The Art of the Police Report
A Los Angeles cop writes “just the facts” and still tells one helluva story
David Fullarton / www.joaniebrep.com
Monday through Friday, I’m enthralled by a man I’ve never met. His name is Martinez and he’s a cop with the Los Angeles Police Department.
Martinez works in crime suppression in South Central L.A. He and his partner, Brown, patrol the streets and respond to scenes-of-crimes. Every incident they investigate generates a written account.
I know Martinez only through his incident reports, as a five-digit number on a sheet of paper. In our precinct’s Crime Analysis Division, I read and code hundreds of these reports each day. They are written by every serving officer on roster, and by design most of them sound exactly alike.
Surprisingly, writing is the one constant in a cop’s daily life. Whether he’s assigned to vice or patrol, working bunco or undercover, every day he’ll write. Most precincts have specially designated writing rooms, where the average cop hates spending time—worse than on shoot-outs, stakeouts, and court appearances put together. As with everything in the department, strict rules govern report writing, and as with any dangerous undertaking, the department will train you to do it properly. The most despised class at the police academy is the one that teaches writing. A cadet can’t be sworn as a police officer without passing it.
The incident report he’ll learn to write is the factual narrative account of a crime—of a rape, robbery, murder, criminal threat, lewd act, vandalism, burglary, sexual molestation, kidnapping, or assault. Every event a cop responds to generates a report.
Crime reports are written in neutral diction, and in the dispassionate uni-voice that’s testament to the academy’s ability to standardize writing. They feel generated rather than authored, the work of a single law enforcement consciousness rather than a specific human being.
So how can I identify Martinez from a single sentence? Why do his reports make me feel pity, terror, or despair? Make me want to put a bullet in someone’s brain—preferably a wife beater’s or a pedophile’s, but occasionally my own? How does he use words on paper to hammer at my heart? Like all great cops, Sergeant Martinez is a sneaky fucker. He’s also a master of inflection and narrative voice.
An incident report tells only what happened: where, when, and to whom. It offers multiple perspectives of the same event from often contradictory points of view of cop, victim, suspect, and witnesses. Even when these accounts agree, no two people see things identically or invest their attention in the same details. Each person’s agenda is inherently personal.
An incident report lists the inventory of all physical evidence collected and booked. Anything from shell casings and rape-kit underwear to a three-legged dog in a custody dispute.
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