Writing an incident report clearly and concisely is a critical skill for any business professional.
In loss prevention, we use reports as part of the investigative process. They help us to evaluate workplace safety situations and crisis management performance. They are used to present facts, develop skills, and manage situations.
Yet while the information conveyed may vary depending on audience, the foundation of writing an incident report centers on communication.
Supervisors have an even tougher task than associates do. It’s the bosses who have to review and correct their subordinates’ reports. Supervisors are also the ones held responsible for inadequate or potentially damaging reports.
So, how can supervisors avoid developing a close, personal relationship with a red pen while other pressing matters threaten to create an avalanche on their desks?
Here is a quick-and-dirty guide to instructing employees on the proper techniques of writing an incident report: a key loss prevention skill that is critical to professional growth.
1. Explain the Purpose of Writing an Incident Report. Loss prevention associates without a security or criminal justice education or training may resent having to write reports because they don’t understand their importance. Their attitude may be, “I caught the guy. Why are you bothering me with this paperwork?”
Explain that a report creates a legal record of an incident. Fern Abbott, a career investigator and LP professional, currently serves as the director of AFI Security Training Institute in Metuchen, NJ. She communicates to trainees that the purpose of a report is threefold: “To permanently record information, to communicate information to others about what occurred, and to refresh your recollection if you’re required to testify in court.”
2. Consider the Audience. Make sure associates understand that their reports may be reviewed by many people, from corporate management to law enforcement to attorneys, judges, and juries, each with their own agenda.
Adam Parker, director of loss prevention at Lamps Plus in Chatsworth, CA, stresses this point. “The writer needs to understand how many different audiences will view the report. It may not be just an internal audience,” he cautions, “so don’t think it’s just for your supervisor.” He adds that report writers must always keep in mind the possibility of potential litigation when writing their reports.
As the only New Jersey Security Officer Registration Act (SORA) instructor to be an invited guest lecturer on “How to Be an Effective SORA Instructor” for the New Jersey State Police Private Detective Unit, Fern Abbott agrees. She suggests having associates think about not only who will read the report, but also the kinds of questions those parties may have. Such questions may include:
- Supervisors and management—What happened? Did we do something we shouldn’t have, or not do something we should have? Was this preventable? How do we make sure it doesn’t happen again?
- Corporate attorney—Are we civilly liable?
- Police and prosecutors—Has a crime been committed? If so, who can be charged?
- Defense attorneys—How do I defend this?
- Insurance company—Do we have to pay out?
3. Paint a Picture. The basics of a good report include the answers to the who, what, when, where, why, and how of an incident. But associates also need to develop this loss prevention skill in order to know how to strike a balance between incorporating too few details (“Saw suspect, arrested same”) and expounding on an event with a Norman Mailer-like treatise.
Employees can be taught to make the reader “see” an incident as though it were unfolding on a movie screen (or for the younger generation, in a video game). Encourage them to incorporate the five senses—hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste—wherever possible and appropriate in order to have the reader vividly experience what occurred.
4. Keep It Objective. Associates need to realize that reports should be objective (free of opinion), rather than subjective (inserting their own opinions into the narrative). A reference to “a homeless guy,” for example, may mean different things to different people. Some may picture a filthy man pushing a shopping cart full of his worldly belongings, while others may imagine a disabled veteran begging for change. Specifically describing the things that led the writer to believe the man was homeless, such as “wearing several layers of dirty clothing, with a foul odor about his person,” will paint an accurate and objective portrait of an individual, without leaving readers to fill in blanks with their imaginations.
Parker points out that new associates can overlook such details. “As an example, writers should include comments someone makes at the scene and the way they came across, verbally or non-verbally,” he says. “They should present a descriptive presentation of what happened.”
Being too dry or clinical or trying to “clean up” a report sacrifices accuracy. When a suspect says, “F— you,” to an associate, cleaning up the language so that the report reflects the suspect saying “You rascal” instead, makes the report a work of fiction. Associates who are so offended by four-letter words or obscene gestures that they can’t bear to include them in their reports should perhaps rethink their career choice.
5. Include Feeling. The best report writers understand the differences between the denotation of a word or phrase (the dictionary definition) and the connotation (the emotional meaning attached to a word or phrase) and choose the phrasing that best represents the feeling they want the reader to have.
Certain words can have the same denotation: “childlike” and “childish” both mean “like a child,” for example, but the connotation is different. “Childlike” summons an image of a playful, open person, whereas someone described as “childish” brings to mind a resentful, selfish individual.
Likewise, referring to an individual as a “bum” leaves the reader with a negative impression, whereas calling the same person “a constant outdoorsman” is neutral and does not prejudice the reader.
If a homeless man rushed over to a falling ladder and broke the fall of one of your employees, which description would be preferable? “The heroic actions of a constant outdoorsman residing in the parking lot prevented employee injury” (yay!), or “The employee landed on the bum who just crawled out of the dumpster” (yuck!).
Paying attention to the connotation of words and phrases and selecting the appropriate ones is an important loss prevention skill set that can mitigate a potentially negative situation or enhance an already positive one.
6. The Angel and the Devil. The tug-of-war between desire and conscience is often represented by the image of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Someone who is writing an incident report needs to realize that they also have two beings looking over their shoulders, and neither one is an angel. Picture a prosecutor hovering on one side and a defense attorney on the other. It’s clear that reports must be airtight because one of the two is going to try to pick them apart.
One of the keys to crafting a “pick-proof” report is to close any holes that a prosecutor or defense counsel can try to widen in order to discredit the writer. The use of words such as “observed,” “noticed,” “saw,” and “heard” within a report will generate unwanted scrutiny. An associate who reports, “I noticed the suspect pick up the item and place it in his pocket” is inviting a defense attorney to ask, “You noticed that, but what else did you fail to notice?”
By simply stating what the suspect did, rather than including the writer in the action (“The suspect picked up the item and placed it in his pocket”), it becomes harder for a lawyer to wedge open a crack, allowing a client to weasel out of responsibility and easier for a prosecutor to win a case.
7. Elementary, My Dear Watson. It doesn’t matter how well an incident is described; if the necessary elements of a crime or workplace violence incident are not included, no one is going to be prosecuted.
Walt Kodba, a thirty-year veteran of law enforcement and loss prevention who is the former Las Vegas, NV, branch manager in the West Coast business unit for U.S. Security Associates, oversees retail loss prevention business. He emphasizes the need to include “the five magic elements needed in order to make an apprehension—you must see the person enter the store, make a selection, conceal the item, walk past the point of sale, and have 100-percent observation.”
Associates must be drilled that if they lose visual contact for even a second, they cannot make an apprehension, and they certainly cannot write a false report claiming 100-percent observation if that’s not what took place. Allowing a thief to take off with merchandise is much less expensive than defending a lawsuit for false arrest when it turns out that the bad guy had ditched the item when the associate wasn’t looking.
“The job is always different,” Kodba points out, “but what doesn’t change is the elements. The aisle and where they concealed an item will change, but they still have to pass all points of sale before they can be apprehended.”
8. Cut and Paste. Because loss prevention handles the same kinds of incidents over and over, having a good report that serves as a model for subsequent incidents of the same type can be a time-saver.
Troy Willmon, a former law enforcement officer for the Ellis County (TX) Constable Office and investigator for Ellis County Office of Emergency Management, says that in his experience, the finest report would “serve as a piece of history. And next time we had a similar incident, we would use that report as a template.”
As Willmon points out, “Certain information stays the same, but names and descriptors are different. The best-written reports are when five years later, someone else can pick up the report and picture in their head what happened. That’s a good report.”
Kodba agrees. “Associates should be able to read one report and model the basics.”
Kodba also advocates constant correction. “Associates will train with a training officer, which includes reading reports,” he explains. “Associates should follow the guide of previous reports, then complete their own reports and submit them for correction. The narrative will change in each report,” he points out, “but the descriptive elements, such as time and place of occurrence, are pretty standard.”
He advises that while cutting and pasting the details is quick and useful, “associates should be sure to change the necessary information if they change stores.”
9. Correct, Correct, Correct. Supervisors are always happy to be able to ditch the red pen, but showing employees where the errors are in a report is a necessary part of training them to write good reports.
“Learning to write a report is really a form of on-the-job training,” Kodba explains. “It’s a hands-on type of task. Classroom training is not the whole picture.”
Lamps Plus’s LP director Parker points out that everyone needs to begin somewhere. “They need to start with basics, and they’ll get better with practice,” he says. “With experience, associates can see what information is important.”
Willmon agrees that learning what to include and what to leave out of a report takes time. “Pertinent information is not always obvious to the new report writer. Knowing what’s important comes with experience and common sense,” he says.
He recalls that his toughest supervisor was his best teacher. “My sergeant would red-mark my reports and call me in on my day off to fix them,” Willmon laments. “It didn’t take me long to look at my sergeant’s old reports and use them as a template. He made me a better report writer by riding me hard,” he admits now.
10. Pay Attention to the Basics. LP professionals must learn that a good report has these four attributes—it is clear, concise, complete, and accurate. A report should be easy to follow, free of jargon, and follow the rules of spelling and grammar.
Kodba warns, “A district attorney must be able to read the report. It must make sense and flow. It shouldn’t be jumping around all over the place,” he says. “And it should follow the rules of proper grammar.”
One of the biggest mistakes beginning report writers make is to discuss one topic, move on to another, then go back to the previous topic. Have associates indicate in the margins of a rough draft where each topic is being discussed. If they write “suspect appearance” in two different places, for example, instruct them to say everything there is to say about the suspect’s appearance in only one place, before moving on to the next subject. Making notes about each element will help them focus on keeping each topic together and maintain a flowing narrative.
As Willmon says, “Say something and only say it once. Don’t repeat the same thing in different words.”
Abbot instructs trainees to “write clearly so that there’s no room for misinterpretation.” For example, “If a report says, ‘While on patrol, we found a black woman’s purse outside the restroom,’ that calls into question whether the woman was African-American or the purse was black in color,” she points out.
“Write in plain English,” Abbott adds. “Don’t use a four-dollar word when a 25-cent word will do. I’m not impressed that you know big words, and if I don’t know what that big word means, you’ve just alienated me…which is a big word for ‘ticked me off,'” she says.
Abbott cautions against using “industry-specific jargon or code words. And don’t use legal words or phrases, for example, saying ‘assaulted’ instead of ‘hit,’ ‘punched,’ or ‘kicked,'” she advises.
Willmon also warns against using jargon. “The abbreviation ‘RP’ means ‘reporting person,’ but not everyone knows what that means,” he says. “Don’t acronym the crap out of a report.”
Getting associates to conform to the rules of proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar can be challenging, especially with younger employees, who rarely receive this instruction in school. Unfortunately, computer spell-check and grammar-check programs will not catch every error. Sometimes the programs make incorrect suggestions. The user has to be smarter than the machine, but getting employees up to speed is something only they can do for themselves.
Encourage associates who are lacking in these areas to take a course or engage in online self-study. Point out to carry the entire financial burden. If you can arrange for them to be given paid training hours for the time they spend improving their skills on an interactive website, both you and the associate will reap the rewards.
This article was published in 2014 and was updated October 18, 2018.