Most police reports are basically form letters and require little or no thought or creativity: "At such and such day and time I responded to so and so location and was met by the suspect, later identified as whomever. Further investigation revealed blah-de-blah. Suspected taken into custody without incident and transported to CBIF."
But life without personality is no fun. Take this DOA (who wasn't, technically, dead on arrival. But it's a pretty standard report for such an incident. Terse, to the point, and as short as possible while included all (and only) necessary details (I've changed names and the address):
On 19 APR 01 at 0705 hrs responded to 1581 E Lafayette for an overdose. Upon arrival Mr Jackson was being carried to an ambo, medic 10, in full cardiac arrest. Mr Jackson was brought to Hopkins and treated by Dr. Arjun Chanmugam before being pronounced dead at 0737 hrs.That's that. RIP, Mr. Jackson. Why did I notify homicide? He probably wasn't murdered, but you never know; that's not my call to make.
Mr Jackson given medication at 1845hrs on 18 APR 01 by Ms. Ethel White.
Mr Jackson was last seen in good health by Mr Henry David at 0200 hrs. At 0700 hrs Mr David saw Mr Jackson with "his eyes rolled up" and called for a paramedic. Mr Jackson was asleep in upstairs middle bedroom. No paraphernalia was seen.
Mr Jackson on the following medication: Roxicodone, Prednisone, and Valtrax.
Hearn at M.E. notified and accepted body for autopsy. Patton #6481 at homicide notified.
But what strikes me is my completely superfluous inclusion of the quote, "his eyes rolled up." It adds nothing but is a great reason to call for an ambulance! I tried to include a good quote whenever I could--especially if the quote included naughty words, which were otherwise taboo. If "fuck you Mike bitch" was going to be keyed in a car, you could be sure it would be transcribed verbatim in my report.
When I wrote of a man throttling a woman on the ground, later I referred to this, “vehement emotional display.” In return I received this joking note: “Officer Moskos, Please stop using big words in your reports. I have a hard time understanding all of them. Thanks, OIC Woollen.” But the report was accepted.
Once I chased a suspect from an alley. He was easy to catch because his pants fell down as he was trying to get away. I described him as fleeing "in a rather ungraceful manner." It wasn't relevant, but why not? Why pass up a chance to make my sergeant roll his eyes or let some ASA in the bowels of CBIF smile for a moment. You gotta have fun.
But, more seriously, a well-written report can be and often is the difference between a case being dropped and the successive conviction of a dangerous criminal. If you don't write it down, it's like it didn't happen. And there's always room for a good writer's eye. My favorite quote served such a purpose: "Squeaky beat me with a two by four, and then they came at me like locusts and beat me down."
"They came at me like locusts and beat me down"?
Such Biblically-inspired language deserves to be inscribed. And since it added flavor to an otherwise dry description of a old man getting beat down, it helped in conviction. I was trying to paint a story and help convict the guilty--all the while sticking to the objective tone police reports require.
Other times the night was slow and I was simply bored.
Once, on foot, I ran across a guy with a needle sticking out of his arm. He was homeless and bloody. He needed help, but none I could give him. Still, I had a job to do. I put on my latex gloves and slowly arrested him. Yuck. He was riding high. (Luckily CBIF took him.) Later I wrote in my Statement of Probable Cause:
After getting a delicious hot cup of coffee, I ... could not help but notice a man, later identified as Mr. Guizotti, with a needle in his arm. Mr. Guizotti stated that he was a heroin addict and that the substance he injected himself with was, "good shit."All this comes to mind because Ellen Collett, who reviews police reports for the L.A.P.D., writes this fine piece in the Utne Reader, "The Art of the Police Report." If you're more into writing, I recommend reading the original version that appeared in The Writer's Chronicle (but if words like "subtextual" and "syntactically" scare you, stick with the first link):
Monday through Friday, I’m enthralled by a man I’ve never met. His name is Martinez and he’s a cop with the Los Angeles Police Department.There was a sign in the police academy: "We're not just report takers. We're the police." There is more to writing a good report than just getting down the facts. For most incidents, the responding officer is the investigation. Nobody will even be as close to some form of objective truth. Yes, reports need to maintain a objective tone. But if there's a guilty SOB, it's got to be clear in the written report. You only have one chance. The report is true, but certain facts may be selectively left out if these details distract from some greater truth. For instance, in a case of child abuse where the was food in the kitchen, you probably wouldn't mention that in the report (other times, less nobly, facts may be left out simply to avoid more paperwork).
Crime reports are written in neutral diction, and in the dispassionate uni-voice that’s testament to the academy’s ability to standardize writing. They feel generated rather than authored, the work of a single law enforcement consciousness rather than a specific human being.
So how can I identify Martinez from a single sentence? Why do his reports make me feel pity, terror, or despair? Make me want to put a bullet in someone’s brain—preferably a wife beater’s or a pedophile’s, but occasionally my own? How does he use words on paper to hammer at my heart? Like all great cops, Sergeant Martinez is a sneaky fucker. He’s also a master of inflection and narrative voice.
That poster-child for cop writing, Ernest Hemingway, once observed, “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” A good incident report also gives us the necessary shape of the thing, but spares us the cluttering details.
Choose strong verbs. Beware of modifiers. Shun figurative language. Be leery of parentheticals. Avoid abstractions. Eliminate superfluous ornamentation. Omit needless words. Be concrete. Show what happened; don’t explain what it means.
Collett's advice is good for writers and good for police officers. And all police officers, like it or not, are writers of stories: "Like Martinez, a good story always has an agenda. Like Martinez, a good story is a sneaky fucker."