Chapter 4

Essential Note Taking Skills

“You will never know the value of good notes until you don’t have them.”

Cst. (ret.) Wyatt, New Westminster Police

Officers need to takes notes. The Hollywood image of an officer taking detailed notes is an accurate one; officers should always strive to take accurate and thorough notes. At times, officers are unable to take notes due to exigent situations, but even so they should take notes as soon as practicable. Courts will ask if officers” notes were taken contemporaneously, i.e, were the notes taken as soon as a possible? The courts understand that if an officer is in a situation in which safety is an issue, then notes cannot be taken immediately. However, once the officer is safely able to take notes, they are expected to do so.

Types of Notes

Officers are able to collect notes in a variety of ways, however officers should be careful to follow agency policy, which usually contains guidelines that reflect the court’s expectations. However, notes can be taken on anything. There are numerous incidents in which officers may be without their notebook, or have taken notes on a handy piece of paper instead of their agency notebook. In these cases, the notes are still valid, as long as the officer can identify them as being theirs, and that they were taken contemporaneously. The notes in this example should be signed and dated by the officer. An example of this is when an officer is driving through the streets and sees a suspicious car, of which the officer notes the license plate on a scratch pad.  When a crime is later detected in the area where the officer observed the car, the note that the officer made on the scratch pad is the officer’s note and should be saved as evidence for court.

Handwritten notes can come in different formats, such as:

  1. Notebooks
    There are numerous types of notebooks, and each agency has their preferences. The Vancouver Police Department used to use a book that opens to the left and contains only lined pages with a margin on the left. The RCMP and some municipalities have notebooks that open from the bottom and flip up. Inside the notebook is information such as metric converters. The Vancouver Police now have notebooks that open from the right. Each officer’s notebook should be uniform throughout the agency and only the notebook that is issued by the agency should be used. As a standard practice, notebooks issued by the agency should have numbered pages that are not easy to pull out. This is because officers should be transparent; when they write a mistake in their notebook, they should not remove the mistake by tearing the page out.
  1. Pre-formatted log sheets
    Detectives may choose to use log sheets. The log sheets are easy to write on if they are attached to a clipboard. Each note sheet can contain a lot of information and the space tends to make note taking clear and neat.
  1. Plain lined paper
    Detectives may also use lined paper in legal or letter size.

Officers are beginning more and more to take notes on computers, in the form of laptops at the office or in the car as a Mobile Data Terminal (MDT). Agencies are also experimenting with recorders in which officers talk into a mic that is attached to them. Much like a body cam, the audio recording device transcribes the officer’s spoken words into transcript that acts as notes. There are benefits and problems with each of these newer technology note-keeping systems.

  1. Laptops are a great way to take notes because the notes are always readable and not subject to interpretation problems associated with poor handwriting, or messy ink issues. Documents that are created on computers are also easily searchable. This comes in handy when officers are engaged in long-term investigations when there is a lot of information that has been gathered by the investigators and the information has to be easily accessed. Oftentimes investigators will recall mention of something, and when the data is searchable, it easy to locate. One of the issues with laptops or electronic devices is that some judges may not like them and have little trust in them. As departments develop protocol in conjunction with law and judicial groups, this should change. However, judges still like to see written notes and are currently more likely to view them with greater trust than digital notes. This will change as protocols are established and trusted. As part of their job and duty, Defense Counsel are also likely to critique digital notes and attempt to make them appear to be unreliable. This is easy to do until they are accepted by higher court. Conversely, written notes that are clearly made in chronological order and have visible mistakes within them are difficult to criticize for trustworthiness.
    “Day 167 – West Midlands Police – Body worn cameras” by West Midlands PoliceFlickr is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
  2. Digital recorders are convenient and “as it happens”. They are accurate because the information is recorded in real time or immediately after the fact. They also tend to contain more information because speaking into a recorder is faster and easier than writing or typing. Digital recorders do have problems, such as being labor intensive after the recording is made. Transcribers are expensive and required to transcribe the recording onto typed transcripts. If the transcript is not typed by the original investigator who made the recordings, then the transcripts must be reviewed and proof-read for accuracy. This all takes a great amount of time and resources.
  3. Notes can be taken on anything when desperate. While notes recorded on agency approved and supplied notebooks and recorders are preferred, officers can take notes on anything. In instances where officers have witnessed incidents while without their official notebooks or recording devices, the courts will accept whatever the officers write on. Officers have been forced to write notes on napkins and these notes were accepted in court. Care must be taken by the note-taker in these situations to ensure the notes are signed and dated by the note-taking officer. The notes must also be preserved and treated as an exhibit.

There are benefits to taking notes that are accurate and thorough.

There are Five Main Benefits of Using an Investigator’s Notebook

Ensures accountability.

Notes should be made as contemporaneously as possible. This means that an officer must record their notes as soon as it is safe or practicable to do so. The notes will reflect what the investigator thought, what they did and what they observed. Notes allow the officer to be accountable for their actions but also to be held accountable by others. When an officer properly enters notes that are truthful, they will also record mistakes that the officer makes in good faith. Likewise the officer will be able to legitimately record things such as coincidences that, to some, would seem unbelievable. Notes are an important tool to allow the officer to be accountable for their actions.

Reflects your efficiency and professionalism.

Accurate and complete notes demonstrate that the note taker is professional and that they are efficient. Notes can illustrate that:

you followed policy;

you showed no bias or prejudice; and

your actions and decisions were legitimate.

Aids in report writing.

Officers rely on their notes while writing reports. Most incidents that officers are involved with are away from their computers. To remember details they need to make notes contemporaneously so that the information is accurate. Once the notes are made, officers transfer the information to the report in a more readable format.

Assists in an investigation.

Notes are way to create records that can be referred back to. Key information that may otherwise be lost to memory can referred to. This is especially helpful when suspects contradict themselves, new information becomes known that matches old information, and old information becomes relevant in a current investigation.

Aids in accurate testimony.

Officers are often required to go to court to present the evidence that they have accumulated. Detailed notes must be made to reflect the manner in which the evidence was collected and to corroborate the officer’s memory that the evidence was collected in accordance with policy, the charter and other statutes. Officers, especially those involved in complex cases, cannot be expected to remember every detail. Notebooks are a memory aid that officers, with certain conditions, are able to use and refer to in court. Notes are critical to reflect in court the following:

      1. Verbatim conversations between the officer and suspects, witnesses and victims. Officers may also be subject to res jestae statements (admissible statements that are made spontaneously) and these must be recorded as close to verbatim as possible. Other statements may include statements that the officer heard being made between other people.
      2. Continuity of exhibits. Exhibits must be collected, seized and stored in strict accordance with the law. Every movement and action regarding property or exhibits must be recorded. This includes the “who, what, where, when, why and how” of everything involving the exhibit.
      3. Accurate account of details. The details of all incidents will be considered to be more credible when they are corroborated with notes, rather than from memory. Details include everything from decisions made by the investigator to the color of pants that a suspect was wearing during a robbery.

Officers who use their agencies” note books must follow certain “Rules of Maintenance”. Consistent note-taking practices throughout the agency reflect the professionalism of agencies. Common rules of maintenance include:

      1. Write in black ink only. While this rule came about due to the low quality of earlier photocopiers and their inability to fully copy non-black ink, notes are still generally taken in black ink. Some officers have used blue ink with the argument that the blue ink differentiates itself from copies that appear black, and that new copiers are good enough now to fully copy coloured ink.
      2. Ensure that the owner of the notebook’s name and assignment are clearly labelled on the outside cover. Officers do lose notebooks and the only way to have them returned is to have their names on them.
      3. Seal off used portions of notebooks when in court. While referring to notebooks in court, Defense Counsel will often ask to see the notes that the officer is referring to. If the Defense Counsel is handed the book in court, they may be able to look throughout the notebook and view what could be confidential information. A good practice is to hold the book for the Defense Counsel to view it while the officer holds it.
      4. Do not editorialize; include “just the facts”. Each notebook is subject to scrutiny by the courts, Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy legislation, and the officer’s supervisors. It is critical that notes are objectively recorded and reflect only he facts. It is also critical that notes do not contain any mention of biases or subjective ideas.
      5. Notes must reflect the four Cs:
        Clear –  there cannot be an apparent attempt by the officer to make notes that only the officer can read, thereby rendering it difficult for Defense Counsel to read.  Some officers develop a shorthand system that assists them in making quick notes. Officers who use symbols must be prepared to clarify what each symbol mean. The symbols should make sense and be consistent throughout the notes. They must not be unprofessional or demeaning in their use and satisfy the professionalism demands of the B.C. Police Act. An example of a symbol is a triangle used by officers to refer to the A in accused.
        Complete –  notes should have a start, a body, and a conclusion. They should not leave the case halfway through with no conclusion. Notes should also include all pertinent information about people, and important details such as date of birth, email addresses and contact information.
        Concise – notes should be considered memory aids that refresh the officer’s mind. Notes are not a place to write narratives; they are meant to be recorded contemporaneously and then expanded upon in the report narrative. The exception to this is when a reportee, witness, complainant or suspect states something that may be relevant later in court. This is a situation in which the notes should be recorded as close to verbatim as possible. Also important in the notes for statements is how the statement was made by the statement giver. Was the statement made in a matter-of-fact voice or was the person emotional, and if so, what type of emotion was exhibited? Also, was the statement made voluntarily, and how did the person making the statement know that it was a voluntary statement?
        Consistent –  notes should be recorded in the same style and format, showing a pattern. Entries should show the same type of writing and the same format. This illustrates to Defense Counsel a measure of professionalism, as well as the likelihood that notebook entries are accurate and written by the same officer.

The mechanics of a notebook are the easy part of note-taking. The complicated part is knowing what to put in the notebook. “Scribe” courses are offered to help officers who may act as “scribes” in serious incidents to know what to enter and what not to enter as notes. When information is entered into the notes that should not be entered, problems can arise, such as:

  • contradicting other information or facts with theories or subjective belief; or
  • including information resulting from officers’ brainstorming or constructing theories.

Problems also arise when officers do not enter information that ought to have been entered. These problems include failing to include:

  • why decisions were made;
  • accurate information about people; and
  • information or evidence that is exculpatory to the case and demonstrates bias.

Officers who are taking notes should consider including the following information:

  • What the officer heard, saw, said, smelled. Each of these pieces of information should be recorded and concisely expanded upon, so that when the officer reviews the notes, they are able to recall exactly what their senses registered.
  • What decisions you made and why. When an officer makes a decision that involves an arrest, search or seizure, they need lawful authority to execute it. While the lawful authority at the time may seem obvious, after a year or so when the officer goes to court, the reason for making the lawful decision may be unclear. Officers should consider the notebook a decision log, in which decisions are logged and, most importantly, the grounds upon which the officer made the decision.
  • Most importantly, when officers use force, they must document exactly the level of force they used and the reason they believed that force was needed. Officers must be careful not to exaggerate the reasons that they subjectively believed they needed to use force. Their notes must be detailed and complete, fair and balanced.

Use of Notebooks in Court

Officers who attend court are required to give fair, accurate and detailed testimony that is not meant to support the prosecutor’s case, but rather to offer the court an account of everything the officer witnessed or did. Officers at times do not attend court until years after the event. When they do attend court for bigger cases, they may be called to give testimony that may have seemed trivial to the officer at the time of the incident, but to the courts, years later, the testimony may mean the difference between a guilty verdict and a not guilty verdict. Officers are expected not to say in court “I can’t recall”. They are expected to somehow access their memory and make recollections professionally and accurately. The only way they can do this is to refer to their notes before and during the trial. Experienced officers know that it is worth the effort to review and study their notes before they have an interview with Crown Counsel, and that after the interview they may be more aware of what Crown and Defense are interested in. It is a good practice to use Post-It Notes in the notebook to locate certain notes that may be referred to in court. This allows the officer to quickly reference their material while on the stand. Sometimes Defense Counsel will tell the Crown what part of the officer’s evidence they will take issue with during the officer’s testimony. When an officer studies before the case, it is important that they understand these issues and the reasons that they made their decisions. Officers should not feel the need to memorize details from their notebooks, such as times and license plates. In fact, memory is so fallible that officers should be reluctant to rely upon their memory. One mistake in court testimony that illustrates a false memory may be seized upon by Defense Counsel and used to harm the reputation and credibility of the testifying officer. Officers should be prepared to use their memory as much as possible, but when they are unable to recall details, they are usually permitted to access their notebooks to refresh their memories.

Officers are able to refer their notebooks under the following conditions:

  1. They have exhausted their memory.
  2. They have received permission from the judge to access their notebooks to refresh their memory. Typically, this is preceded by the officer attempting to recall a detail and, when unable to do so, turning to the judge to ask, “Your Honour, I am unable to recall. May I refer to my notebook to refresh my memory?”. The judge may respond in one of several ways. They may ask Defense Counsel if they have any objections. If asked, often Defense Counsel will say they have no objections, or ask the judge to ensure that the officer has exhausted their memory. The judge may ask the officer if they have exhausted their memory. The officer will respond that they have exhausted their memory. Usually, the judge will allow the officer to refer to their notes. Other questions that the judge or the Defense may ask is, “were the notes made contemporaneously?” This is a vague term that can mean different things to different people at different times., The officer is required to make their notes as soon as practicable. This means that the officer is not required to make the notes while the event is occurring or during a use of force activity. No one expects the officer to stop to make notes while struggling to handcuff a suspect. The courts expect that the moment the officer is safe and able to make notes, they do so. If an officer completes the arrest after a struggle with the suspect, but is out of breath, the courts allow for the officer to take time so that they are ready to make detailed and accurate notes. The officer must articulate any delays in completing the notes, including these reasons in the notes. Officers who make their notes later, even when they include a logical and sound reason why they were required to complete the notes later, may not be allowed by the courts to refer to their notes if the judge decides the notes may not be fair and accurate.

Once the judge consents to the officer using their notes in court, the officer is free to use the notes for the rest of the time that they are on the stand. Officers who are asked a series of questions by crown and Defense Counsel can refer to their notes for each of these questions. In contentious cases, the judge may ask the officer to exhaust their memory regarding a specific question or point of evidence, however the officer is entitled to refer to their notes based upon the original permission granted by the judge. An officer who is on the stand for an extended time may ask the judge if they can continue to use their notes. This is not required, but demonstrates respect for the judge, especially when court resumes after a break.

Once in court, officers who are given permission to refer to their notes must be prepared to allow Defense Counsel to examine the notebook to which the officer is referring.  Defense Counsel will do this to ensure the officer is reading from the exact same notes that they received a copy of. This is one of the reasons that officers must never go back to update or change their notes. The copy of the notes that the officer discloses to Crown Counsel should be identical to the notes that the officer reads from. Officers, while showing Defense Counsel their notes on the stand, should hold on to their notes so that counsel does not walk away with them and look at other cases that are not of concern in the current legal proceedings. Furthermore, most officers block off other cases in their notes that are unrelated to the current legal proceedings, by using elastics or paper clips to secure and isolate pages that are unrelated to the current legal proceedings.

Officers should also keep in mind that their notes are not the “real evidence”. Notes are just reference material to support the real evidence. While notes may record verbatim what a suspect said in a res jestae statement (an unsolicited inculpatory statement made by a suspect) this is not the evidence; the real evidence is what the person stated. The notes are just a record of what the suspect stated. The notes may become evidence if the writer has made an incorrect entry that proves Defense Counsel’s case, or if there are unprofessional entries that demonstrate the officer’s lack of credibility. Notes should merely be a conduit that points to evidence and answers the “who, what, where, when, why and how” of the evidence.

Officers should also keep in mind that their notes are subject to full disclosure and that all officers involved in a case are required to attach or scan a copy of their notes to the report to Crown Counsel. This is due to the findings of Regina versus Stinchcombe, which establishes that Crown Counsel has a duty to share all materials that they intend to use in court, including notes that are made regarding the case. Even notes that are made about the case but are not directly related to evidence, are required because Crown Counsel is expected to err on the side of inclusion.

Basic Notebook Principals

Because officers make notes while on duty and in notebooks that are supplied by the agency, they are the property of the agency, not the officer. If at any time a supervisor asks to review the notes, the officer must present them to the supervisor. Officers at the police academy are subject to notebook inspections and must present completed and up-to-date notes; likewise, supervisors may ask officers to see their notes after graduation.

Notes are also considered public records and, as such, are subject to disclosure requests under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Notes are permanent records and should never be destroyed or lost. When an officer has completed a notebook they should be stored according to departmental policy. Officers are free to retrieve the notebooks to check information about a case or when they are preparing for court. Following proper storage policy prevents officers from losing their notes and makes the notes are available to other investigating officers, should the author of the notes not be available. Notebooks should never be discarded or lost. Should a notebook be misplaced, all efforts should be made to recover the book, to mitigate the problems surrounding the breech of confidential information contained in the note book, that could be detrimental to the safety of suspects, reportees, witnesses and victims.

Procedure for Setting up an Investigator’s Notebook

Notebooks should be set up the same way each time an officer starts a new book and a new shift. Consistency looks professional and reflects a standard approach to all cases and all shifts. Because it is critical that notebooks never be lost, notebooks should all be labelled on the front cover. Many notebooks contain a template on the front cover so that officers are able to easily fill out the required information. Some departments, such as the Vancouver Police Department, use a notebook that has a blank cover. Typically, the front cover should include the following information:

  1. Name
  2. Rank
  3. Personal Identity Number (pin)
  4. Department
  5. Email address
  6. Phone number
  7. Unit the officer is attached to
  8. Book number
  9. Date of the first and last entry were made the note book was used.

What Not to Write in your Notebook

Notebooks are the property of the police department, and as such they are allowed to be viewed by a supervisor at any time and by officers of the court. It is critical that notebooks contain only documentation that relates to the officer’s professional life. Officers must not include the following in their note books:

  1. Anything that would not be open to scrutiny by the media or court. Notebooks are subject to Freedom of Information and disclosure rules in judicial proceedings. Officers must write their notes as though they will appear on the front page of the local newspaper Thee notes may well become part of a case, and reported on by the media.
  2. Personal opinions. Facts are most important. At times officers may note their opinions based on facts, but it is critical to identify opinions as such. For example, when an officer makes a subjective decision they may write that, based upon the series of facts, they have decided to arrest the suspect because they believed that the suspect had committed the crime.
  3. Personal biases. While everyone has biases, officers must be aware of their biases towards a person or a situation and act in ways that mitigate them.

The Importance of Possession

One of the primary rules for officers and their notebooks is that officers never misplace their notebooks or lose them. Some departments have a policy that after each shift, officers submit their notebooks and then collect them when they start the next shift. This policy re-enforces that the notebooks are the property of the department and ensures that the notebooks are safety stored when not in use.

Notebooks must never be lost because of the confidential content they contain regarding the officer’s investigation. Officers should never allow their notebooks out of their sight; even while they leave to use the washroom, they should not leave the notebook on their desk. The notebook should either be taken with them or locked in their desk.

Errors and Corrections

When officers make notes at a crime scene, or when they make notes contemporaneously after the incident, mistakes can be made. Judges and prosecutors understand that mistakes are part of being human and, as such, mistakes should be expected from time to time. When mistakes do occur in a notebook, officers must be prepared to defend the mistake in court, but they must be transparent about the mistake. Because the mistake should not reflect bias, prejudice or anything else unprofessional, officers should be comfortable with the mistake. Even if the mistake was made in a moment of unprofessionalism and the officer is ashamed of the comment or entry that they made in the notebook, the mistake must still be revealed.

An officer may correct a mistake only immediately after the entry. If the officer realizes that that they made a mistake after the fact, the mistake must not be corrected. When the officer later realizes they were mistaken, they must make a new entry in the notebook and refer back to the original entry. Some officers put a sticky note in the position where the mistake was made, to cross-reference the entries. The sticky note becomes part of the notes, and is also open for disclosure. Because notes must be made contemporaneously,  officers must use sticky notes or a note page that is attached to the original notebook page. Notes that are entered later to correct an error may give the impression that the correction was made to cover a mistake. To be transparent, the sticky note, or a page attached with a staple, clearly identifies the cross-reference as separate and distinct from the original notebook page mistake.

Officers who make mistakes should always follow these rules:

  1. Make the correction immediately.
  2. Draw a single line through the error.
  3. Do not scribble.
  4. Do not erase.
  5. Do not use correction fluid (White-Out).
  6. Do not rip out pages.
  7. Initial both ends of the lined-out error.
  8. Make the correction.

Photographs as documents

Photographs should be taken by forensic experts who are trained to take proper photographs. When this is not possible, in less serious files photographs should be taken by one investigator, in consultation with the lead investigator or other investigators assigned to the investigation. This ensures a consistent practice amongst all investigators in the collection of the exhibits. If more than one officer takes photographs, there may be some inconsistencies because some exhibits may have been moved by other officers. The officers may have moved the exhibits, thinking that the scene had been processed. A mistake such as this could lead to confusion in court, allowing the defense to raise the issues of incompetence or corruption, and greatly discredit the investigator and the investigation.  When officers decide to take photographs, they should make notes with every photograph so that they are able to recall the context of each photograph. The first photographs should start from the farthest distance, and each photograph should move closer to the scene or the exhibit. The exhibit should be photographed from different angles to show each side. Video should also be considered for certain scenes. Investigators should be mindful that videos record sound as well, and use professional language at all times, especially during videoing. Investigators should take into account that each of these photographs and videos is subject to Freedom of Information legislation. Sketches can be made by all officers to enhance their recollection.

Diagrams and Sketches

Diagrams and sketches should always be considered when an investigator is confronted with a large crime scene or a scene that requires explanation. In a notebook, officers should make a free-hand sketch. While sketches that are made at the scene accurately reflect the scene, if they are not to scale, they may need to include some measurements for critical exhibits.

Diagrams look more professional, and are generally completed on a separate paper or computer generated. They are a formal drawing that is completed away from the scene, based upon measurements taken at the scene. They can also be based on sketches in notebooks and photographs, and should be drawn to scale. Diagrams should be completed by trained investigators.


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Communications in Law Enforcement and the Criminal Justice System: Key Principles Copyright © 2021 by Steve McCartney and Cindy Patterson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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