How to Read a Police Report

By Jon Seidel

A police report is a tool used by law enforcement professionals to document a crime, or the events at a crime scene or traffic accident. It is also a public record available by law to anyone who seeks it. Police reports aren't always easy to follow if you aren't used to reading them, but they're key for community members to understand what is happening in their neighborhoods.

Understand the jargon. Like any professional community, police and law enforcement personnel have a vocabulary that most people wouldn't use in regular conversation. Most of it is self-explanatory. For instance, it's not unusual to read in a police report that a suspect "fled at a high rate of speed," meaning the person under suspicion of criminal activity ran away quickly; or that officers were called to the scene of a "disturbance," meaning a fight, or "shots were fired," meaning gunshots. Don't be afraid to ask someone to explain a portion of the police report you don't understand.

Check the suspect or victim information. At the top of a police report you will usually find a description of the people involved in the event being documented. Depending on the situation, this could include descriptions of the person who reported the crime, the suspect or person under arrest, and the victim. There will likely be a box for each person, including sections for names, addresses, ages and other descriptive features such as height, weight and hair color.

Look for the location of the crime or accident. It's important to know where all the events took place. Police will usually include the exact address of a crime near the top of the report near the descriptions of the people involved. You might also find the address of the person reporting the crime, as well as the victim.

Review the vehicle information. If police are taking a report on a traffic accident, there will be vehicle information included in the report. Again, this is usually found above the narrative and can contain the year, make and model of a car, as well as insurance information. Police might assign each vehicle involved a number, such as "Vehicle 1" or "Vehicle 2." It will be important when reading the narrative to understand the number assigned to each vehicle.

Read the narrative. Nearly all police reports contain a narrative detailing, in chronological order, the events being documented in the report. The size of narratives vary, depending on how complicated the incident is. Sometimes the narrative can be difficult to read, but understanding the suspect or victim information, the location of a crime or accident, and the vehicle information will make it much easier to comprehend.

About the Author

Jon Seidel is a news reporter at the Post-Tribune in Gary, Ind. He has worked for the paper, a member of the Sun-Times News Group in Chicago, since 2004. Earlier, he interned at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and the Kenosha News in Wisconsin.

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