What Is the Purpose of a Police Report?

By Marcello Viridis ; Updated June 16, 2017
Hit and Run

The purpose of a police report is to provide an accurate written account of a police officer's observations during the investigation of a criminal incident. A police report can only be written by the officer(s) involved in the investigation of an incident. Each officer who makes a report must swear to its accuracy by signing it.

The Significance

The investigation of a criminal incident is very fact specific. Police reports are used by prosecuting attorneys to determine if a criminal charge will be filed. If a charge is filed, police reports are also made available to criminal defense attorneys to help them understand what occurred and prepare their defense. Police reports are also used for further investigation prior to trial and at trial as a basis to cross-examine the police officer who filed the report.

How a Report Is Generated

In order to ensure accuracy, police must make their reports as soon after the incident as possible. At the scene, police officers make notes of what they observed, they take statements from all individuals involved, and if possible they collect evidence and take pictures of the scene. After the scene has been cleared and secured, police officers will then use their notes to write a full report, either at the scene or soon after they return to the police station.

Contents of a Report

A police report generally includes the following: 1. Statement of Probable Cause: This is a short summary of the reasons why an individual was arrested, including the crime that was allegedly committed. This is often used by a judge at arraignment to determine if the officer had probable cause to make an arrest. If no probable cause was found, the case may be dismissed. This section of the report is part of the public record. 2. Detailed Facts: Here the officer gives a detailed description of the incident, including all the information that the officer thinks is relevant in making the arrest and in prosecuting the crime. This must include a detailed description of any evidence that was confiscated at the scene. 3. Description of the People Involved: A detailed description of the defendant, the victim (if a victim is involved) and any witnesses available. 4. Photos or video of the scene. 5. Incident Number: This is used as a quick means to identify the case, the officer involved in the case, the crime, the jurisdiction of the crime and any evidence involved in the case.

Considerations

If a criminal charge is filed, the police or prosecutors must provide the defendant or his attorney with a copy of the police report in a timely manner. Failure to do so may be grounds for dismissal of the case.

Misconceptions

A police report is not evidence and cannot be used at trial on its own against a defendant. However, a report may be used at trial to assist the police officer when he testifies as to his recollection of the incident.

About the Author

Marcello Viridis has been "working in writing" for the past six years. Since publishing his first article in 2004, he has written on a range topics from working and living overseas for the Wall Street Journal's Black Collegian website to legal essays for the Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties. Viridis has a B.A. from Pomona College and a J.D. from Lewis and Clark Law School.