The Art of the Police Report

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

  • Art-of-the-Police-Report

    David Fullarton /

  • Art-of-the-Police-Report

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.

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