The Importance of Police Reports and Why and When They Can be Sloppy

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While police officers are given nearly free rein to do their jobs as they think best, they are also expected to document their activities and their responses to public service calls on a continuous basis. Most officers who retire medically do so because of ailments related to their hearts, backs, and knees. But if you were to take an unofficial poll of working patrol officers, I'm sure the most common affliction among them would be writer's cramp! Even the simplest "routine" report may take one hour or more to complete.

Some officers may write one or two reports a week and others may have to complete three or four lengthy ones per shift. The number and type of reports usually relate to the area of town where the officer works (high-crime or not), the size of the city or county, and the value the officer s supervisors and commanders place upon paperwork. Some police departments require their officers to write volumes of reports, covering even minor incidents like a stolen bicycle or a lost dog. Other departments are not so particular, and their apparent nonchalance about report-taking may have more to do with antiquated record-keeping systems than with lazy police administrators. From your standpoint as a paralegal, the more complete the records and the more up-to-date, efficient systems the better.


If you're curious, here's a short list of the variety of police reports an officer might need to take:
  • Arrest reports
  • Crime case reports
  • Traffic collision reports
  • Hit-and-run reports
  • Driving Under the Influence reports
  • Under the Influence of Controlled Substance reports
  • Runaway juvenile reports
  • Found property reports
  • Stolen vehicle reports
  • Recovered stolen vehicle reports
  • Impounded vehicle reports
  • Death case reports
  • Attempted suicide reports
  • Officer-involved traffic collision reports
  • City-equipment-involved traffic collision reports
  • Damaged city equipment reports
  • Injured or dead animal reports

Like people in other professions, police officers are human beings with personal likes and dislikes about their jobs. Police report writing offers no exception. Some officers enjoy writing reports, carefully documenting their activities, painting "word pictures" of the events, and adding their own distinctive style and trademark to their efforts. Officers of this type can quickly establish a good reputation among the people who read police reports all day-police supervisors, city and district attorneys, judges, defense attorneys, etc.

Other officers, however, don't particularly enjoy writing reports, and their distaste for this work is evident on the pages they complete. Poor reports-with missing or incomplete information, poor inter viewing or investigation procedures, and a sense of shoddy "word- smithing"-will haunt officers just as good reports will help their writers.

Just as good report writers develop a reputation among their colleagues, so do bad report writers. In some cases, prosecuting attorneys will even fail to "issue" or bring the case to court (even if they can win it) because of inferior reports. Officers who turn in poor- quality reports do more harm to their careers than they realize.

What many officers fail to recognize is that a police report, no matter how mundane it seems, serves as a public record. Because the wheels of our criminal justice system turn so slowly, some criminal and civil cases involving the police can go on for years and years, bouncing from one appeals court to the other. The report that documents these cases must be good enough to stand the test of time. One single arrest report can go from the city prosecutor's office all the way to the United States Supreme Court. That report will carry that officer s name on it wherever it goes. Hundreds of people may read it and make pointed comments about its accuracy, content, style, and overall appearance. That's why police officer recruits are taught from their first day in the academy: "Write each and every report as if your career depended upon it; it just might."

Types of Police Reports

Every police officer in the country will readily admit that given a choice, he or she would rather write an arrest report than any other type. Most officers like these because the end product of an arrest report could mean that someone who belongs there goes to jail. One main complaint about police work as a profession is that there is very little "closure." This means that officers rarely get to see the fruits of their labors come full circle. Once they have written a burglary report or most other types of crime reports, they are out of the picture.

They never find out what happened. Did the detectives solve the case? Was a suspect later arrested, tried, and convicted? These are questions that rarely get answered satisfactorily. A morale-building aspect of writing arrest reports is the intense feeling of job satisfaction; someone who did something wrong gets his or her freedom taken away, at least temporarily.

On the other hand, burglary reports, traffic collision reports, non injury hit-and-runs, and petty crime cases involving juveniles, shop lifting, or vandalism usually round out the list of officers' least-favorite police reports to take and write. Again, the sense of accomplishment, closure, and efficient use of the officers' time come into play.

Burglary reports:

those with very little physical evidence, no suspect information, or no other viable clues or leads are often little better than the paper they're written on. Most people have no idea of the brand names, model numbers, or even colors for their stolen TVs, VCRs, and other appliances. Stolen jewelry, cash, silverware, etc. are usually hard to trace, identify, or recover.

Traffic collisions

present a variety of other problems for officers arriving on the scene. The participants are usually mad at one another; the physical evidence is nearly always moved before the officers can look at it; and each party tells a different story about the course of events. Witnesses are sometimes reluctant to get involved, or worse, tell the officers what they heard instead of what they actually saw.

Many officers dislike taking traffic collision reports because in most cities these reports require them to gather more information than any other report. There are a myriad of boxes to be checked, names to be entered, insurance policy numbers, witness information, diagrams, injuries, and property damage to document, and statements to take. Even the smallest fender-bender report can take an inordinate amount of time to complete.

Non-injury hit-and-run reports

are another unpopular police report. These cases typically involve supermarket parking lot side- swipes, shopping mall parking lot door bangs, and late-night residential street body crunches. In each example, the officers have little to go on except for the physical evidence in front of them. With no eyewitnesses, an inexact time frame of several hours or even days, and no description of the other car except maybe the color, these cases are difficult to solve and even harder to prosecute.

City attorneys will secretly admit that because their offices are usually short-staffed and swamped with more serious cases, they won't even attempt to prosecute hit-and-run cases with no injuries. Officers dislike these cases from a report standpoint because they are usually required to complete two separate reports: one traffic collision report and one hit-and-run vehicle report. Since these accidents hap pen predominantly on private property, like parking lots and drive ways, it's often difficult to take measurements and to draw an accurate diagram of the scene. Coupled with the rare chance of catching the suspect or locating his or her car, it's no wonder these reports are frustrating.

But since nearly all insurance companies require some police report of the damage before they pay a claim, these reports are a necessity for the victim. Most police agencies realize this and will complete hit-and-run reports as a courtesy to the public.

Juvenile arrest cases

While most officers take satisfaction in arresting adult offenders and filling out the arrest forms, juvenile arrest cases are a completely different and more complex matter. In most minor juvenile cases (and in some overcrowded cities, major cases) the arresting officer must complete the report and then turn the offending juvenile over to his or her parents. Only rarely do juveniles go to a juvenile correctional center for admission. Usually the parents must come from home to the police station to get their son or daughter. As many juvenile arrests happen at night (vandalism, car theft, car burglaries, curfew violations, drinking, etc.), officers don't like having to rouse sleepy parents from bed and then wait around for them to get to the station. Mix this long waiting and processing time with an uncooperative, unremorseful, or even hostile teenager, and you can understand why many officers dislike juvenile contact reports.

Rounding out the list of unpopular police reports are shoplifting and petty theft from drug and clothing stores. These cases nearly always involve juveniles which, as we have discovered, means the officer must wait for parents to arrive to take custody of their child. Further, most officers don't like having to complete a two-page crime case (for the crime of petty theft) and a four-page arrest report (for the shoplifter) for a case that the store will rarely prosecute. Most stores hit with these "shrinkage" cases merely ask for restitution for the goods and warn the thief never to enter the store again. This appearance of a "slap on the wrist" coupled with two hours of report writing only serves to anger most officers.

We know that most officers do not mind writing arrest reports because they can see their work come full circle; and we know that they don't like to write certain "goes nowhere" reports. One thing, however, is clear: police officers will take all reports when asked to by the public. The ability to put his or her true feelings aside is the hallmark of a good officer. Most officers will take a report, if the facts and the environment warrant one, without regard to how they really feel about the case. They realize that a police report is valuable because it serves to document an incident, and it may be important later.

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