7 steps of good report writing, part 2
The seven steps of good report writing include who, what, when, where, why, how and action taken; here’s an inside look into each step and how to make the most of them
Continued from here.
As we have just covered physical evidence and how it pertains to a disciplinary court line and even possible court cases, it’s just as important to consider the written report. The written report is going to include written documentation about observed behaviors, statements, and even deductions concerning an incident. In this column, we will explore the critical elements of the written report. For anyone who has taken a basic report writing class, this is going to look very familiar. We will expand on each of individual areas of report writing to ensure that what you write your report right.
What are the areas of the report that we will be concentrating on? They are: who, what, when, where, why, how, and action taken.
The “where” of the incident is critical, too. Your report is much more professional when you put the exact location of the incident. For example, if the fight occurred in the dining hall, section two, about in the center, then put that. The “where” is very important in cases where physical evidence is collected. If you find a homemade knife in an inmate’s cell, you need to explain exactly where that knife was.
Which of the following statements gives a more accurate description of where the contraband was found:
“I found this in cell B123,”
“the contraband was discovered in the spine of a Bible, which was marked as property of Inmate Jones #12345. This was discovered in Inmate Jones assigned living quarters of B123 in the upper right cabinet, which was secured with a padlock.”
The second statement not only gives the reader a more accurate description of where the item was found, but also places the item to the specific inmate; it was in property marked as his, in his secured locker. There is very little chance that an inmate can use the common, “someone put it there to set me up,” defense.
The next area of report writing is the “why.” As a hearing officer, I did not spend too much time on this because it often leads the reader away from facts and establishes opinions. For example, from a disciplinary standpoint I didn’t really care why an inmate made a comment that was disrespectful to an officer. I didn’t really care why an inmate battered another inmate. The only thing that I cared about was whether or not the incident happened, and whether or not it is considered a rule violation.
This may seem very “Robocop” of me, but often times when getting in to the “why,” we lead our focus away from the core issue and the facts. You may even start to justify negative behaviors of the inmate and move away from holding them responsible. For example, you observe a battery. Inmate Jones walks up to inmate Smith and starts battering Inmate Smith with a lock tied to a belt. You see this, break up the incident and secure the weapon. As you are waiting for another staff member to escort Inmate Jones to segregation, Inmate Jones tells you that he did it because Inmate Smith had been threatening him.
This information needs to go to your investigations department, but does not need to go in the report. This statement may or may not be true. If you want to put this in the report as a direct quote from Inmate Jones, then you may do so as it is a part of the incident. However, if you word it outside of a quote, such as, “Inmate Jones battered Inmate Smith because Inmate Smith had threatened him,” your weight as a credible officer gives credence to Inmate Jones accusation that Inmate Smith was threatening Inmate Jones.
That statement has yet to be established as a fact, but your statement alone has “made” it a fact. Avoid the “why” of the incident because it gives credence to statements that may or may not be factual. It also inserts opinion in to your report, and we want to stick to the facts.
I like to describe the “how” of an incident as how the behavior or discovery matches the charge that you are writing the inmate for.
If you find a knife in an inmate’s pants pocket, how is this dangerous contraband? That one is pretty simple.
However, if an inmate makes a statement that you have considered threatening, how was it a threat?
The standard that I used during a disciplinary hearing was the “reasonable person” standard. Would any reasonable person consider the statement to be threatening, for example. If an inmate comes up to you and says, “punk, you better leave me alone,” is this this a threat or simply disrespect? I am inclined to believe that there would be an action taken by the inmate if I didn’t, “leave him alone,” and that action would probably not be a recommendation for employee of the month. So, would any reasonable person believe that this was a threat? I am inclined to rule that it was. It was disrespectful at minimum.
However, a good report writer will include not only the statement, but any behaviors to corroborate the charge. If the inmate made that statement while approaching you with his fists clenched and was clearly angry, this would solidify the charge.
Finally, the “action taken” part of the report is what action was taken as a result of the discovery, inmate behavior, or incident. This is commonly written in cases of evidence recovery as, “the (evidence) was confiscated and secured in Temporary Evidence Locker #9,” or, “the inmate was directed to return to his cell and did (or did not) comply.” This is the action that you took to resolve the situation. What did you do? What was the inmate’s response to your directives and/ or actions? Did the facility respond, such as a transferring the inmate to an administrative segregation unit? Were the inmate’s actions isolated or did they have an effect on the tier, housing unit, or compound? If so, how?
It would be important to mention in this part of the report if restitution is being requested. For example, if an inmate intentionally breaks a window, you may want to try to have him pay for it. This is simply put like this: “On behalf of the State of (your state), I am seeking restitution in the amount of $120 to cover the cost of the window and labor to replace it.” If you have gone this far to find out how much it cost to replace the item, you should reference who gave you that information, in this example it would be the facility maintenance personnel. Including this documentation further strengthens your report.
In conclusion, make sure that you are clear and honest in your report. Stick to the who, what, when, where, how, and action taken to avoid putting unnecessary points and opinions in your report. And remember, the more accurate your report is now, the easier the incident will be to remember when it comes time to stand by your report.