiry or investigation into a matter.
- Arrest reports contain probable cause which gives you justification for taking action. These reports will be read by many people in the court system.
- Your report narrative can be used to assist you in preparing to testify in court.
- The contents of your report can be used to place a suspect in a certain place at a certain time, driving a certain car, and wearing certain clothing. This may assist an investigation that had been active or one that is in the future.
- How many times have you received a phone call requesting information about a suspect from another law enforcement agency? Old police reports can be valuable to law enforcement agencies seeking information.
3. How to write a Police Report: Step-by-step guide
Police report writing format has its own rules and guidelines compared to that of an essay or research paper. Thus, being a great writer in college doesn’t mean you can become a police officer and start writing excellent narratives. Although report writing policies and procedures may differ depending on which agency you work for the basic guidelines universally apply just like police the 10 codes.
While on scene interviewing witnesses and suspects and gathering information to write a police report it is prudent to write down all of the information in a good police notebook. You can find the best police notebooks, custom police notebooks, and write-in-the-rain notebooks at COPJOT Police Notebooks and Pens by clicking here. Your facts and identifying information are logged here in your notebook and are called police officer field notes. The better your field notes the better material you will have to write a police report. If you want to write a better incident report start by jotting down great notes.
Report narratives are written in first person, past tense, and organized in chronological order as the events occurred.
The Four C’s of Police Report Writing
Before you start typing keep the Four C’s in mind when you write reports. They are:
Clear: Be as specific as possible. Use your field notes for specific chronological events and exact quotes. Write as you would be speaking to members of a jury. Use terms like I exited my marked police car instead of I alighted from my cruiser. A jury doesn’t understand police jargon or police slang and you will leave them confused. In other words, use everyday language.
Concise: In as few words as possible give a lot of information. If it doesn’t matter if you arrived in a marked police car or unmarked police car leave it out. If the report narrative you are writing will not result in formal charges and or there are no use of force issues then there is no need to put in an abundance of information. Keep it simple.
Complete: Your police report should include all relevant information. Your report is a summary of events. It cannot be a specific word-for-word story of the events that took place. Relevant information will differ depending on the severity of the incident.
Correct: Your police report “shall” be truthful, unbiased, and without opinion. I talked about Brady Violations in another blog article that you can read here. In a police report, you shouldn’t try and create chicken salad out of chicken shit! This will eventually get you in trouble. It is very important that if you have probable cause coming in at 60% you don’t write your narrative showing that you have a slam dunk case at 100%. If there are some holes in the case, be truthful about them. Judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys will respect you for being truthful.
4. Starting your Police Report Narrative
- Formatting refers to how information is organized and how the report is laid out on the page. The heading should contain the report date, title, and officer name. Write it the same way every time so that when you are referencing your old reports you know exactly where to look for the date, time, assignment, location, etc.
- The body should be written in paragraph form, left-justified, and single-spaced with a double space between paragraphs.
- Number each paragraph starting with 1. The introduction phase should be in paragraph 1. If you are called to testify in court and need to reference your police report to refresh your memory the prosecutor or defense attorney can easily direct you to the numbered paragraph like this. Officer I call your attention to paragraph #5 sentence 2. Your eyes will be directly able to find this paragraph.
The Introduction phase
The introduction establishes why you are on the scene and includes:
- Day, date, and time - Most agencies use military time
- Who “you” are. Officer Tony Ruth
- Location or address as to where you were sent.
- Nature of the call or why you were present.
- If other officers were present, who were they? Write their full names
On Tuesday, February 4, 2023, I, Officer Tony Ruth, along with Officers Reed Williams and Karyn Tomlinson responded to 123 Main Street for a report of a break and entering to a motor vehicle.
5. The Body Phase of a Police Report
Continue numbering your paragraphs. The body explains what happened at the scene by answering the 5W’s and H: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. All of these should have already been written down while at the scene in your police notebook.
This is where you show your probable cause for arrest and formal charging situations. Be specific about satisfying specific elements of a crime. Sometimes a crime has 3 or 4 elements. Be descriptive and specific when getting into reasons for entry, stopping and holding, making arrests, and use of force incidents. Write a clear picture and remember your great note-taking will guide you through this phase.
6. The Conclusion Phase of a Police Report
The conclusion should include the final actions of the reporting officer. The suspect or involved party was arrested/charged with a summons for complaint/parties were advised etc.
A good rule of thumb is to end the report with:
Officer Tony Ruth
Anytown Police Department
Common Mistakes and Best Tips for Writing Better Police Reports
Grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors
Officers tend to make grammatical errors such as putting periods and commas outside of quotation marks when they should be placed inside the quotation marks. Other mistakes include capitalization, spelling, and punctuation errors.
Leaving out the results of the investigation
Another common mistake police make in their reporting is leaving out critical details of an investigation, including the results. Making assumptions is never allowed in police report writing, some officers may write thorough and detailed accounts of their investigation but fail to report the final result.
Not making an effort
When a police officer DOES NOT write a police report when one is required or borderline being required. A good police officer will write reports even when policy and procedure say that you don't have to but the police officer has a feeling that the circumstances surrounding the person, place, or thing investigated says to write a police report.
Factual inaccuracies on police reports are more common than you may think. Police officers may record incorrect times, license plate numbers, driver's license numbers, names, addresses, and other critical details needed in a criminal case. This can be solved by jotting down the pertinent information of your investigation into the police notebook you carry in the field. If you don't have a good police notebook visit www.COPJOT.com and pick yourself up one. These custom police notebooks will assist you in professional police field note-taking and take the mistakes out of your report writing.
Incomplete or missing elements of a crime
Each crime has specific elements that must be satisfied if you are to develop sufficient probable cause for an arrest and then prove your case in court. Failing to articulate each element of the crime may also call into question the legality of your actions. The simplest way to avoid this is to obtain a copy of the statute for the crime you are investigating.
Leaving out parties involved in the incident
It is important to gather information on witnesses and other participants even if they are not being formally charged. Master carding other people involved can be important for your police department whether it be in this case or a future inquiry.
Never try and predict the future
Your job is to document and write about the past. If you write about a future prediction and it doesn't come true a good defense attorney will ask you what else about your police report is untrue.
We all make mistakes and so will you
Learn from them and make adjustments. If you have a bad day in court against a great defense attorney, learn from that experience and make the proper adjustments to better your reports and better yourself.
About the Author
Brian Humenuk isn't just an entrepreneur in eCommerce, he is also an informed leader whose experience provides followers and visitors with a look into current and past police issues making headlines in the United States.
Brian has earned three degrees in Criminal Justice with the last, a Masters of Science in Criminal Justice Administration.
Brian extends his training, education, and experience to the officers just now getting into the field so that they may become more informed police officers and stay clear of police misconduct and corruption.
You can find Brian on Linkedin here.