You might not be surprised to learn that I have a strong love-hate relationship with report writing. I dislike the task itself, and I don’t recall the recruiting videos ever discussing that a huge chunk of my police career would be spent with a keyboard. I don’t know anyone who went to the police academy with hopes of spending actual years writing thousands of case reports. We all wanted to go Mach 5 with our hair on fire, just like Pete Mitchell. I do, however, greatly enjoy documenting specific phrases that I hope defense attorneys read and adamantly encourage their clients to take the plea, whatever it is.
The irony of copwork is that the more fun, interesting, or unusual a call or critical incident, the more time you’ll spend writing about it. So, for a group of folks who probably can’t completely diagram a sentence and wanted to run into dangers everyone else ran away from, our reward for actually doing so…is report writing.
The consequence of this is that police reports are a writing style unto themselves with a set of rules created by people who don’t like to write, have very little advanced professional writing training, and, in some cases, just can’t write. This has created some realities that I find assuming and, at times, frustrating as a trainer and self-proclaimed Wordsmith. I believe many of our industry-wide bad habits stem from our fear of the written word and our intrinsic necessity to present ourselves as Official Experts In Everything. Here, for your report-reading pleasure, are a few of my chosen highlights of “Our Misadventures in Report Writing: A Few Things I Wish We’d Stop Doing.”
Let’s consider this brief paragraph as our reference: “While engaged in routine patrol, I observed a suspicious white male wearing green-in-color thong underwear and a large rubber horse mask riding a bicycle southbound on Main Street. After contacting the male, I arrested him for narcotics possession. It should be noted that, immediately before I handcuffed the suspect, I found a plastic baggie of methamphetamine on his person.”
ROUTINE PATROL: This kills me. “Routine patrol,” I think, has very different meanings to cops and civilians. To the public, it might conjure exciting images of crimes fought, babies saved, and victims rescued. This job is about 98% “mundane repetition” and 2% “sheer terror,” so, to me, it creates a mental picture of a uniformed cop trying to eat a powdered doughnut while avoiding both (1) leaving sugar on his uniform and (2) creating a viral Internet meme.
I OBSERVED: I’d wager this gem appears in at least three-quarters of police reports. Henry David Thoreau made observations at Walden Pond, Marie Curie made observations in radiation (too late, sadly). Cops might observe things like the consequences of shifting priorities in society and the rising frequency of criminal disobedience and obstruction. We see dudes on bikes, but cops seem to think we sound more official by observing everything around us.
IN-COLOR: Why do we describe things as “color-in-color,” instead of just “color?” Does “more useless words” equal “more official?” Ever gone to a store to buy a “blue-in-color dress shirt?” Me neither, and I feel dumber just reading this phrase.
IT SHOULD BE NOTED: This is my favorite. ISBN is another way we try to sound official, although it actually functions as a text bandage to stop a catastrophically injured report from hemorrhaging to death (“exsanguination,” for you playing along at home). Every time I read ISBN, I understand it as, “I forgot something really important and my sergeant refuses to approve this report until I fix it, but I’m too lazy to actually fix it by rewriting several large sections and instead want to use this short phrase to conveniently add one or more material and out-of-sequence facts into the report’s chronology.” ISBN proves there’s never time to write it right, but there’s always time to write it twice.
ON HIS PERSON: You’re gonna have to give me more detail than that, Officer. You just told me the dude had nothing on but a thong and a horse mask! Where, exactly, did he hide that baggie, and how did you manage to find it? I feel another ISBN coming on.
I fear I won’t retire soon enough to avoid seeing police reports written in text-message: “While Ngagd n rtn patrol, (eye emoji) a susp (white man emoji) wearing grn-n-clr (thong emoji) & lrg rubber (running horse emoji) mask riding a (bicycle emoji) SB on Main St. After contacting (white man emoji again), I (handcuff emoji) him 4 narc poss. ISBN that, immed b4 I (handcuff emoji again) the (burglar emoji), I (“finders-keepers” GIF) a plastic baggie of meth on (burglar emoji again).”
Sigh. I think Idiocracy is a documentary from the future, but I can’t decide if it was sent back to warn or torment us.