Tips for better correctional officer report writing
Reports have a far longer life than the shift, the month or even the year in which they are written
By Lynne Woodruff
Recently I read two books written by former corrections officers. I enjoyed both and the stories were engaging; however, I was somewhat distracted while reading because the books contained misspellings and poor grammar and punctuation. Where were the editors during the final review? This led me to think about what the authors’ reports looked like. Did they also have misspellings, poor grammar and/or punctuation? Did anyone review them and request that proper grammar and correct spelling and punctuation be used?
In my former life as a supervisor, I was a stickler for professional reports. I was notorious for sending reports back so that misspelled words, improper grammar and incorrect punctuation would be revised. Even after I became a lieutenant, the nickname “Sgt. Spellcheck” stuck with me! Why was I so strict about report writing? I knew that reports have a far longer life than the shift, the month or even the year in which they are written. Lawsuits and investigations can happen years after an incident. Reports are discoverable documents that can be presented as evidence in those investigations. I wanted to make sure that anything with my name attached, even as a reviewing supervisor, was of a professional grade.
The point of this article isn’t to give you a comprehensive grammar lesson, but I can’t resist sharing a few of the most common errors I see in correctional officer report writing:
- My biggest pet peeve was, and still is, “I seen.” Want to see my head spin around? Use that phrase in a report. When I read that phrase, I immediately wonder where the hayseed left his/her turnip truck. “I seen” is certainly not a phrase that should be in a professional report. The correct wording, of course, is “I saw.”
- We all know “who, what, where, when, why and how” are the integral parts of correctional officer report writing, but when covering these basics, are you using proper words or do you rely on the false notion that spellcheck will catch everything? “They’re, their and there” all have different meanings and are not interchangeable, regardless of what some officers think. How about the difference between “threw, through and thru?” Two are actual words, one is not. Do you look for those differences in reports as you are writing or reviewing?
- Another pet peeve I have (when it comes to grammar and punctuation, I have many!) is the improper use of quotation marks. Use quotation marks when you are quoting the actual words someone said. For example: The inmate said, “I refuse to lockdown.” If you are paraphrasing the inmate, do not use quotation marks: The inmate said he refused to lockdown. I cannot count the number of times I had to explain the difference to supervisors and officers; I probably could have retired several years earlier if I had a dollar for each explanation!
I saw an improvement over the years in report writing as a younger, better-educated staff was hired. Unfortunately, that improvement did not extend into the supervisory ranks.
Agencies need to make writing properly a component of promotions. Supervisors who review and approve reports need to know how to spell, how to use proper grammar, and when to use commas and quotation marks. If your agency has supervisors who do not know those basics, then they either need to be educated or demoted. Nothing is more embarrassing than reviewing reports with the State’s Attorney’s Office in response to a lawsuit and discovering a poorly written narrative with misspellings and grammatical errors that made it through two or more supervisory levels without correction. The question can fairly be asked: If the staff did not address the glaring errors in the report, what else did they miss during the incident? You can be sure the opposing attorneys will ask.
So whether you are an officer or a supervisor, make sure your reports are accurate, with proper spelling, correct grammar and appropriate punctuation. Have someone else proofread your report before submitting it. If you are a supervisor and know you have a deficiency in writing and editing, take steps to improve yourself. Take a class at the local community college or learn from a colleague. Don’t be the supervisor who approves all reports, regardless of how poorly they are written. The report is a reflection of the author’s professionalism in particular and on corrections in general.
After all, as your grade school teachers drummed into you, spelling does count!
About the author
Lynne Woodruff retired from the Kane County (Illinois) Sheriff’s Office with 24 years of service. She was the first female promoted to sergeant at the Kane County jail and the first female promoted to lieutenant in the Sheriff’s Office. Lynne earned a BA in Management and Leadership at Judson College and a Master’s degree in Law Enforcement and Justice Administration at Western Illinois University. Currently, she is a Management Services Representative for Lexipol; before moving into this position, she served as Training Coordinator and also as an independent contractor for Lexipol’s Training and Implementation Services teams.