Detective Lieutenant Barry M. Baker (ret.) is a 32 year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department.
Police report writing is critically important on so many levels. One can argue that a perfect crime is simply one that is not reported. If a crime is not reported, no investigation will follow, no arrest will occur, and no prosecution will be pursued. When a victim decides not to report a crime to police, that’s a personal decision by the victim. However, when the crime is reported to police, it is your responsibility to document and thoroughly investigate the incident.
The Preliminary Police Report
This is where it all begins. Every police investigation begins with a police officer’s preliminary report. Your preliminary report can be just the beginning, or it can encompass and conclude an entire investigation. It all depends on the complexity of circumstances.
You’re on patrol, and you witness an armed robbery in progress. You apprehend the suspect, and you recover the victim’s property and seize the suspect’s weapon. You interview the victim and witnesses. In this example, you’ve taken care of everything from beginning to end, and your preliminary police report documents everything.
This time, your dispatcher directs you to a location to investigate a man lying in the street. You quickly conclude the man is the victim of homicide evidenced by apparent gunshot wounds. The victim has suffered multiple wounds to his head and chest, and spent shell casings litter the ground around him.
You are the Primary Officer
Homicide investigations are complex by design, and your preliminary report will be a critical part of the initial phase. As the first officer to arrive on this crime scene, you are the primary officer. You will remain at the scene with the responsibility to preserve and protect the scene until homicide investigators release you.
You’ll stay busy. Your preliminary report will document, in chronological order, every event that occurs from the time you received the call until you clear the scene. You’ll list all notifications you make, and the names and arrival times of every person who enters the scene. In effect, you’ll be the gatekeeper.
The Length of Your Preliminary Report
Many police officers believe a preliminary report should be brief and cover only very basic information. Wrong…your preliminary report should include every bit of relevant information your investigation produces. The depth of your investigation depends only upon your investigative abilities, and the time and resources available to you.
Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook for Police Report Writing
Knowing how to classify crimes and report them in the proper format is all important for police report writing. The proper classification of a crime will ensure it gets the attention it deserves. You’re going to learn that a lot of police officers aren’t very well versed in UCR.
The ever increasing political importance of crime reduction has led to some bad habits. A lot of supervisors and police commanders have adopted some pretty creative interpretations for crime classifications. Your knowledge and understanding of UCR will keep you from developing those same bad habits.
It’s FREE. Download the 164 page UCR Handbook from the FBI and save it to your computer.
The importance of this book cannot be overstated. If you read this book and keep it close for reference, you will never experience problems properly classifying crimes.
Additionally, your knowledge of its contents will put you far ahead of others in any pre-employment interviews.
Basic Factual Information in a Police Report
Your police report is going to have labeled information fields for you to list basic factual information. Those fields are there for a purpose other than balancing the graphic design of the report. You’ll work with officers who think N/A, none, and slash / marks should fill the majority of these fields. The completeness and accuracy of basic factual information is important for a host of reasons including making you look competent.
For example: Follow-up contact with a victim is important. Your victim tells you he has no telephone. Before you write [none] in that box, ask for a relative’s or friend’s number through which the victim be contacted. Ninety-nine percent of the time your victim will be able to provide you with a phone number.
Date; Time, and Location of the Offense or Incident
You’re probably thinking, “This is pretty obvious,” and you’re absolutely right. You’ll learn that some officers don’t consider accuracy that important when recording these critical details in their police report writing. When you’re on the scene with a victim only moments after an offense, these details won’t be a problem. However, people sometimes wait, even when serious offenses occur, to report crimes. Rapes and sexual assaults often fall into this category.
If and when a suspect is apprehended, these details become extremely important. For instance: If the true date is off by just one day, that error could establish a verifiable alibi for the suspect. Even if the error is corrected during the investigation, it could cause problems during any prosecution.
Estimating Time can be a Problem
You’ll also learn that people badly estimate time by either underestimation or overestimation. For example: You’re interviewing the victim of a street robbery. The victim tells you she can identify the suspect, because she got a good look at him. You ask her how long she looked at his face, and she replies, “About a minute.” While she’s not lying, it should be obvious to you that she’s probably overestimating the time.
One minute is a very long time. A little more effort by you will bring that down to a more realistic observation measured in seconds. You may not think it’s an important detail, but that detail could be important if the case gets to trial. The defendant’s attorney will make the jury aware of how long a minute can be.
So many Officers become Confused
The location of an offense should seldom be a problem since the location you’ll record is the exact location where the offense occurs or begins. Even if a victim is abducted and taken to several locations, the location of the offense will be where the first unlawful act occurs. Remember, so many things are intertwined. Take this example where abduction occurs:
The suspect forces the victim into a car at gunpoint. At this point the UCR Crime is Aggravated Assault. If the suspect commits no other crime during the abduction, the offense will remain Aggravated Assault. However, if the suspect subsequently robs the victim, the UCR classification changes to Robbery. So many officers become confused — you need not be confused — JUST GET THE UCR HANDBOOK. The location remains the same; your narrative will record any additional locations.
Basic Suspect Information: Name; Address; Race; Age; Date of Birth; Height; Weight; Eyes; Hair; Complexion; Identifying Characteristics
You’re going to look at a robbery report, and in the suspect description field you’ll see, “M-B-NFD” or “M-W-NFD.” The description tells you nothing about the suspect, but it tells you about the officer who wrote the report. First, the officer is lazy, and secondly, the officer doesn’t take his or her job and police report writing seriously.
The acronym NFD for No Further Description is a favorite of too many police officers. Of course, there are exceptions…the victim might be blind or unconscious; however, this is not the usual case.
When a person becomes a victim of a crime of violence, it’s an extremely traumatic experience. Sometimes the victim will be upset and talk at length without providing much relevant information.
Other times the victim will be subdued, and he or she will offer very little information. Either way, it is up to you to obtain all available information regarding the crime and suspect(s) from the victim. Some officers will wait for the victim to do the officer’s job for him or her.
The officer asks the victim, “How old is the suspect,” and the victim replies, “I don’t know.” You’d be surprised how many officers will take that answer for omitting any age in the suspect description. You should already realize that the suspect is probably between the ages of 15 and 50. From here, it’s a simple task to get the victim’s estimation of the suspect’s age.
Keep Asking Questions
You’d be amazed how much a person takes in during stressful and potentially deadly experiences. All you have to do is keep asking questions. When you ask a victim about the suspect’s height, you already have two models to go by. You know your height, and the victim knows his or her height.
Some up and down hand movements by the victim will provide a pretty accurate estimation of the suspect’s height. Weight is more problematic, but terms like thin; stocky; muscular; large belly, etc. will aid in providing identifiable information.
Here’s one which many, or even most, police officers never seriously consider. Describing the race of a suspect is not as simple as you might think. When the suspect is white, there’s a wide variation of descriptions concerning hair color, eyes, etc. Complexion can go from pale to dark, but complexion is usually only one of a number of characteristics.
When the suspect is African-American, or black, complexion is always listed primarily as light, medium or dark.
Here’s the problem when you ask an African-American victim the complexion of a black suspect. The victim will almost always describe the suspect’s complexion in comparison to the victim’s own complexion. If the victim is very dark complexion, he or she may describe the suspect as light skinned when, in fact, the suspect is medium to dark complexion. All you need do is point this out to the victim, and he or she will immediately understand and provide you with a more accurate estimation.
Show some Interest
It’s really comes down to how you treat a victim. Once a victim knows that you’re truly interested in helping, you’ll be amazed how much the victim will be able to recollect. You simply start at the top of the head to the tip of the suspect’s toes. The more detailed questions you ask the more details the victim will remember. Detail — That’s what police report writing is all about.
Suspect Descriptions are Important for a Police Report
When I was a patrol officer, I was sitting at roll call when the shift commander used me for entertainment. He read one of my reports from the previous day. The entertainment consisted of the suspect’s description.
The crime was only a larceny from auto, but the woman who witnessed the crime gave me an extremely good description. I often took heat for my attention to detail in my police report writing. Anyway, it was extensive, and everyone had a good laugh right down to the band aid on the suspect’s left cheek.
Moments later, as we hit the street, one of the officers rolled around a corner, and his attention was immediately drawn to a young man standing on the corner. Actually, his attention was drawn by the band aid on his left cheek. The guy hadn’t even changed his clothes from the day before. That officer told that story for years. The moral of this story is this: Suspect descriptions are important for police report writing. It’s all part of information, and information is the life blood of police work.
The Police Report Narrative
This is where it all comes together. Your department may have required headings for your narrative such as a description of property taken. You may have to continue basic information like suspect descriptions into the top of your narrative section. Just make sure you have all your basic information completed so that your narrative doesn’t have to include information which will detract from telling the story.
Not Wrong...but needless
Some police academies teach officers to begin a narrative by rehashing a lot of information already listed in the basic information fields. Here’s an example: “On [date], at [time], I, Officer Tom Jones, received a call, via communications, to respond to 812 N. Collington Av for a report of an armed robbery. Upon arrival, I was met by the victim, Sandra Smith, who stated that at about 1700 hrs this date she was robbed…”
Get to the point
Everything you just wrote should already be recorded in the basic information. Here’s how you should begin this narrative: “Victim Smith reports she was standing in the bus stop in front of 812 N. Collington Av when suspects 1 and 2 emerged from the alley adjacent to that address. Suspect 1 pulled a silver colored revolver from his waistband and pointed it at the victim’s head while stating, ‘Give up the money, bitch.’ Suspect 2 walked behind Victim Smith and pulled her handbag from her shoulder. Both suspects then fled back into the alley escaping in an eastbound direction.”
Be Concise...but Complete
You might think that completes the narrative. It does pretty well describe what happened, but it’s not the end of your investigation. As you interview the victim, other information may come to light which was not immediately apparent. The victim may have observed the suspect(s) in the past at another location.
Your canvass of the neighborhood may reveal witnesses to the robbery. Even if you locate no witnesses to this crime, your conversation with residents may reveal additional information about the suspects from their physical descriptions. You identify every person you speak with and list that information in your report, you leave a business card with each person.
Investigation can become an addictive process – hopefully – and the more of it you do, the better at it you’ll become. Sure…some people won’t share information with you, but a lot of others will. However, those others aren’t going to volunteer the information. They’ve got to be asked.
Over time you should create your own format for the narratives in your police report writing. Make sure you create it considering the fact that other people are reading your reports. The information should flow smoothly. Always refer to the victim by name [Victim Smith]. When you have multiple victims, using numbers becomes confusing for the reader.
Likewise, when you have a name of the suspect, always use the suspect’s name [Suspect Jones]. Concise doesn’t mean short; it only means that you shouldn’t embellish your narrative. Don’t make observations that aren’t verified by facts, and don’t make cute remarks in police report writing. The amusing parts will happen automatically.
Write everything that is Relevant in the Police Report
I once responded to a domestic disturbance where the boyfriend punched his girlfriend knocking out her two upper front teeth. After a brief struggle with me, (he didn’t struggle that hard with me) I got him handcuffed. As we stood outside waiting for the wagon, I was doing a complete search of his clothing. When I felt his right front pants pocket, I felt two small objects. I paused and asked, “That’s not what I think it is…is it?”
He simply rolled his head slowly toward me and answered, “They was loose anyway.” I recovered and submitted the girlfriend’s teeth as evidence, and I recorded our exchange word for word in my narrative. While that exchange could be viewed as amusing, the Judge wasn’t amused, and it got the boyfriend a year in jail.
Remember, no information is irrelevant for police report writing as long as it is pertinent to your investigation. If you develop information which contradicts other information in your investigation, record that information. No investigation is free of contradictions. Your recognition and attention to contradictions only shows your thoroughness. The earlier contradictions are noted, the quicker they’ll be resolved.
Neatness counts in a Police Report
If you’re writing your field reports by hand, neatness does count. Even beautiful handwriting can be difficult to read. Most peoples’ handwriting is just plain terrible. Learn to print — preferably in upper case. Your written reports, no matter what the process used, are a measure by which others will view your knowledge and competence. It’s all really very simple. Make the reader believe he or she is there watching the events unfold, and make the words readable.
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