Kevin Ian Schmidt
how to write effective incident reports

Incident Report Writing Guide

Objectivity is vital when writing a report. A judge or investigator probably won’t dismiss the validity of a report if you’ve made a grammatical mistake. But if your report lacks objectivity, it may be viewed as a document full of opinion over facts.

Providing specific details is the key to writing an objective report.  When you arrive at a scene or conduct an interview, descriptive words immediately come to mind: suspicious, inebriated, aggressive, disoriented, and similar words.

But professional report writing practices require you to omit these categories and conclusions. You state only facts and details, leaving it to your reader to draw conclusions.

These requirements seem to defy common sense–but there are good reasons for them. Facts and details:

  • Facilitate follow-up investigations: Recording exactly what a witness or involved party says can be a huge help to anyone reading the report.
  • Prevent challenges: People can’t argue that you jumped to conclusions if you list the behaviors and actions that preceded the incident.
  • Avoid embarrassment: If you announce in a report a definitive list of actions based upon opinions and witness testimonies, a defense attorney or insurance reviewer might point out errors in your reasoning. Just state the fact: describe the scene(include pictures/video when possible), describe the incident exactly, describe any injuries.
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Here’s a comparison of generalizations you should avoid and details you could use instead:

  • confused (Better: could not state location or details clearly)
  • afraid (Better: whispered the answers to my questions, hands were shaking)
  • reckless (Better: driving too fast for conditions, crossed into pedestrian walkpath)
  • careless(Better: sign posted for team lift, employee picked it up alone)

While you’re thinking about objectivity, it’s important to be aware of some myths about reports. Writing in third person instead of “I” does not guarantee objectivity. (If only it were that simple!)

Similar outdated expressions like “Victim 1” and “Witness 2” are equally useless. They create confusion and waste time, especially if you’re preparing for a court hearing six months after the incident occurred. Use real full names whenever possible.

What about objectionable language? Insensitive labels like “crazy,” “crippled,” and “lazy” don’t belong in a professional report, with one important exception: If you’re directly quoting an involved party or witness who used them. The same principle applies to obscenities and slang..

Following these guidelines testifies to your professionalism, and they can provide a valuable service to your companyn as well. Train yourself to observe, remember, and record exactly what you’ve seen and heard: That effort will pay off again and again in your criminal justice career.

 

Report Writing Checklist

1. Think about the 5 W’s: who, what, when, where, why. If you’re writing on paper, most of this information will go into your opening sentence. If you’re writing on a laptop or using a template, make sure you’ve filled in the spaces accurately and thoroughly.

2. Include full names and contact information for witnesses, victims, and suspects (if available). If you interview someone who may be important to the investigation, get a backup phone number, such as a relative, friend, or workplace. Many people change phone numbers frequently, and an alternative number can help solve a case.

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3. Include the results of each investigation you did: temperature measurements, distances, recreations, etc…. Omitting results is one of the most common mistakes that investigators make. Result: Confusion, wasted time, and sometimes a missed opportunity to solve or prosecute a case.

4. Start each sentence with a person, place, or thing UNLESS you have absolute confidence in your writing ability. Keeping sentences simple prevents a multitude of writing errors.

5. Avoid outdated report practices. Old-fashioned words like “abovementioned,” “ascertained,” and “respective” waste time and cause confusion when you’re preparing for a court hearing. For example, what did you mean when you said you “ascertained” something? A witness told you? You saw it? You came across a useful piece of evidence? Explain in detail.

The EHS Center has a Sample Accident Analysis Report

6. Clearly state who did what (in other words, use active voice). Contrary to popular belief, passive voice doesn’t magically make you honest, objective, or professional. Those are qualities you have to commit to and work on. Passive voice can create confusion if several officers are working a scene: Six months later, in court, are you going to remember who did what at the scene?

7. Make sure the disposition part of your report is complete: If you found useful evidence at the scene, did you thoroughly cover the chain of custody? Did you describe injuries in detail? What was the outcome for victims and suspects?

8. Avoid generalizations and hunches, which can open you up to challenges in a courtroom later. Statements like “I knew Harris was lying” and “Johnson seemed nervous” don’t belong in a professional report. Stick to factual descriptions: “Harris told me they were heading to Porter City, but his wife told me they were going to Hicksville.” “Johnson’s hands were shaking, and he looked over his shoulder 10 times in less than five minutes.”

9. Avoid slang and insensitive language unless you’re quoting someone’s exact words. Sexist language, vulgarities, and other unprofessional terminology can embarrass you if a district attorney, newspaper reporter, judge, or community leader reads your report.