The sports website Deadspin reports that Jets head coach Rex Ryan caused a three-car crash when he ran a red light on January 14. If you spend a moment or two reading the story online, you can instantly tell that Deadspin values good writing. Here’s how the story opens: “Rex Ryan was already having a multi-car pileup of an offseason, metaphorically. Now comes word that the Jets head coach literally had one last week…”
But it isn’t just Deadspin that values good writing. The police report for Ryan’s accident is so well done that it could be used as a model in a police standards course. That excellence speaks well for both the officer (not named on Deadspin) and the Bethlehem Police Department. Experienced officers know that the agency has to set the tone—literally—for a good report. In order to write well, you need supervisors who have educated themselves about modern writing practices.
What is so impressive about the Rex Ryan report? (For simplicity, I’m going to refer to the officer as “he” and “him.”) First, the report is well organized. The reporting officer had a vast amount of information to sort: What happened before he arrived, what he saw, and the procedures he followed (checking for injuries, assessing damage). He took statements from the drivers of all three cars and from a witness. He even notes that he’s waiting to talk with a second witness.
The officer sensibly sorts this mass of information into separate paragraphs: A paragraph for what he saw when he arrived, a paragraph for what each driver told him, another paragraph for what the witness said, and so on.
Second, the report uses up-to-date writing principles. The officer refers to himself as “I” rather than the old-fashioned “this officer.” He uses active voice (“we observed,” “we assessed,” “we requested”). He makes excellent word choices, using “stated” and “reported” instead of the annoying “advised” that appears in so many police reports.
Third, the report is objective. Judgmental words like “reckless” and “dangerous” never appear in the report. The officer doesn’t try to guess why Ryan ignored that red light. He sticks to the facts.
Most impressively, the report uses sophisticated sentence patterns. Take a look at this sentence: “X stated as Y proceeded into the intersection, Unit 1, a Mustang ‘traveling at a high rate of speed,’ came up the hill (west bound 3rd St) and struck the driver side front quarter panel of Z’s vehicle.” If I were a defense attorney, I wouldn’t want to start an argument with that officer: He’s obviously a professional who knows what he’s talking about.
Experienced officers know that writing a complex report like this one takes time—lots of it. One timesaving suggestion would be using bullet style to avoid unnecessary repetition. If you read the lengthy paragraph that begins “Owner/operator of Unit 2, John Doe, reported no injury…” you’ll see that each statement begins with a word like “reported” or “stated.” It would be more efficient to simply list the facts in a paragraph that begins like this:
Owner/operator of Unit 2, John Doe, stated:
- he wasn’t injured
- he was traveling south on Route 378 in the left late
- Robert Smith was stopped at the red light, in the left lane, of Route 378 at the intersection of West 3rd St. and Wyandotte St.
And so on.
Another advantage of bullet style is that it’s easy to read later on, if you have to review your report for a court hearing.
The officer at the scene assessed the three cars and concluded that “all vehicles were operable.” Our assessment of his written report goes beyond “operable”: This is excellent professional writing.
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Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including Police Talk (Pearson), co-written with the late Mary Mariani. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.