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The Complex Work of a Simple Police Report, Part II

(Adapted from the book Genre of Power: Police Report Writers and Readers in the Justice System)

This post was written by member Leslie Seawright. This is the second of two parts. You can read the first part here.

Prior to my research efforts at the Jackson Police Department,[i]  I had always heard that police could not write, that police reports were worthless documents, and that no one should ever trust what a cop wrote down. It was also well known in my academic and social circles that police reports were not allowed in court because of how poorly they were written (a misnomer). My initial research into police writing revealed similar sentiments. Prosecutors, police chiefs, defense attorneys, and even officers all complained to me about how poorly police reports are written. I heard this anecdotally in casual conversations and in formal interviews with police chiefs, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. The mountain of texts dedicated to improving officer report writing skills demonstrates the problems associated with report writing. Names like How to Really Really Write those Boring Police Reports, Plain English for Cops, Painless Police Report Writing, and my favorite, The Best Police Report Writing Book with Samples: Written for Police by Police, This is not an English Lesson, say a lot about how reports are viewed by officers and superiors. Report writing is seen as boring, difficult, convoluted, painful, and overly concerned with grammar. The manuals typical solutions are templates and simplified demands to include the Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why of every encounter. They largely avoid the context of police writing as a rhetorical situation fraught with complicated audience needs and multiple, often conflicting, purposes.

It became clear after reviewing police academy materials and sitting in two different report-training sessions that report writing was always discussed from a deficit model. Police cadets were instructed on how to write a coherent paragraph and use the correct word for a specific meaning. They were also instructed on how to organize the report, detailing the events chronologically. However, the majority of the police academy training I researched was spent on ground-fighting tactics, shooting practice, crime-scene investigation, and multiple-choice test preparation. At the police academy in Arkansas, only 8 hours out of 430 were devoted to report writing (Seawright).

When I asked officers, lawyers, supervisors and others what made a police report a “poor report,” the answers varied wildly. Officers seemed to think that poor grammar created poor reports. Supervisors and chiefs complained about a lack of professionalism in reports. Stephen Mathes, the police chief at Jackson Police Department, complained that “basic grammar” just was not present in police reports. He noted, “We are not just taking a raw recruit and trying to teach them law and police tactics but basic grammar in some instances. . . .  [I]f a defense attorney picked up a report that was poorly written they are automatically going to say, here is a person I can attack. I can attack credibility.”

However, the lawyers I spoke with complained that their most serious concern regarding police reports was the amount of information that was often left out. Two hours after my interview with the Jackson police chief, I sat in the office of Chad Rucker, a local defense attorney, who stressed the importance of the police-officer narrative over grammar in report writing. He emphasized, “Only in telling the story can all the details of the case come to light. Grammar does not matter. It could be written phonetically for all I care, just put down everything that happened.”

So in a matter of hours, a police chief told me that grammar really mattered to defense lawyers, and a defense lawyer told me he could not care less about grammar in reports. How was it that the police report genre could elicit such varied and contradicting expectations from its readers?

Genre of Power: Police Report Writers and Readers in the Justice System tells the story of one police report as it travels through the judicial system. The chapters are organized in order to analyze the writing and reading process of the officer writing the report and the report’s subsequent readers. By highlighting the work that a police report does and the multiple purposes and audiences it must serve, the book ultimately addresses the power dynamics of writers and readers in the judicial system, and examines who is served (or not served) by police reports.

It is important for us and for our students to understand how genres operate in powerful institutions. We can prepare students for these environments by helping them think critically about the role that written texts play in organizations and the complicity employees have in recreating the institution through documents. When students understand the role that employees play in supporting powerful systems, they can better decide what role they want to play or how they might change that role, versus blindly following the dictates of the genre and the system.

[i] Jackson Police Department is an alias.

 

Leslie Seawright is assistant professor of English at Missouri State University. Seawright’s research interests include workplace communication, community literacy practices, technical writing and intercultural communication.