|Elements of a Police Report
|Forms and formats of police reports will vary among police
departments, but all will contain the same informational elements.
Download the 164 page UCR Handbook from the FBI and save it to your computer.
The importance of this book cannot be overstated. If you read this book, and you keep it close for reference, you will never
experience problems recognizing and properly classifying crimes.
Additionally, your knowledge of its contents will put you far ahead of others in any pre-employment interviews.
The truth is that the detectives and scientists will come after you, and their successes will depend largely on your
preliminary report of the offense or incident. The initial phases of any investigation are super critical, and the way you
record basic factual information; your observations; statements by others; evidence collection, and any other actions you
take will determine the success or failure of an investigation.
The Length of Your Preliminary Report
Many police officers believe a preliminary report should be brief and cover only very basic information. Wrong...your
preliminary report should include every bit of relevant information your investigation produces. The depth of your
investigation depends only upon your investigative abilities, and the time and resources available to you.
The Importance of the Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook
Knowing how to classify crimes and report them in the proper format is all important. The proper classification of a crime
will help to ensure it gets the attention it deserves. It's sad to say, but you're going to learn that a lot of police officers
aren't very well versed in UCR. The ever increasing political importance of crime reduction has led a lot of supervisors and
police commanders to adopt some pretty creative interpretations for crime classifications, so your knowledge and
understanding of UCR is more important that ever before.
Basic Factual Information
Your police report is going to have labeled information fields (boxes) for you to list basic factual information. Those fields are there for a purpose other
than balancing the graphic design of the report. You'll work with officers who think N/A, none, and / marks should fill the majority of these fields. The
completeness and accuracy of basic factual information is important for a host of reasons including making you look competent. For example:
Follow-up contact with a victim is important. Your victim tells you he has no telephone. Before you write [none] in that box, ask the victim for a
relative's or friend's phone number through which he can be contacted. Ninety-nine percent of the time, under this circumstance, your victim will be
able to provide you with a phone number.
Date; Time, and Location of the Offense or Incident
You're probably thinking, "This is pretty obvious." You're absolutely right, but you'll learn that some officers don't consider accuracy that important
when recording these critical details. When you're on the scene with a victim only moments after an offense, these details won't be a problem.
However, people sometimes wait, even when serious offenses occur, to report crimes. Rapes and sexual assaults often fall into this category.
If and when a suspect is apprehended, these details become extremely important. For instance: If the true date is off by just one day, that error could
establish a verifiable alibi for the suspect. Even if the error is corrected during the investigation, it could cause problems during any prosecution.
You'll also learn that people badly estimate time by either underestimation or overestimation. For example: You're interviewing the victim of a street
robbery. The victim tells you she can identify the suspect, because she got a good look at him. You ask her how long she looked at his face, and she
replies, "About a minute." While she's not lying, it should be obvious to you that she's probably overestimating the time. One minute is a very long
time. A little more effort on your part will bring that down to a more realistic 10 second observation. You may not think it's an important detail, but if
the case ever gets to trial, the defendant's attorney will certainly make the jury aware of just how long a minute can be.
The location of an offense should seldom be a problem since the location you'll record is the exact location where the offense occurs or begins. Even if a
victim is abducted and taken to several locations, the location of the offense will be where the first unlawful act occurs...in this case the abduction.
Remember, so many things are intertwined. Take this example where an abduction occurs: The suspect forces the victim into a car at gunpoint. At this
point the UCR Crime is Aggravated Assault. If the suspect commits no other crime during the abduction, the offense will remain Aggravated Assault.
However, if the suspect subsequently robs the victim, the UCR classification changes to Robbery. So many officers become confused -- you need not be
confused -- JUST GET THE UCR HANDBOOK. The location remains the same, your narrative will record the additional locations.
Suspect Description - Name; Address; Race; Age; Date of Birth; Height; Weight; Eyes; Hair; Complexion; identifying characteristics
You're going to look at a robbery report, and in the suspect description field you'll see, "M-B-NFD" or "M-W-NFD." While the description will tell you
nothing about the suspect, it will tell you two things about the officer who wrote the report. First, the officer is lazy, and second, the officer doesn't take
his or her job seriously. The acronym NFD for No Further Description is a favorite of too many police officers. Of course, there are exceptions...the
victim might be blind, or the suspect could come up on the victim from behind, and the victim is too fearful to even look at the suspect. However, this is
not the usual case.
When a person becomes a victim of a crime of violence, it's an extremely traumatic experience. Sometimes the victim will be upset and talk at length
without providing much relevant information. Other times the victim will be
subdued, and he or she will offer very little information. Either way, it is up to you to obtain all available information regarding the crime and the
suspect(s) from the victim. Believe it or not, some officers will wait for the victim to do the officer's job for him or her. The officer might ask the
victim, "How old is the suspect," and the victim replies, "I don't know." You'd be surprised how many officers will take that answer for omitting any
age in the suspect description. As a police officer, you should already realize that the suspect is probably between the ages of 15 and 50. From here, it's
just a simple task to get the victim's estimation of the suspect's age.
You'd be amazed how much a person takes in during stressful and potentially deadly experiences. All you have to do is question...question...question.
When you ask a victim about the suspect's height, you already have two models to go by. You know your height, and the victim knows his or her
height. A few up and down hand movements by the victim will end with a pretty accurate estimation of the suspect's height. Weight is more
problematic, but terms like thin; stocky; muscular; large belly, etc. will aid in providing identifiable information.
Here's one which many, or even most, police officers never seriously consider. Describing the race of a suspect is not as simple as you might think.
When the suspect is white, there's a wide variation of descriptions concerning hair color, eyes, etc. Complexion can go from pale to dark, but
complexion is usually only one of a number of characteristics. When the suspect is African-American, or black, complexion is always listed primarily as
light; medium; or dark. Here's the problem. When you ask an African-American victim the complexion of a black suspect, that victim will almost
always describe the suspect's complexion in comparison to the victim's own complexion. In other words, if the victim is very dark complected, he or she
will describe the suspect as light skinned when, in fact, the suspect is medium to dark complected. All you need do is point this out to the victim, and he
or she will immediately understand and provide you with a more accurate estimation.
It's really all up to you and how you treat a victim. Once a victim knows that you're truly interested in getting as much information as possible, you'll
be amazed how much the victim will be able to recollect. You simply start at the top of the head to the tip of the suspect's toes. The more detailed
questions you ask, the more details the victim will remember. Detail...Detail...Detail -- That's what a police report is all about.
Many, many years ago I was sitting at roll call when the shift commander used me for entertainment. He read one of my reports from the previous day.
The entertainment consisted of the suspect's description. The crime was only a larceny from auto, but the woman who witnessed the crime gave me an
extremely good description. I often took heat for my attention to detail...some might use the word anal. Anyway, it was extensive, and everyone had a
good laugh right down to the band aid on the suspect's left cheek. Moments later, as we hit the street, one of the officers rolled around a corner, and his
attention was immediately drawn to a young man standing on the corner. Actually, his attention was drawn by the band aid on his left cheek. The guy
hadn't even changed his clothes from the day before. That officer told that story for years. The moral of this story is this: Suspect descriptions are
important. It's all part of information, and information is the life blood of police work.
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One can argue that a perfect crime is one that is not reported. If a crime is not reported,
no investigation will follow, no arrest will occur, and no prosecution will be pursued.
When a person is the victim of a crime and that person decides not to report the incident
to police, that's a personal decision by the victim. However, when the crime is reported
to police, it is your responsibility to document and investigate the incident.
The Preliminary Police Report
Every police investigation begins with a police officer's preliminary report. While the cop
TV shows and movies usually skip to the parts where detectives roam a crime scene
handing off evidence and directions to uniformed officers, they never reveal the absolute
importance of the uniformed patrol officer's responsibilities. Criminalistics is the big
draw now, so you'll watch the scientists relegating everybody to the background as they
solve every case with hi-tech theories and processes. The only time one of your cases will
emulate the movie makers' police investigations is when you fall into a really high profile
incident where the heavy news makers, like politicians and celebrities, are involved.
Then...you'll be pushed so far into the background that you'll be practically invisible.
But...that's okay. You want to have as little involvement as possible in any investigation
where others can blame you for their screw-ups.
The Police Report Narrative
This is where it all comes together. Your department may have required headings for your narrative such as a description of property taken. You may
have to continue basic information like suspect descriptions into the top of your narrative section. Just make sure you have all your basic information
complete so that your narrative doesn't have to include information which will detract from telling the story.
Not Wrong...but needless
Some police academies teach officers to begin a narrative by rehashing a lot of information already listed in the basic information fields. Here's an
example: On 17 Oct 06, at 1712 hrs., I, Officer Tom Jones, received a call, via communications, to respond to 812 N. Collington Av for a report of an
armed robbery. Upon arrival, I was met by the victim, Sandra Smith, who stated that at about 1700 hrs this date she was robbed...
Get to the point
Everything you just wrote should already be recorded in the basic information. Here's how you should begin this narrative: Victim Smith reports she
was standing in the bus stop in front of 812 N. Collington Av when suspects 1 and 2 emerged from the alley adjacent to that address. Suspect 1 pulled a
silver colored revolver from his waistband and pointed it at the victim's head. Suspect 1 stated, "Give up the money, bitch." Suspect 2 walked behind
Victim Smith and pulled her handbag from her shoulder. Both suspects then fled back into the alley escaping in an eastbound direction.
Be concise...but complete
You might think that completes the narrative. It does pretty well describe what happened, but it's not the end of your investigation. As you interview
the victim, other information may come to light which was not immediately apparent. The victim may have observed the suspect(s) in the past at
another location. Your canvass of the neighborhood may reveal witnesses to the robbery. Even if you locate no witnesses to this crime, your
conversation with residents may reveal additional information about the suspects from their physical descriptions. You identify every person you speak
with and list that information in your report; you leave a business card with each person you interview. Investigation can become an addictive process -
hopefully - and the more of it you do, the better at it you'll become. Sure...some people won't share information with you, but a lot of others will.
However, those others aren't going to volunteer the information. They've got to be asked.
Over time you should create your own format for your narratives. Make sure you create it considering the fact that other people are reading your
reports. The information should flow smoothly. Always refer to the victim by name [Victim Smith]. When you have multiple victims, using numbers
becomes confusing for the reader. Likewise, when you have a name of the suspect, always use the suspect's name [Suspect Jones]. Concise doesn't
mean short; it only means that you shouldn't embellish your narrative. Don't make observations that aren't verified by facts, and don't make cute
remarks. The amusing parts will happen automatically:
I once responded to a domestic disturbance where the boyfriend punched his girlfriend knocking out her two upper front teeth. After a brief struggle
with me, (he didn't struggle that hard with me) I got him handcuffed. As we stood outside waiting for the wagon, I was doing a complete search of his
clothing. When I felt his right front pants pocket, I felt two small objects. I paused and asked, "That's not what I think it is...is it?" He simply rolled
his head slowly toward me and answered, "They was loose anyway." I recovered and submitted the girlfriend's teeth as evidence. I recorded our
exchange word for word in my narrative. While that exchange could be viewed as amusing, the Judge wasn't amused, and it got the boyfriend a year in
Remember, no information is irrelevant as long as it is pertinent to your investigation. If you develop information which contradicts other information
in your investigation, record that information. No investigation is free of contradictions. Your recognition and attention to contradictions only shows
your thoroughness. The earlier contradictions are noted, the quicker they'll be resolved.
If you're writing your field reports by hand, neatness does count. Even beautiful handwriting can be difficult to read. Most peoples' handwriting is just
plain terrible. Learn to print -- preferably in upper case. Your written reports, no matter what the process used, is a measure by which others will view
your knowledge and competence. It's all really very simple. Make the reader believe he or she is there watching the events unfold, and make the words