How to Write Duty or Incident Reports that will get you promoted…

…or at least keep you from being fired.

If you’re working in security or law enforcement, you know that a lot of time slips away into writing reports. Reports or things that happened, things that didn’t happen but should have happened, things that shouldn’t have happened but was expected to happen, people who came or didn’t come and what they did or didn’t say or do… and it can be a pain in the ass. Especially so when the supervisor or captain or whatever your boss’ title is, sends you the report back with questions or requests for rewrites. It happens to everyone, but here, friends, is how to write a stellar duty or incident report. Your sup’ will like this.

The No-Nos

The things you shouldn’t put in your report far outnumber the things you should put in your report, so we’re going to start with those. Let’s be clear; there are times when these things might go in your report and belong there, but in 9 reports out of 10, they don’t belong. At best they might get you a head shake from the boss, reading your report behind his desk, while in a worst case scenario, they might put your job in jeopardy – especially if it’s a regular thing…

1: Your Feelings.

Notes: fun.

Keep them out of your report. It doesn’t matter at all how you felt. So the guy you had to handcuff on the floor said some things about your mother and what she had done for him the night before, and you felt sad about that, did you? Did it hurt your feelings? Did you think it “spoke to the character of the detained” (yes, that’s been in reports we’ve seen…)? Unless you’re a shrink, you’re not qualified to make that kind of statement.

Should you include the fact that he (or she) was aggressive and voiced personal assaults? Sure. How you felt about that? Hell no. Also not to be included are: your level of agitation, your thoughts on bystanders’ comments or input, frustrated musings on the time it took for police to respond, etc, etc. All of those are common… “condiments” on the meat of your report. Wow… that was a beautiful image.

2: Other Peoples’ Feelings.

Like your own, these don’t belong in your reports. First of all, you’re not qualified to speak on the inner lives of others. That said, you’re not supposed to speak on behalf of anyone else at all. So, just keep everyone’s feelings our of your report, okay? Okay.

3: Disinformation and Misdirection.

Seems like a no-brainer, but this happens a lot. Something happens on the job that may not have been strictly by the book, and you and your partner(s) decide to “slant” your story a little in your own favor. Someone got hurt while they were in cuffs? Shit happens – just don’t try to cover it up. Why? Because it’ll come back to haunt you. Maybe not the first time you do it, but somewhere down the line, it will. One too many complaints, perhaps, and someone will find a CCTV camera that proves you lied in your report – sorry, “slanted” it a bit, and there’s your shit-storm, all ready to rain poo-poo on your parade.

4: Your Evaluations About Other Personnel.

Computers: also fun.

Teamwork is hard, and there will always be times when you’re either happy about the others in your team, your troop, your company, whatever, or dissatisfied with them and/or the job they’re doing. That doesn’t go in your duty or incident report, however – those things are for the supervisors eyes only, or whoever is above you in the food chain. Then they decide who else sees it.

Here’s an important tip: always assume that you have to read that report out loud for a full courtroom, in front of everyone (or many of the people) you work with. Including that one guy you chew out in your report. That makes for a tense time at work once the ordeal’s over.

5: Your Thoughts on Master Orders or Procedures.

This one might be a little bit fuzzy, since your job description might tell you to do this, or your supervisors have expressly told you that they want your input on these things when incidents occur. In that case, do it. If not, stay away from it. There’s nothing more apt to put you on the supervisor’s watch list than making it look like your aiming for him. Or her. Looks like you want their job? They’ll get rid of you – don’t think they won’t. Write enough good reports, present them and do a good job, and you’ll be noticed too – but in a better way than just for making a superior look bad.

How to Write a Kick-Ass Report (in 5 easy steps)

5: Get Your Timeline Straight.

This isn’t number 5 because it’s the least important – it’s number 5 because it should be at the base of everything else you write. If you haven’t got the time stamp down to the minute, don’t worry about it. Just make sure that your report flows forward in a single line – this isn’t the time for flashback specials.

Example: “X first approached me at 2305h, saying Y did Z. I then radioed for backup and told X to sit on the curb. I then kept watch for Y until backup arrived, three minutes later. Then…” etc. You get the idea.

4: You Must Tell Your Story in 3 Sentences or Less.

This isn’t true, but that’s what you should aim for. 3 sentences won’t be enough most of the time, but the point is that you should tell what happened in as few words as possible. No one likes to read fluffed up stuff, so go for the timeless advice of Strunk and White from “The Elements of Style“: “Omit needless words.” That’s a perfect sentence if we ever saw one.

Too many pointless details will divert attention from the main points, water down the report and even confuse the readers. A tightly packed page of text might look good on the face of it, but anyone who’s ever read a few reports will know that reading it will be a chore.

3: Spectate, Never Speculate.

You just know this is gonna be a long one...

Your report should almost read like you watched the incident(s) from outside, or above… By all means, speak in the first person, but stick to what really happened, and only that. Don’t speculate about what  could have happened if this and that – nobody wants to know. Tell the things that did happen and why. That is all.

Example (of what not to do): “X then reached for a vase on the table, but officer Y removed it from X’s reach by kicking it from the table. If X had reached it, he could have used it to hit officer Z in the head, which might have caused injury.”

See? Don’t do that.

2: Write Your Own Story, No One Else’s.

Your partner or someone from your guard shift might ask you to include things in your report that you either didn’t see or didn’t do yourself. You know the request… “Hey man, can you put in your report that I secured the OC spray in the radio room before that guy pulled up?”.

Actually… no, you can’t. He or she should put that in his or her own report, because how do you know that what they’re saying is what really happened? Would you testify to it in court? Could you testify to it in court? You might trust your shift mate or partner with your life, but a criterion of that trust should probably be that they’re at least capable of writing their own reports. So run with that. Your report is your report. You should write it yourself and write only what you saw, heard or did. That’s all.

1: Write Once, Review Twice.

It’s kinda like that carpenter’s motto, isn’t it? Yes it is, and it works just as well for this business. Write your report in one go if at all possible, and then review it once. If you don’t have to turn it in at once, leave it for the end of your shift and then take 5 minutes to go over it again. Treat it like a writer would treat a story going to a publisher: eliminate typos, make sure you haven’t broken the other rules and stick with the advice from “The Elements of Style“.

We know that all this seems like a lot of work, but in the end, this will actually make your report writing easier. No more searching your feelings, fingers hovering over the keys while you’re searching for the right words. No more writing stuff that other people asked you to include and no more having to add to or review your report later. Less time, more kudos. What are you waiting for? Get to it.

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