The Art of the Police Report

A Los Angeles cop writes “just the facts” and still tells one helluva story

| March-April 2011


David Fullarton /

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.

3/19/2011 6:10:51 PM

My sergeants invariably slashed at my carefully-crafted reports until they met the desired standard of illiteracy.

3/15/2011 2:53:03 AM

"truthful and persuasive—seem uncomfortably at odds" yeah and once you arrest someone you pretty much have to write a report that explains why you took that action...

granite sentry
3/13/2011 7:07:01 PM

Great piece. But anyone who has watched, read, or listened to mainstream media news reports for the last 30 years knows exactly where Martinez learned his technique.

3/10/2011 10:51:06 AM

Lets make this even more confusing. Although S&W is the brand identified with police useage (I think the movies did that) the Colt O.P. was standard issue for most big police departments when this type of weapon was being used. I believe NYPD, Chicago, LAPD,San Fransico, Portland and St. Louis had it as standard issue. Off the record my father carried a 45 ACP as a back up gun claiming the .38 couldn't stop squat. In fact, I have heard tell that many US Troops in Iraq are replacing their 9mm's with the good old .45's. Interesting......

3/5/2011 6:28:58 PM

"Cadets are taught to write with care and deliberation, to choose each word for maximum accuracy. Precision, not firepower, is the goal; you don’t use a semiautomatic at close range when you’re packing a Smith & Wesson." Okay, there's where I stopped reading. Smith and Wesson makes semiautomatics, so you can't contrast a "Smith and Wesson" with a semiautomatic. Presumably the author thinks that Smith and Wesson is synonymous with "revolvers", another type of pistol they make. But even if so, revolvers are not really more accurate than semiautomatics. Oh and Smith and Wesson makes revolvers chambered for cartridges like the 500 Smith and Wesson which gives vastly more "firepower" than you get in almost all typical semiautomatic rounds. Why do so many writers - who are obviously ignorant about even the most fundamental aspects of firearms - feel free to use firearms in analogies? I just have never understood this. Reading a nonsensical passage like that is like reading "I stirred a spoon of sugar into the tea and then enjoyed its rich salty taste." It's just nonsensical. It makes me distrust anything the author says.

3/1/2011 1:03:05 PM

This writing was succinct and concise. Well worded without demonstrating bias. Or, The writer indentified the perpetrator at which time he handcuffed and marandized him. I grew up sneaking peeks at these reports while they were being hacked out by two partners looking over each others shoulders in cement blocks rooms. This is a great and telling article.