Despite the use of body and dash cams, police reports are still incredibly important documents for all members of the court, as well as the victim and the suspect. But how are police officers trained to write these reports, and are the reports they write useful for the various readers that need them?
“Everything a police officer writes has to be correct but it also has to be meaningful, and it has to be meaningful in very specific ways,” said Dr. Leslie Seawright, assistant professor of English at Missouri State University.
Analyzing police reports
Seawright says that though police officers often know their audience, or who they are writing to specifically, this does not always translate into writing the information these audience members require.
“Since they weren’t sure how to write for their audience, a lot of the time I found officers trying to cover all their bases,” said Seawright. “What happens when they do this is they start writing a very rhetorical document—and by that I mean they’re thinking about how this document is going to be viewed, and they are selecting what to include and what to exclude based upon an expected critique.”
Seawright does not believe officers are excluding facts maliciously. Officers are extremely aware that the actions they take are critiqued and every decision is under scrutiny.
Tracking reports from start to finish
Though we imagine an officer gets to sit down at a computer and take time to write a report, in reality most officers are hurriedly writing their reports in their vehicles on scene. Most departments require officers to have all of their reports turned in at the end of a shift. This can be very difficult on busy shifts, where calls come in every few minutes. This was the focus of one of Seawright’s academic articles.
“They’re writing reports while trying to be aware of their surroundings and listening to the police radio,” said Seawright.
Seawright tracked reports from on the scene to the final judgement in the courtroom for her upcoming book.
“It’s really interesting to see how a report actually moves through the system,” said Seawright. “The officer in the book is not apathetic or lazy, but those are the assumptions that the defense attorney, the prosecutor and the judge all make based on the report.”
Seawright says there is much more to be studied in the area, specifically how officers are trained to write reports, and how body cameras may change the nature of reporting.
For more information, contact Seawright at 417-836-5107.