Why chronological documentation is essential in community corrections
A probation officer’s credibility is judged by the quality of their field visit documentation
“You will never know the value of good chronological documentation until you don’t have it.” I emphasize this in every field/home visit safety class I conduct. Probation officers must take notes during field/home visits and document the visit as soon as possible. Some probation officers fail to understand that our clients have a past, a present, and, sadly, sometimes a potential future in crime. Since clients under community supervision can be subject to open investigations by law enforcement agencies at any time, probation officers must take accurate notes during every field/home visit.
While unforeseen events may prevent probation officers from taking notes immediately, they should document their field notes as soon as possible. Judges, district (assistant) attorneys and defense attorneys might ask during a court hearing, “Were notes taken, and were they documented promptly?”  If you have ever been in a courtroom and heard those words, you would hope your chronological documentation is more detailed than a one-liner like, “Conducted field visit on this day, no one was home, honked three times outside of the home and received no response.”
If that is the case, prepare for a lengthy cross-examination. No officer wants to be embarrassed on the witness stand because their notes lack significant details about the visit. An officer’s credibility is judged by the quality of their notes/documentation. 
Different types of notes
Probation officers should collect field/home visit notes in various ways while adhering to department policy, which usually outlines the information that should be collected. Officers should consider the documentation they will enter into their case file management system, as it will soon become a permanent record.  Field notes must provide an accurate and complete account of observations and activities and should answer the following simple questions: 
- Collateral contact
- No contact
- If a note or card was left advising the client to contact the officer
Handwritten notes can be in different formats, such as:
Probation officers should transparently correct mistakes in their notebooks without removing pages. If a notebook is requested in court, the court will inspect and document the number of pages, potentially making it inadmissible as evidence if pages are missing. 
2. Pre-formatted template
These templates, when attached to a clipboard, facilitate clear and neat note-taking.  I use the following template:
- Field/home visit
- Conducted on:
- Field visit was conducted by:
- Defendant’s physical address was obtained by:
- Physical address/home address:
- Description of home:
- Indicators of home occupancy:
- Animals at the location:
- Vehicles at the client’s physical address:
- Contact with the defendant:
- Collateral contact made:
3. Plain white paper
Probation officers may use plain white paper, but lined paper in legal or letter size is preferred. Officers should sign and date the sheet.
With the increasing use of case management software, probation officers are taking notes on computers, laptops, and cell phones. Each of these technology-based note-keeping systems has its benefits and drawbacks. I prefer to email my notes to my department, providing a convenient way to document field notes and a time stamp for the visit.
Notes can be taken on almost anything. In situations where officers witness incidents without their official notebooks or recording devices, courts will accept any written notes, which must also be preserved and treated as exhibits. 
Officers should strive for legible handwriting to ensure the preservation of notes in a department hard file. Illegible writing can pose difficulties in court, especially over time.  Chronological documentation is crucial in our field. A probation officer’s documentation must accurately record information about the field/home visit for the safety and protection of the community and the client. A client’s innocence or conviction may hinge on information documented by the officer. Quality casework is maintained through an officer’s ability to present accurate, detailed, and informative chronological documentation. This documentation in a case file is vital to proper case management and could be the missing link in a major criminal investigation.
As always, remember, “We are each others greatest teachers.”
1. BC Campus. Essential note-taking skills.
2. Blue Line Canada’s Law Enforcement Magazine. The ABCs of police note-taking.
3. Forensic Notes. Paper Notebook & Pen: The Ultimate Guide to Taking Notes.