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by Peter Moskos

February 28, 2011

The Art of Report Writing

Cops hate paperwork. Hell, everybody hates paperwork. But policing has more of it on a day-to-day basis than most occupations. And there's an art to writing a good police report. I like to think my writing skills made me a better police officer. And it's why as a professor I stress the importance of writing style and basic grammar.

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.

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.
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.

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.
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.
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).

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."


PCM said...

I should mention that I have some quibbles with Collett and her understanding of police work:

1) It's standard to open the fridge and look for food when there's an abused child.

2) "The black Escalade fired twelve shots into the dwelling on 865 Inglewood Avenue" is not a good sentence. The point is to link the bullets to gun to a body. A criminal person fired the shots, not the car, unless it had got one hell of an aftermarket upgrade!

3) Without further description, "suspicious" is a horrible word to include in a police report. What is suspicious? Was it a "furtive gesture"? Was it favoring one side? Or a bulge? It needs to be described. Officers don't have "hunches." Officers observe details and build "reasonable suspicion" and "probably cause" based on their ability to "articulate" the "totality of circumstances." Police reports must be nothing if not specific, and they should be able to do so following rules of standard grammar. This is what goes to court to be read by college-educated lawyers.

4) All incidents do not generate a written report (unless they do in LA), only those involving crimes or that come out or turn out to domestic-related. The rest are "coded out." Nothing Baltimore Police like more than a good "Frank-No" [call abated, not domestic]. So please, if the call did not mention "girlfriend" or any other such unpleasantry, and if such carnal intimacy has no direct relevance to the incident, police officers would greatly appreciate it if you would refrain from mentioning such relationship status.

Gotti Rules said...

Hey Pete,

I was just curious but what happend to Mr. Guizzotti when the case went to court?? Did your creative writing ensure a guilt plea??

Anonymous said...

My family is having trouble with a sloppy police report. Close relative of mine hit a bicyclist who was crossing against the light (riding not walking).

Three years later the bicyclist sues and is trying to make out that he was walking his bicycle across the intersection.

The police report is not clear as to whether the bicyclist was riding or walking or whether the question was even asked.

I don't expect perfection out of police work, but this was sloppy police work. Could have stopped a frivolous lawsuit be doing job right.

Anonymous said...

Atlanta PD used to use a unique system to lodge people in jail. In addition to your written report you had to write the arreste's personal information and charge on a traffic citation. (This is, in essence, their 'jail ticket' used for booking.) Beneath the charge and code section were three lines in which you had to give a probable cause statement. Reduce your entire narrative to three small lines. It was too much for a lot of officers. On one disorderly conduct arrest the officer simply wrote "fight over pussy". I've also seen the phrase "baby mama drama" used.

Sgt. T

PCM said...


I don't know. Why do you ask? I imagine they dropped the charges. The only evidence was a residue filled needle.

I imagine this fine man roamed the streets for a few years with a horrible burning sensation and then eventually keeled over from a sad, drug-related death.

Sgt T, I like those three-word summaries. In some ways, they say it all.

Here in NYC, they try the make the whole process idiot proof. You can get arrested by a cop who does nothing but fill in a bubble report. That strikes me as wrong because somebody is likely to simply fill in the bubble closest to the truth. Nor does it help the police officer if the case goes to court.

Anonymous said...


Great post. Also, I read the Utne piece. It was a great topic for a writing magazine to cover. I agree with your "quibbles". I also totally agree with your use of direct quotes in reports, especially where profanity (and especially threats) are involved. It's ok to be a a "sneaky fucker" as long as you are not altering facts.

Another trick. I like to make sure the suspect knows I am writing down what he or she is saying. Recently, I got called to a "patient assist" call in the medical center where I work. Upon arrival, the male patient told me,"you better bring some bigger boys up here." I asked him to repeat himself, and he said it again. Then he said it again without me asking. I then informed him, "sir, I heard you last time. In fact, I am going to start writing down what you are saying, because I think you are threatening me." He got pretty sullen after that. Tough guys hate it when you try to set boundaries.

Dave H- IL

PCM said...

You don't have any Miranda obligations, do you? Just wondering because it seems like everybody in a hospital is already in custody.

Anonymous said...


No. No miranda obligations. We are not sworn. Actually that guy was under "protective custody" of a sort (he was an involuntary admit for "suicidal," though I suspect he was also playing games, due to the divorce proceedings he was involved in). My tactic above was more of a mind fuck--or returning a mind fuck--than anything else. Also I tend to start documentation early just in case I do wind up in a fight or other situation that could wind up in court (criminal or civil).

Dave H- IL

Zachary Goelman said...

Here's a piece out of San Francisco about SFPD facing perjury charges when their written reports contradicted surveillance video: http://blogs.sfweekly.com/thesnitch/2011/03/public_defenders_office_claims.php#

Unknown said...

When court reporters take down testimony on a steno machine, one of the parties may ask to have it transcribed into a booklet. This booklet is a certified transcribed verbatim of what everyone said on the record during the proceeding.