Common Mistakes in Police Report Writing
What Could Happen if My Police Report is Poorly Written?
Police reports are the backbone of the criminal justice system, as they lay the foundation for a criminal case. For this reason, police reports are considered legal documents that only trained officials can complete. Details matter, as any mistake made in a police report could affect the entire case. Luckily, attorneys are skilled at identifying inaccuracies, flaws, and other issues with police reports, as with any legal document pertaining to the case for that matter.
As you can see, police reports matter. They essentially trigger the criminal justice process. For this reason, it is important to understand the common mistakes found in police reports. Police officers make mistakes as all people do, but considering the gravity and significance of their job, they cannot take their responsibilities lightly. One error on their police report could land an innocent person behind bars, increase the charges against a defendant, and ultimately, ruin a person’s life. As such, our defense experts at Brickfield & Donahue explain some common mistakes made in police reports below:
Grammar, spelling, punctuation errors: Officers tend to make mistakes such as putting periods and commas outside of quotation marks when they should be placed inside the quotation marks. Other mistakes include capitalization errors, such as capitalizing directions like “north,” “south,” “east,” or “west,” when they should be lowercased. When referring to regions in the US, however, you may capitalize “West,” “East,” etc.
Jargon: Using unfamiliar words in a police report paves the way for confusion and thus, complications in a criminal case. Using “big” words that are difficult to comprehend could result in ambiguities, which is the last thing needed in a police report. Police officers should write their reports according to how average people speak rather than how professionals, experts, and scholars speak. For instance, instead of writing “uttered,” officers should put “told.” Instead of writing “residence,” write “home.”
Writing in passive voice: For context, passive voice is a grammatical construction in which the subject is acted on by the verb. Active voice, which is the preferred style of writing in police reports, the subject acts on the verb. With that being said, officers who write in passive voice tend to omit key details of a reported crime. Passive voice can make it difficult to understand who did what. For instance, “The suspect was taken into custody at the Bergen County Jail” is written in passive voice. But who took the suspect into custody? Instead, this sentence should be written as “Officer John Doe took the suspect into custody at the Bergen County Jail.”
Leaving out the results of the investigation: Another common mistake police make in their reporting is leaving out critical details of an investigation, including the results. Some officers may write thorough and detailed accounts of their investigation but fail to report the results. For example, a police officer may write, “I searched for fingerprints on the doorknob of the master bedroom” but fail to write whether or not they found fingerprints.
Writing vaguely: As we said before, details are essential in police reporting. Although it can be a tedious task, reporting every detail of the incident is critical in the criminal procedure. It is the police officer’s responsibility, after all. Thus, it is important for police reports to be comprehensive and thorough. Reporting that a witness is “uncooperative” is not good enough. It’s too vague. A better way to report the uncooperative witness is to write something like, “The witness avoided eye contact and stated that he/she refused to answer questions without their attorney present.”
Bias: Making assumptions is a big “no-no” in police reporting. Even if a suspect demonstrates qualities that align with a certain profile, that doesn’t mean they fit the profile. While implicit biases are natural, police officers don’t always recognize when they are exercising implicit biases in their reports. As a result, officers may write statements like, “the suspect appeared like they were gang-affiliated,” or “The suspect’s baggy, oversized clothing indicate a possible theft offense.”
Mistakes of fact: Factual inaccuracies on police reports are more common than you may think. Police officers may record incorrect times, license plate numbers, driver’s license numbers, names, addresses, and other critical details needed in a criminal case. As a result, an attorney can challenge the validity of a report as well as the integrity of a police officer to help get their client's charges reduced or dropped altogether. Don’t believe that an entire case will be dismissed as a result of a minor error in a police report, however, these flaws could work in a defendant’s favor.
Facing Charges? We Can Help.
If you were accused of a crime, one of the first things our lawyers will do is examine the police report filed against you. We can scrutinize the details of the report and find ways to minimize your charges and penalties as a result. To get started on your defense, get in touch with our attorneys online or at (201) 574-7919.