4 tips to excellent report writing for corrections officers
Once one has mastered the craft of structure and content necessary in writing reports, the process and the ability to write can easily be produced
Report writing has always been one of the most challenging parts of the law enforcement career. It is something many correctional officers despise. Some officers avoid writing reports and some do not produce anywhere near their full potential.
Many times important details and incidents do not find themselves documented because of the avoidance in report writing. Report writing is a big part of our job and such an important necessity for documentation and communication.
Once one has mastered the craft of structure and content necessary in writing reports, the process and the ability to write can easily be produced. The time it takes to write reports will become much more manageable. Being a good report writer is necessary and everyone is capable. It is not something that should be stressful or something dreaded as it is a very powerful tool in our job. Agencies vary in how their format or layouts of reports are written but all our reports include similar information and have a common goal.
Report Writing 101
When we write corrections reports, we want to paint a picture. Think of it as painting a picture to tell a story to someone who is not present — our sergeant, the captain, a district attorney, a judge, a probation officer, or maybe even a jury. Some of these individuals do not work inside our correctional institutions and therefore need enough detail to paint that picture. We also want to paint the picture vivid enough to reference an incident that has occurred.
There are so many components that need to be present in a report such as: documentation of who is involved, the nature of the incident, the details surrounding what has happened, significant statements, injuries, and the outcome. The easiest way to add these components is to start at the beginning and just tell a story.
If you were not present or do not have the details of the entire incident, ask each coworker for their involvement and piece the story together like a puzzle through your findings. You do not have to be involved or present to write an exceptional report. Anyone can collect the data needed and document a solid and fully-detailed report.
What I use today has been a combination of my storytelling abilities mixed with advice from many of my sergeants over the years which has bettered my skill in writing reports.
Four Tips To Produce Well Written Reports
1. Pretend you are a storyteller.
It is important to write a report that flows and is in chronological order. Document step-by-step what has happened. While you write, pretend you’re telling a story to someone who is not there. Start at the beginning and work through it. Be clear and concise; there is no need to be verbose. Do not skip details that leave holes in your report that would give your reader questions.
An example: As you are writing, think about little things that tie the story together. We know the inmate was disruptive on the housing unit, was handcuffed and taken to a holding cell. Details to include would be: what was the disruptive act, who handcuffed or restrained the inmate, what type of restraint device was used, the inmate’s demeanor while being escorted, and who escorted him. When the inmate reached the holding cell, was he proned out? How was he placed for the handcuffs to be removed or were they left on? Did he yell any statements at staff? Was he cooperative at this point or escalating further? What did he do after the holding cell door was closed?
2. Do not use police jargon or big words.
There is no need for anything but simple, plain English. Police jargon or big words does not constitute a better report. Sometimes big words can complicate a report.
An example: I remember using the word ‘laceration’ in a report to describe an inmate’s injury. My sergeant asked me what the medical definition of laceration is. I knew what the word meant but could not verbally state the medical definition.
He said, “Why not just say the word ‘cut’?” and explained to me how defense attorneys will attempt to pick apart law enforcement personnel’s credibility in any way. He instilled that it is okay to use simple words and avoiding any pitfalls on the stand. We do not have to be experts or try to sound like we are and simple language will depict the same story, still resulting in successful and professional documentation.
3. Be sure to include statements.
Statements from inmates are pertinent not only to an incident that has occurred but can also show what an incident is really about. Inmates’ words are not only really important but can really provide imagery to how an incident occurred.
An example: Did an inmate make a spontaneous statement after an altercation? During a disruptive act, was the inmate threatening staff? These statements should be placed in reports using quotations to validate an inmate’s behavior or further show his current state. Writing a sentence stating an inmate is suicidal is not as powerful as saying, “I am suicidal and want to die right now!” Use important statements said to you or other coworkers.
4. Just the facts, ma’am.
Reports are for documenting facts. Write what you observed. Write what happened. There is no room for speculation in reports. Reports should include facts, pertinent details and chronological order. Do not make assumptions.
Conclusion: The Importance of Writing Reports
Writing a report in the middle of shift while juggling all our other responsibilities and duties or in the middle of the night can be challenging. It is important to write quick and complete reports.
Once you have crafted the report style you like, re-use the report and wording you desire. Use the same format each time. Do not get in the habit of cutting and pasting documents to alleviate unnecessary errors in reports.
Remember report writing and documenting incidents can also protect us on the job. Many times writing reports involving use-of-force or an incident with a combative inmate can alleviate any questions later down the line if an inmate wants to make a formal complaint. The report is already completed, documenting who was involved and why and leaves no question of inappropriate officer behavior.
Be proactive, write reports to protect yourself and your fellow coworkers and document as a line of communication for other shifts to see and know what happened during your shift.
Remember your reports are formal documents and therefore are an extension of you. Learn the craft and complete your best work each and every time.