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

published February 13, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
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( 1077 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
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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.

The Importance Of Police Reports And Why And When They Can Be Sloppy

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


Police Report Quality


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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is The Point Of A Police Report?

Sometimes crimes do occur, however, and you will need to report them to your local police agency. 911 should be called in the event of an ongoing crime.

A police report can be filed for many reasons. Here are some of the most common causes:
  • Finding a suspect and arresting him or her.
  • Recovering stolen property by adding serial numbers to statewide databases.
  • Keeping track of criminal activity in various areas to prevent future crimes.

To file a report with the police, you typically need to go to the police station. The identity of the person filing a police report must be confirmed. A picture ID must be matched with the person filing the report. However, exceptions may be made as needed.

What Is Meant By Police Report?

Imagine you arrive home from work to discover that your home has been broken into. As the police arrive, they take notes about everything you can recall. What happens to all of that information? It is used to create a police report, a record of the facts, circumstances, and timeline of events surrounding an incident.

In addition to the protocol to follow when completing a police report, the general information and function differ from agency to agency. Once completed, the officer submits the report to the department for review and filing. It may also be used by insurance companies or court personnel to secure compensation for the victim in the event of criminal charges. The police report is not only useful for investigating officers but may also be used by victims for insurance purposes.

Conducting a thorough investigation requires obtaining as much accurate information as possible. Information that may seem irrelevant but may be critical to the police.

The police have a legal obligation to analyze crime statistics for all crimes in their jurisdiction on an annual basis. Crime victim types are also included in this study.

What Is The Meaning Of Police Report Writing?

Let's examine the various components of a police report. These may vary by agency or be classified differently, but the information collected will be the same.

In most reports, the incident type is described first. Property crimes will be separated from personal crimes or vehicular accidents. The offense will be identified by the charges associated with it, such as burglary, theft, assault, or domestic violence. The degree, such as felony or misdemeanor, can also be specified here. In order to track and search reports in this area, case numbers are usually assigned.

Depending on the case, the Police Department conducts different types of investigations. All cases reported to the police are investigated by the Detectives Division.

Once they have enough information about the suspect, they can follow up and reach out to him or her. For identifying a suspect, more information is better.

Reports can be tracked in two different ways. An incident number is a number generated by a computer in dispatch for any incident that occurs on campus, from escorting students at night to filing a crime report. There are hundreds of incidents recorded every day.

A report number is a number that is assigned to crimes that occur on campus. For statistical purposes, reports are tracked statewide.

Why Are Police Reports Important?

The local police investigate the vast majority of major traffic collision reports.  A police officer or officers usually travel to the scene of an accident, interview all drivers involved and witnesses, examine the vehicles and scene of the crash, and compile a written accident report based on what the officer saw and heard.  In most accidents, the police are the first to arrive and record what happened, how bad the wreck was, and even determine who was at fault.

In the police report, you will find the following information:
  • Statements – Each driver is usually asked to describe how the accident happened by the police officer.  The police officer may also document what witnesses at the wreck scene say about what happened.
  • Diagram of the Scene – Often, the officer will include a rough drawing of the accident scene.  An officer will take pictures of more serious accidents and even call a police accident reconstruction team to analyze the accident in detail.
  • Police conclusions about fault – The officer will usually write reports that are brief narratives of how the accident occurred and indicate the cause of the accident. Also, if any citations are issued, the officer will note which driver(s) received them.
  • Property damage – In case of an accident, police officers will document the location and extent of damage to any involved vehicles.  A tow truck will be indicated if any cars must be towed from the scene.
  • Injuries – In most cases, the police will document whether anyone was injured in the crash and how severe their injuries were.
  • Ambulance transport – The police report will be noted if anyone was taken by ambulance from the accident scene.  The officer will include the name of the ambulance company and the hospital to which the ambulance brought the patient.

Most police officers are seen as independent, neutral parties who are not connected to anyone involved in the accident and are just doing their duty.  Potential jurors and judges often rely on what a qualified police officer determines after investigating a car accident.  

Nevertheless, no one is right all of the time, not even the police.  An experienced and qualified car accident lawyer can help when the police report contradicts your story in one or more ways.  You have good reason to be concerned if the police report incorrectly places you at fault.  In any case, your lawyer should be able to hire a car accident reconstruction expert who can prove that you were not at fault for the accident.

What Is The Importance Of Reporting In Criminal Investigations?

All crimes are serious, regardless of what happened or when it happened. You will be listened to by the police when you report a crime scene, and they will be able to inform you of ways that you can become safer.

If it makes it more comfortable for you, a support person can help you contact the police and be with you when you speak to them.

The police will investigate what happened after you report a crime. Sometimes, just telling them what happened is enough. Other witnesses or people involved in the crime may need to be contacted by the police.

In cases where the law enforcement does not have enough information or different versions of events, there may not be sufficient evidence to continue the investigation or lay charges. Even if charges are not filed, this does not mean the police did not believe what you told them.

Violent crime victims are still eligible for financial assistance, and you can still get support. You can apply for an intervention to protect yourself and your family members. Intervention orders are different from criminal trials.

The following may occur as a result of reporting a crime:
  • Enhance your personal safety
  • Result in police charging the person and preventing them from doing it again
  • Get you the support you need
  • Providing financial assistance to you
  • Make it possible to file an insurance claim for damaged or stolen property.

If you plan to report the crime formally, be sure to discuss your options with the police first.

What Is The Importance Of Writing Reports by Police?

Most entertainment media portray police work as an unrelenting and constant barrage of thrilling chases and shootouts, where the good guy always wins. For the most part, this portrayal of police work is quite inaccurate. I believe that most good police work is entirely dependent on the officer's ability to present detailed, informative, and accurate information in the police report writing. Police officers must set up some permanent record for every service they perform. It can be anything from a single-line entry describing an unidentified problem to a lengthy investigative report detailing unimaginable pain and suffering.

Written reports are a major part of evaluating an officer's skill as a police officer. In addition to performing his job effectively and within the law, an officer must also record information regarding those activities accurately and present it to those who were not present at the time. 

When officers investigate an incident, they are most likely not to be present. Ultimately, this supervisor will review and pass judgment on the officer's reports. This supervisor is responsible for determining whether the officer followed the proper policies and procedures of the department, as well as applicable laws during the initial investigation. There is the possibility that many people will eventually read these reports. Based on much of the information presented in these police reports, it will be up to some people to pass judgment on others. Based on the information presented in the report, follow-up investigators from the original department, or other agencies, will determine what the officer has done in the case. Officers will then have to decide what to do next to complete the investigation successfully. 

The initial investigating officers should record what they did in their reports and explain why they did not do certain things. The report should be noted if attempts were made to contact a potential witness and contact was not completed due to the witness's working nights. Having this information would help the follow-up investigators to avoid wasting valuable time. Following up, investigators often retrace the steps of the original investigator and take unnecessary steps that could have been avoided if all of the original officer's actions had been recorded. A significant amount of time could be lost as a result. 

As these initial investigating officers are generally the first responders to incidents, recording short-lived evidence accurately and descriptively is paramount. Among them are odors, stains, sounds, and the actions, statements, and demeanor of witnesses, suspects, and victims. Unless all of the information is included in the police report, the drama of heated verbal exchanges or physical altercations between an officer and an attacker may seem bland, uneventful, or even mundane to someone reading it. 

In a prosecutor's office, days after a crime has occurred, he will not be able to hear or smell the victim's frantic screams or the smell of blood or gunpowder. Observing the police reports alone will not provide the prosecutor with the full picture of what happened. To sustain the proper charge and ultimately prove the case, he will have to determine if all of the elements of the crime have been proven. In addition to the prosecutor, judges, other attorneys, and juries depend on information recorded in police reports to decide the honesty, deception, guilt, or innocence of the parties involved in the reported event.

It seems that many officers are under the impression that the police reports they are writing will disappear into a dark cabinet drawer. They do not think about the document's importance as it is being written, nor do they think about those who will read it. Police reports must be completed before insurance companies can process claims. Further investigations by representatives of the insurance companies and criminal investigations may result from these reports. Typically, police reports are considered public records and are available to anyone requesting them. In their search for an interesting story, representatives of the media often read most police reports. These reports are usually available to victims, witnesses, and suspects. If the report is inaccurate, misleading, or untruthful, there could be damaging repercussions. Officers' reputations are on the line.

What Are The Importance Of Police?

Since the United States was founded, law enforcement has changed dramatically. In colonial times and during the early years of the country's formation, law enforcement was conducted in local communities by volunteer groups and part-time officers who were privately funded.

Boston created the first centralized, municipal police department in 1838. The creation of similar agencies followed soon after in New York City, Chicago, New Orleans, and Philadelphia. Almost every major city in the country had established a formal police force by the late 1800s.

In the United States, there are more than 18,000 local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies with more than 420,000 police officers. In the United States, there are 2.2 law enforcement officers per 1,000 people, and police departments vary widely by location and population. New York City, New York, for instance, has 36,228 law enforcement officers, while towns like Amherst, Virginia, or Hot Springs, North Carolina, each have less than five officers.

There is a demand for formal police training and increased professionalism among members of the law enforcement community with the growth of formal law enforcement agencies. Over 660 law enforcement academies provide basic, entry-level training each year for future officers. Law enforcement programs are also offered at many colleges and universities. 

The role of law enforcement officials in our communities is crucial. Each year, they work to ensure the justice of approximately 8.25 million criminal offenses. As part of their efforts to ensure public safety and hold violators accountable, over 10 million arrests are made each year.

Law enforcement agencies are respected by the American public, but they have increasingly come to be viewed as enforcers and warriors rather than guardians. Almost a third of the public now views the police as enforcers rather than protectors. The public's trust in law enforcement has also declined since the early 2000s. Police departments will only continue to erode public perceptions as they become perceived more like tax collectors and occupying forces rather than as advocates for community peace and safety. To ensure public safety in their local communities, some police departments have implemented best practices.

The purpose of law enforcement in a free society is to ensure public safety and uphold the rule of law so that individual liberty may flourish. To accomplish these goals, law enforcement must be trusted and held accountable by the communities they are sworn to protect. It is the government's right to use force to achieve its goals, but it must do so in a manner that safeguards the rights of community members and upholds the rule of law. It is important for law enforcement to establish positive relationships with their communities, respect civil liberties, and refrain from using excessive force against citizens.

In order to create public safety in local communities, police and community members need to work collaboratively. The term "community policing" refers to a police strategy that involves local partnerships and greater decision-making authority among street-level officers. By 1997, 85 percent of police departments had implemented some form of community policing.

Following leadership examples and providing sufficient training to officers, agencies must create departmental policies that strike a balance between discretion and accountability for all officers. It is imperative to empower patrol officers to make decisions and to have discretion, while also providing clear standards by which they will be held accountable, in order to collaborate with community members and organizations. The result of this balance of discretion and accountability is a less hierarchical reporting structure, greater access to diversionary alternatives, and clear departmental policies that empower officers to act in the most effective manner for the safety of their community.

Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

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published February 13, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 1077 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.