Chapter 5

Preparing an Operational Report from Written Notes

“Emphasize report writing and note taking in Block I because it is important right away and all the way through Block II.”

An anonymous quote from Police Recruit at the JIBC Police Academy

Why is report writing is so important?

To complete a thorough investigation, it is critical for any investigator to be able to extract information from witnesses, victims, persons of interest and suspects. An investigator who meticulously processes a crime scene, and properly logs and documents exhibits, is able to complete a thorough investigation. As important as this is, it is also critical for the investigator to be able to articulate in written reports what was collected, what was said and who did what. If the investigator is unable to articulate what has occurred in their investigation, the case may never see the inside of a court room.

While reports are not real evidence, they ought to point to evidence and lead the reader to understand, without question, what has occurred in the investigation. Crown Counsel will read the reports and make a decision to charge the accused or not. When a charge is made, Defense Counsel will get a copy of the report; from the report and the interview of the accused, they will decide what defense to put forward. They will base much of the decision on the contents of the report. When the case does go to court, only defense and Crown Counsel will receive copies of the report. The judge will not receive the report, but may see the report if Defense Counsel objects and draws attention to a poorly worded report or a report that is factually incorrect.

Types of reports in Law Enforcement

Officers can at times feel as though they are scribes, dedicated to writing numerous reports regarding what they have done or what they intend to do. Reports are not limited to calls, or action taken while on duty, but also apply to the administrative side of an officer’s job. There are many types of reports that are used for different functions in policing, including:

Operational Reports – submitted by patrol members in response to calls for service.

Administrative reports- submitted to fulfill policy and procedural responsibilities

    1. Operational Reports

In British Columbia, operational reports are written and stored on Police Records Information Management Environment (PRIME). Officers can write the report in their cars, at a restaurant or back at headquarters. Each report an officer writes is available to all other officers in BC and those across Canada who have access to PRIME. Confidential Reports can be locked so that even other PRIME users cannot view the report unless they are authorized.


      • General Occurrence reports are used for all calls of service that do not result in charges. They can range from an initial response to a murder call, to a follow up to a murder, or found property, and should be considered a record of the investigation. The reports are used to track reactive investigations and to initiate proactive investigations. They are also used by the agency as well as provincial and federal governments to track and analyze crime trends.
      • Reports to Crown Counsel (RCC or RTCC) are used to request charges or to outline the case the police are presenting to Crown Counsel for a charge that has been laid. Reports to Crown Counsel identify and describe evidence; reports alone are not considered evidence. Reports to Crown Counsel initiate criminal prosecutions. The RCC, if written contemporaneously, can be used in court as a matter of record and, with the judge’s permission, to refresh the officer’s memory. Reports to Crown Counsel are written by either the lead investigator in small and simple cases, or for the investigative team in larger, more complicated cases. In these cases, each officer who has participated in the investigation will be instructed to write their own report on the evidence. The evidence, if pertinent, will be included in the RCC. If the evidence is not deemed by the lead investigator to be pertinent, the officer will still complete a narrative of their part of the investigation and the report will still be given to Crown Counsel as part of the disclosure package.
        Because of Regina versus Stinchcombe, Crown Counsel is required to release all information in their possession on a case. This is required whether the evidence is deemed relevant or not relevant. It is also the responsibility of the police to ensure that Crown Counsel receives all the information from their investigation. Crown Counsel also has an additional duty to inquire of the police if they have everything and if they do not, they can request further pieces of information. When Crown Counsel receives the disclosure package, and the charges have been approved and laid against the accused, Crown Counsel will forward the disclosure package to Defense Counsel as soon as practicable. It is the responsibility of both the investigator and Crown Counsel to ensure that only the appropriate information included in the disclosure package is forwarded to Defense Counsel. Information that is not required under Regina versus Stinchcombe can relate to irrelevant information, e.g.: secret police techniques such as surveillance strategies; information that would identify an unknown informant; advice that was received from Crown Counsel as part of a lawyer-client privileged discussion; and personal information about a victim or witness. Once the disclosure is made to Defense Counsel, they will be able to look at the file in full in order to provide a well-researched and fair defense of their client. In criminal court, only the defense and Crown Counsel have access to the report. The judge is not subject to the disclosure rules and, as such, does not have the report or any other information related to the investigation of the offense.
        Because a report to Crown Counsel is not real evidence, the reports are not likely to be referred to in court. However, if there are mistakes contained within the report, Defense Counsel may present the report to the judge by presenting the report to the author while the author is on the stand, and highlighting the errors for the judge. This strategy is used by Defense Counsel in an attempt to demonstrate that the author is careless and not detail-oriented, thereby damaging the credibility of the officer and bringing the officer’s evidence into disrepute.
    1. Administrative Reports
      Administrative reports come in different forms and are agency specific. Generically, reports include the following:
      1. Internal memos to document such things as damage to property or a request for leave.
      2. Special Project Reports for reports that initiate a project that may be long term. These reports would include what the project is, who would be involved in the project, the jurisdiction the project would occur in, why the project is needed and what the cost of the project would be.
      3. Organizational Reports include reports that affect the agency through human resource movement or changes in the organizational chart.
      4. Departmental Studies/ask Force reports include reports on something that impacts general operations of the agency, such as new policy or a new type of crime that is emerging, e.g., a new variation of cybercrime.

      Police recruits are trained to write effective reports. This can be difficult, since recruits come from different occupations and have different writing skills. Basic rules of report writing for recruits include:

      • To mean what they write, and write what they mean. Recruits should understand what it is they want to articulate and ensure that their words articulate their intended meaning.
      • To know and get what information they need. Every case requires proving essential elements that are identified in the legislation or criminal code. Essential elements are those key components of an offence that need to be proven in order to form a charge. Officers should be aware of the essential elements of a case they are submitting for charges, and ensure that the report contains them. If the case does not have the required elements, the officer should continue the investigation and ensure that additional elements are incorporated into the report. If an author submits a report including an element that cannot be proven, the author should be transparent and mention that the element has been investigated, but has not been, or cannot be proven.
      • To know that everything should be sourced. It is not enough for officers to write something in a report and believe that this is all the evidence that is needed. Crown Counsel Reports are reports that point to real evidence and describe the evidence,  where it was found, and who found it. As such, reports should source every piece of information. The report should also illustrate where the author received all other pieces of information.
      • To be Concise-Clear-Correct. The report must state the necessary information in as few words as possible. In this way, the report will be easy to read and more likely to be factual rather than subjective. Furthermore, a report that is concise, clear and correct will enable the reader to read it quickly. In law enforcement, often time is of the essence, therefore the reader does not want to waste time on frustrating wordiness.

Writing a General Occurrence Report

Every GO report should start with a synopsis. A synopsis is a very brief summary of the report to follow, and should contain, the “who, what, where, when, why and how” of the investigation.

  1. The reasons GO reports should start with a synopsis’s are:
    1. While enroute to a call, members will likely only read the synopsis.
    2. Investigators and criminal analysts can search the data base by synopsis quickly.

The general rules of the synopsis are:

A synopsis is a short paragraph including a summary of the investigation, from start to finish. If the officer has arrested the suspect, the synopsis should end with the disposition of the suspect, noting whether the suspect is in custody, still at large, or not in custody but has been charged. Most importantly, the synopsis should identify anything in the case that is a danger to other officers who are reading the report, such as where a subject carries a weapon, if there were threats made by a subject, or any other situations that may be dangerous to the next officer who has contact with the subject.

The length of the synopsis is open for debate amongst departments. However, the best business practice is that synopses should be between five and eight sentences long. In some cases, such as complex homicide files, the synopsis may be more like an executive summary that is one or more pages long. These are general guidelines for the report to Crown Counsel and not part of the GO-located PRIME. When the report is in PRME, the report synopsis should be 5 to 8 sentences long.

As in most of the report, the synopsis should be written in third person, so that the author is clearly identified. For example, if Steve McCartney is a constable and his badge number is 1318, then the report should read, “Constable 1318 McCARTNEY observed the male walking…”.  This allows the reader to quickly know who is writing the report section. In some reports, there will be a multitude of writers and the reader can have difficulty identifying who wrote the portion of the report they are reading, as well as who did what in the report. When a report is written in the first person, it is often difficult to ascertain who is writing without looking at the name of the author.

The names in a synopsis should be written in all capitals. This is true throughout the whole report. This allows the reader to pick out names quickly. This is important because so much of police investigation has to do with finding names of people in narrative reports. Furthermore, capitalizing names differentiates names from words, such as the name CARPENTER versus the occupation carpenter.

In a synopsis, whenever an address is mentioned, the writer should also include the municipality in which the address is located, because the PRIME report will be entered into a Canada-wide database and read throughout Canada.

In a synopsis, and in the whole report, whenever a person is introduced, a prefix should be included, to state clearly the role the subject plays within the context of the investigation that is the subject of the GO.

A prefix is written before the subject’s name, for example, “Victim Jones stated to Accused Jones” versus “Jenny Jones stated to John Jones…”

Other common prefixes include, but are not limited to:

      • complainant;
      • suspect;
      • accused;
      • subject of complaint;
      • witness;
      • driver; and
      • registered owner.

The Narrative of the GO

The main portion of the GO is the narrative. This is where the report states in detail all elements of the investigation. Within the narrative there are headings that break the report into sections. Headings allow the reader (usually Crown Counsel, Defense Counsel or another investigator) to reference the portion of the report from which they require information. All narratives should have headings, some of which are standard. Depending upon the circumstances of the report, headings should also be customized to fit the particulars of the investigation. For example, if a report is written about an unknown male suspect who is easily identified by a particular descriptor, such as an odd tattoo on his face (sail boat on the forehead), then a heading may be added, such as “Tattoo of Sail Boat on Face”.

Overall, every investigator is required to write reports. The investigator may have executed a flawless investigation that utilized creative techniques and followed policies and charter of rights rules. The investigation may have solved a brutal murder through the tenacity of the investigative team and revealed evidence that was obtained through dedicated hard work. All this good hard investigative work could be ignored if the report is written poorly and includes flaws.  It is therefore critical that the report is well-written and accepted by Crown Counsel and Defense Counsel, so that the attacks to the case from Defense Counsel are directed at the evidence and not the report. To accomplish a well-written report, writers should ensure that the reports are:

  1. Factual
    1. Facts are verifiable. Reports are not facts or evidence, unless they are poorly written and used by Defense Counsel to demonstrate the weakness of the investigator’s writing, thereby embarrassing them in court and attacking their credibility. The report is a document that points to evidence and facts, explains the facts, and states how the facts are related to the conclusion of the report of whether or not there are charges.
    2. Investigators’ Opinions are allowed, but should be used sparingly. Opinions may be included only if they are supported by facts, and directly assist investigation or demonstrate why the investigator took a certain action.
    3. Write what you were thinking. We apply a thinking process to make decisions. It is important to state the reason for making the decision, and what the writer was thinking when they made that decision. The courts refer to this as articulating, meaning that the writer of the report is describing their reasoning or thinking while making the decision. The thinking that has made the decision does not have to be objectively true, it only has to be the subjective belief at the time the decision was made. If an officer has made a lawful decision based upon information they believed at the time of making the decision, and it was later proven that this information was incorrect, then the decision can still be a valid decision; however the writer must include the information and how it affected their thinking and the decision they made.
    4. Judgmental Opinions – unprofessional and inappropriate opinions should never be included in a report. In Canada, police officers should treat everyone equally and with respect, and this should always be reflected in an officer’s report. Additionally, careful consideration should be given to the use of language that may seem to be common vernacular in the officer’s life, but may be insulting to some. Everyone has biases, and it is important that we all be aware of our biases. Accordingly, officers must ensure that they treat everyone equally regardless of their biases. Written language can reflect the bias of the writer, even though their actions were bias-free.
    5. Conclusions must be based on facts included in the report. The conclusion should reinforce the key points from the witness statements that are both inculpatory to the accused as well as exculpatory. The conclusion should also refer to physical evidence that has been mentioned in the report the evidence is inculpatory or exculpatory.
  2. Well Organized
    1. Reports should be written, for the most part, in chronological order. People expect this when they read a book or a report. This includes when the writer is referring to the investigator’s roles and actions and the sequence of events that occurred before, during and after the crime was committed. Exceptions to this rule are made when evidence needs to be mentioned in the report before the evidence was known to the officer. This would help the reader to make sense as to how the evidence impacted the case earlier on, e.g.: if an investigator learned from a witness about some highly important evidence that appeared irrelevant at the time of the statement. The report writer may decide to include a notation in the report about the reason the evidence was later determined to be highly relevant, and why the investigator did not act upon it at the time. The writer must be mindful that this is written out of chronological order and make sure the reader is aware of this, to ensure the information and sequence of events is clearly understood and transparent.
    2. Use Timelines. Time lines are very important in helping the reader to understand the significance of the timing of the crime. The duration of the crime does not dictate whether or not the writer should include a timeline; however, when it is important for the reader to understand the timing of events and have a quick reference point within the report, a timeline is necessary.. Timelines can be used for events that occur over seconds or decades. For example, a shorter timeline would include key points in an impaired driving investigation, such as when the impaired driver started consuming alcohol, last consumed alcohol, started driving, was observed driving erratically, was stopped by police, and displayed symptoms of impairment to the officer. A timeline would also describe when the officer formed the grounds to arrest or detain the driver and demanded that the driver provide a breath sample, and when the breath sample was provided.
      An example of a long-term timeline would be a historical sexual assault or homicide in which the timeline would include the relevant dates and times of the crime and the original investigation, as well as the key dates and times of the time between the original crime and the most recent investigation. For example, a case that involves a series of sexual assaults in the 90s would include key dates and times of the original offences. If new evidence, such as DNA, of the original crime scene was matched to a person in 2020, the timeline would be updated to include relevant information such as the current known whereabouts of the accused, and the criminal record that the accused accrued during the time between the original crime and the new investigation. It would also include new information, such as when the match was made, when the investigator was notified of the match, and the resulting actions of the investigator.
      1. Report narratives should be written in essay format, not point form. Narratives that are written this way are easier to read and can include more context. There are exceptions to this rule, such as when the writer is summarizing a witness statement. A writer may choose to write an introduction to the statement, and use points to highlight the key pieces of information from the statement.
      2. Writers should break their report narratives into multiple headings. The reader will be interested in different portions of the report at different times and, as such, they will refer to the point in search of those specific portions. Making the report’s information easy to locate for the reader is critical. For example, the reader may be the Crown Counsel. When preparing for court, or even while in court, Crown Counsel may require information regarding the arrest of the accused and the statement made by the accused at the time of the arrest. If the narrative does not have a heading titled “Arrest of Accused”, locating the section may be difficult and time consuming. Examples of typical headings in a police report include:
        1. Background of Event :
          1. Events that took place prior to the Crime/Incident
          2. Previous history or relationship of parties involved
          3. Previous police involvement, etc.;
          4. Often establishes the Mens Rea of a Crime
        2. Circumstances of Incident:
          1. What happened? Actus Reus
          2. Date
          3. Time
          4. Location
          5. Other essential elements of offence / incident
          6. Victim/Witness Actions – what did they see or do?
        3. Scene Upon Police Arrival:
          1. Initial observations
          2. Events occurring after the crime / incident
        4. Police Actions:
          1. Summarize what every police officer did
          2. Members will write their own detailed narrative
        5. Investigative Overview
          1. For ongoing investigations
          2. A brief outline with significant dates and times
        6. Timeline
          1. Lists all times and events
          2. Good for impaired investigations
        7. Grounds for Detention / Arrest:
          1. Detail reasons for arrest
          2. Paint the picture for the reader
          3. Include what you were thinking
        8. Arrest and charter of accused
          1. Time, date, location
          2. Identify arresting officer
          3. Exact words used and Accused’s responses stated verbatim
          4. Exact times (clock starts at charter)
          5. 5 W’s
        9. Interview of Accused:
          1. If accused decides to speak to you, document their story
          2. Indicate Q&A verbatim
        10. Disposition of Accused:
          1. Where did the accused go? Was he released at the scene? Taken to jail? Warrant requested etc.
        11. Use of Force:
          1. What force was used and why
          2. Detail the specific actions of accused and police response
          3. Commands given and the accused’s response
          4. Use of force continuum
        12. Injuries:
          1. Property Stolen
          2. Injuries to Accused
          3. Injuries to Police Officers
        13. Property:
          1. What force was used and why
          2. Property Damaged
          3. Property Recovered
          4. Property Seized
          5. Description of property
          6. Value
          7. Owner
          8. Location
  3. Reports must be complete and include both inculpatory and exculpatory evidence. When reports do not include exculpatory evidence, the reader does not receive all the information. If Defense Counsel learns that information is missing from the report, they may suggest in court that it relates to exculpatory evidence. Defense Counsel will use this omission to suggest that the report writer is biased and not transparent, thereby damaging the credibility of the writer and the investigator.
    1. Reports should thoroughly describe all the important information. They should include the investigator’s grounds for each decision and the information that led to the investigator’s decisions.
    2. Reports should be clear and use plain English, leaving no opportunity for misinterpretation. The writer should not use words that they do not fully understand. Investigators should write in a manner they find comfortable and should not use language designed to impress or sound like a lawyer.  Writers should not use slang, which can be misinterpreted. The writer must write in a clear and concise manner.
    3. The investigator should leave no questions unanswered. While investigating a crime, investigators should always seek answers to the questions they think the prosecutor and defense would ask. While writing, writers should constantly ask themselves, “what would the reader want to know?” They should seek the answers to the questions they cannot answer, and if the answer is not attainable, they should address the problem and provide an explanation as to why the questions is not answerable. This demonstrates to the reader that all aspects of the case have been considered, even when there are no answers.
    4. The 5Ws & 1H provide an excellent framework for identifying information. For example:
      1. When:
        1. When did this occurrence happen?
        2. When did the police arrive?
        3. When did police speak to the victim?
        4. When did the police leave?
      2. Where:
        1. Where did the occurrence happen?
        2. Where did police attend?
        3. Where is the victim?
        4. Where is the property?
        5. Where do the people involved live?
        6. Where can people be contacted?
      3. Who:
        1. Who is the victim?
        2. Who is the complainant?
        3. Who is involved?
        4. Who are the witnesses?
        5. Who is the suspect?
        6. Who are the police officers involved?
      4. What:
        1. What offence has been committed?
        2. What happened?
        3. What statements did the suspect make?
        4. What did the witnesses see?
        5. What did the victim do?
        6. What did the complainant report?
      5. Why:
        1. Why did the crime/occurrence happen?
      6. How:
        1. How did the crime happen?
        2. How did the witnesses become involved?
        3. How did the police conduct the investigation?
        4. How did the police reach a conclusion as to what happened?
  4.  Concise
    1. Be thorough, however, leave out information that is not relevant or necessary (concise does not necessarily mean brief). Readers do not want to wonder about the relevance of the information while they read the report; “”They want to read only what is relevant.
    2. Avoid wordiness or deadwood. Words that are not required should be left out. The idea is not to write the most words, but to write the clearest report efficiently. For example, “The investigator attended the street and then the address that was listed on the report” could instead be, “The investigator attended the address noted in the report.”
    3. Be specific. Use exact words in descriptive explanations. For example, the writer may write “the accused was non-compliant” or the writer may be more specific and write “the accused refused to comply with Cst. SMITH’s repeated commands to place his hands behind his back.”
      It is critical in cases of police use of force that specific and truthful language is used. For example:
      Vague: “The accused was violent and had to be subdued by the officers.”
      Specific: “The accused was yelling profanities and then with his right boot he kicked Cst. JONES in the left leg and attempted to punch Cst. SMITH in the face with a closed right fist.”
    4. Avoid using “Police Jargon”. Police jargon is not professional. Since the writer is writing for a diverse audience that includes non-police, jargon can be misinterpreted, misunderstood, or simply not known by the reader.
      1. Advised
      2. Altercation
      3. Indicated
      4. Responded
      5. Proceeded
      6. Utilized
      7. “maintained visual surveillance”
      8. “requested to the driver”
    5. Avoid slang, unless referencing a quote. Similar to police jargon, slang is open to interpretation and not precise. It also lessens the professionalism of the report.
        1. i.e.,
        2. “pulled over”
        3. “ran him on the computer”
        4. “scooped him”
        5. “pepper sprayed him”
  5. Readable
    1. Use active voice rather than passive. Writers should write in an active voice as often as possible. Active and passive voices are differentiated by their use of verbs. A verb is an action, state of being or occurrence. Examples of verbs include: starting, ending, living, dying, arriving and leaving. An active voice sentence includes a subject (the person) who performs the verb. For example, in the following sentences, the noun is the person (Cst. Smith) and the verb is saw and observed. One sentence is direct (the active) and one is indirect (the passive). For example:
      1. Passive: “The suspect JONES was observed by Cst. SMITH breaking into the car”
      2. Active: “Cst. SMITH saw suspect JONES break into the car”.
        In the example, the active voice is direct and concise. The formula to follow is SUBJECT +VERB.
    2. Keep sentences short. Run-on sentences are confusing.
    3. Use multiple paragraphs with breaks between paragraphs. Under headings, paragraphs should be short and concise. When the writer completes a subject, a new paragraph should be started under a new heading.
    4. Throughout most of the report, the writer should write in the third person, so that the reader understands, while reading the report, who the writer is. The writer should determine how they want to describe themselves, or follow their agency policy. This should remain consistent throughout the whole report. Writing in the third person is important because in reports with numerous investigators involved, identifying who did what can become very confusing when pronouns such as “I”, “we” and “us” are used. In a large report, the reader may be confused and have to refer back to a previous point in the report to determine who the writer is referring to. Writing in the third person is also important because in large cases, the narrative can be cut and pasted from the report narrative into an affidavit. When written in the third person, the report does not have to be changed and can be placed into the affidavit as it is. There is some suggestion that writing in the first person is more likely to convey the emotion of the subject officer. For example:
      “Cst. Smith was in fear of his life when accused Smith approached him with his fists clenched” versus, “I was in fear of my life when accused Smith approached me with his fists clenched”. In the third person sentence, the fear felt by Cst. Smith was how Cst. Smith felt. If the sentence suggests a detachment from Cst. Smith, a question may be raised as to how the writer knew how Cst. Smith felt. The appropriate way to write this section would be to have a separate section with a use of force heading, and written in the first person by the subject officer.
      • Reports are written on computers. Care should be taken to capitalize names and locations appropriately, however ALL CAPITAL letters should not be used, except for SURNAMES. Capitalizing surnames is an accepted practice that assists the reader to locate names in an expansive report. For example:

      For Police Witnesses: SGT. 1507 ANDERSEN
      For Accused put “accused SMITH” (use once)

    5. Avoid most abbreviations, particularly uncommon ones. If they are necessary, they should be placed in brackets the first time they are used, e.g., the “Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC)”, or “Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC)”. This is important because some abbreviations, while commonly used by the writer may not be familiar to the reader. This is especially the case for readers new to Law Enforcement. Also, some abbreviations may be confusing from agency to agency. For example, in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) “PC” refers to “Police Car”. In the Vancouver Police Department (VPD), “PO” refers to Police Officer. There are many other abbreviations that writers have to use cautiously because the meanings may differ from agency to agency.
  6. Writers should ensure that their spelling is correct and the punctuation is correct. If possible, writers should proof read their report several times, and have a partner proof read as well.

Effective Court Presentation

Once the interviews are completed and the reports have been written and submitted, an officer’s case often culminates in court. Officers must investigate every case keeping in mind the possibility that they may be called to court as witnesses, and held accountable for their actions and every decision they made. It is wrong to assume that an investigator’s job is complete once charges have been laid and the investigator has presented all the evidence to court. At times, work starts when the investigator is called to court. There are four duties that investigators will often be faced with regarding court:

  1. Interview with Crown Counsel.
    This will often include an interview with Crown Counsel weeks before the trial. However, depending upon the court location, interviews may occur the same morning as the trial, or in some cases minutes before the trial. When summoned to court, officers will receive a Court Notification, or a Law Enforcement Notification form. The Court Notification advises the officer of the case regarding which they are required to appear as a witness. The court notification advises:Who: The name of the accused is prominently displayed.
    What: The offence that the accused is alleged to have commit.
    Where: The location they will be required to attend for the Crown Counsel interview and the address of the court room they will be required to attend to provide testimony.
    When: The date and time they will be required for the interview, and when they will be required to provide testimony. Because courts hear numerous cases, investigators will likely be required to wait until their time arrives.
    Why: Under the “Remarks from Court Notifier” section of the Court Notification, Crown may include the reason the officer is being called to courtInvestigators are expected to sign and return the notification slip, and mark on their calendar both the interview and court date and time. Officers should review the case for which they have been notified, and determine whether or not they will have to present exhibits and assist in locating witnesses. If they require direction from Crown Counsel before the trial day, they should make arrangements to have an earlier interview with Crown Counsel.
  2. Submitting exhibits.
    Officers that seize or locate physical evidence will be required to visit their property office to retrieve the evidence. They must be prepared to demonstrate to the courts that the “chain of continuity” for the evidence has not been broken, and that the officer can account for the whereabouts of the evidence from the moment the evidence was seized or found until it was presented in court.
    “WolfVision court / legal application” by WolfVision GmbH is licensed under CC BY 2.0
  3. Managing witnesses.
    When a case involves evidence from witness statements, the statement will not be presented in court. Rather, the witness who made the statement will be called to court to provide a first-hand account of their evidence. The statement will only be used if the witness does not corroborate what was in their statement. Often, witnesses change their addresses and they become difficult to locate, or they are reluctant to go to court and may need encouragement. Often, Crown Counsel does not have the resources or the time to locate witnesses and may call upon the investigating officer to ensure the witnesses attend court. Officer must be cognizant of the importance to take detailed notes of their conversations with the witnesses to ensure they account for what was said and what was not said. Officers should not talk to the witnesses about their testimony and should be prepared for Defense Counsel to cross examine them on that point.
  4. Providing testimony.
    Officers who have collected evidence, witnessed the crime scene or witnessed a statement will likely be called to court to give evidence. The officer could be asked to provide two types of evidence within the trial:
    1. Evidence in chief. The officer answers questions by Crown Counsel; experienced officers will need few, if any questions or prompts from Crown Counsel. These officers know the evidence they must address, what is not required and how to verbalize the information that they have. Crown Counsel will prompt inexperienced officers. The officer enters exhibits as evidence during the presentation of evidence.
    2. Cross examination. Defense Council questions the officer. Defense Counsel, in the interest of fairness, is provided the latitude to ask questions that may seem to the officer to be unrelated, but may form a part of the strategy for the defense of the accused.

Strategies in Testimony

It is natural for officers to feel nervous before court because there is a lot at stake for the accused, the victim, the courts, the police department, the judge, the Crown, Defense Council and, of course, the officer who is testifying. This is compounded for officers who are reserved and do not like public speaking or verbal confrontations. However, the officers can reduce their stress by considering that their role is to state truthfully what they did and why they took certain actions relating to the investigation, what they saw, and what and why they said what they said in relation to the investigation. Most importantly, the officer must testify truthfully and not intentionally leave out pertinent information. There are two main reasons that officers might lie in court:

  1. To cover up a mistake in the investigation that they consider to be embarrassing.
  2. Out of a sense of noble cause corruption, in which officers believe that it is worth lying in court to achieve the end result of convicting a person they believe is guilty.

Officers who are caught lying in court and are exposed by Defense Council can face criminal charges, and Police Act charges, and will be reassigned to a non-operational position where they will no longer be required to attend court. Officers placed in this position are typically ostracized by other officers. There are times in policing when it is appropriate to lie, e.g.,  in an undercover operation, or during an interview when an officer is attempting to build rapport. The scope for appropriate lies is very narrow, but in some situations legally permissible. In court, there is NO scope for lying, and no lying will be tolerated.  Officers must possess values and integrity that allow them to admit to mistakes they made in the investigation, and face the consequences of mistakes they have made. Judges will accept mistakes made in good faith, but they will not accept lying. Judges will also likely assign more credibility to officers who admit mistakes, and give the officer the benefit of the doubt when their credibility is questioned or compared to the testimony of another witness.

The Nuances of Giving Evidence in Court

Before Court:

Officers should prepare for court by reviewing their notes and the reports associated with the case. They should do this before and after the interview with Crown Counsel.

Officers should also prepare for court by considering their non-verbal communication and appreciate that they are watched by the court beginning the moment they walk into the court. Officers should consider:

What clothing to wear. A uniform is always acceptable and should be clean and pressed, and the boots and leather should be polished. If the officer is unable to wear a uniform, or is on a day off, the officer should wear business attire that is clean and pressed. If the officer is undercover or in plain clothes, and is working at the time of their appearance in court, the officer can attend court in that attire. The officer should apologize to the court for their attire and state to the judge and the court that this is their working attire for the day.

Their demeanor. Generally, this is the way the officer represents themselves in court as well as while waiting to be called into court. This includes presenting themselves to the court on time and being well-prepared.  While waiting to be called into court, officers should avoid drawing attention to themselves. They should avoid talking loudly, or making cynical or sarcastic remarks that might lead a bystander to question the importance of the case.

Officers should never talk about the case with other witnesses, and should not compare notes or evidence. They should also be aware that talking about other cases can be construed as talking about the current case. Officers should be mindful that all varieties of people could be in the waiting area for court, including suspects, people accused of the case in which they are testifying, witnesses for the case, and convicted people who could be looking for an opportunity to complain about an officer. Officers should keep in mind that their demeanor should be one of total respect for the court, and that their behavior, from the time they attend the courthouse to the time they leave the courthouse, should demonstrate respect for every worker in the court house.

Entering the Court Room

While waiting outside the court room, the officer should be attentive and listen for their name to be called. The officer should know which court room they will be in and stay close by. When called, the officer should enter and immediately bow out of respect to the judge. The bow is a simple stop in walking and a slight bow from the waste. The officer then walks to the witness stand and waits for directions while remaining standing.

Taking the oath

The officer will note that there is a Bible within reach. This is used so that the officer can swear an oath to God to tell the truth. If they prefer, they can use another holy book, or make a solemn affirmation to tell the truth. Officers should know whether they want to affirm or to swear an oath to God to tell the truth. Either way, the officer will assure the court that what they say will be truthful. The oath or affirmation will be administered by the court clerk, and the officer will only have to say “I do.”

Stating your Name

Following the oath or affirmation, the court clerk will ask the officer for their name, their rank, and possibly their badge number. Officers will usually be asked how to spell their name.

Standing or sitting

Officers should wait to be asked by the judge to sit. Only then should an officer sit. Officers may also choose to stand. If a judge does not ask you to sit, and if the officer has a need to sit, then the officer should respectfully ask the judge if they may sit and give a reason for having to sit. If the officer anticipates that they are going to be on the stand for a long period, they ought to sit. After each break, they should wait each time to be asked if they wish to sit.


The officer’s spoken words are recorded digitally. However, the judge and the court recorder are making notes. Officers should address the judge while talking and adjust their description of the evidence so that the judge is able to keep up with their notes. Usually, the judge will look up at the officer to indicate that the officer should continue with their testimony. As the judge is the trier of fact, the officer ought to pay the judge the most attention. They should look at the judge while talking and engage the judge in normal eye contact. Conversely, when the trier of fact is the jury, the officer should not only focus their eye contact on the judge, but also on the members of the jury. The officer should address the judge with respect and refer to the judge as “your honour”. In the Supreme Court, female judges are referred to as “my lady” and male judges are referred to as “my lord”.

When providing the evidence on chief, the officer should be mindful of their tone, their pace, their volume and their clarity.

Officers should refer to Crown Counsel or Defense Counsel as, ”sir”, “madam” or “ma’am”. This is a formal setting and must be respected as such. Regardless of the behavior of Crown Counsel or Defense Counsel, officers should remain common and respectful. This will in turn gain respect from the judge and the jury.

Body Language

As in everyday communication, body language while testifying is critical for the officer to manage and to observe from the judge, Defense Counsel, Crown Counsel and the jury. Officers should be aware of body language that results from being nervous. While it is natural to be nervous, body language that is the result of nerves can be distracting and in some instances allow Defense and the judge to question the veracity of the testimony. Care should be taken by officers to avoid the following common body language cues:

  • hands in pockets playing with keys or coins
  • rocking back and forth
  • fidgeting with a note book, pen or other exhibits
  • biting your nails
  • holding the witness stand rigidly

Officers should also be mindful of the body language of others. When they are speaking, they should watch the judge for cues that the judge understands what they are saying and that they are speaking at the appropriate tone, volume, speed and clarity. Likewise, officers should use the same rule for Defense Counsel and Crown Counsel. Officers should look for the following common body language cues:

  • Raising eye brows
  • Shaking or nodding head
  • Nodding to continue

Eye contact

Officers should make eye content with the judge and whoever is asking a question. The answer provided by the officer should be accompanied with eye contact directed to the judge and the jury. Judges would likely find it disrespectful to the court if an officer only looked at the judge and never looked at Defense Counsel.

Being Dismissed From Court

When Defense and Crown Counsel have finished asking questions in cross examination, the judge will dismiss the officer, and advise them in words to the effect, “thank you constable, you are free to go.” Officers should walk to the door, turn and offer a slight bow at the door when leaving. The officer should be the model of objectivity and not display any negative or positive emotions.

Notes and reports

Officers are expected to review their notes and reports before court. Officers should not memorize specific information, but should form a general understanding of the case and know where certain information is contained in the notes or report.

Officers will be allowed to use their notes or reports in court, however there are specific rules that apply to officers using their notes:

  • The notes or report were made contemporaneously to the event and that they were made as soon as practicable.
  • The officer exhausted their memory and cannot recall anything further without referring to their notes.

Cross Examination

Officers should remain calm and respectful when asked questions by Defense Counsel. They should expect some strategies that Defense Counsel will utilize in an effort to upset the officer and cause them to react in a negative manner. Examples include:

Cross Examination
Counsel’s strategy Purpose of strategy Appropriate officer’s response
Questions that are asked quickly after each other To upset or confuse officer Answer one question at a time
Ask counsel to repeat the question
Remain calm
Condescending attitude Demonstrate to court the officer is incompetent or lying Remain calm
Be objective
Overly friendly counsel Cause the officer to “let their guard down” Be objective
Take time and consider answers
Belligerent or badgering To upset or confuse officer Remain calm
Be objective
Mispronouncing the officer’s name/ title or rank To upset or confuse officer
Have the officer agree to a higher rank and then reveal that this is not the real rank, damaging the officer’s credibility
Remain calm
Be objective
Do not agree to any inaccuracy no matter how trivial
Suggestive questions that are include minute incorrect details Later be introduced as inaccurate if you agree Remain calm
Be objective
Do not agree to any inaccuracy no matter how trivial
Staring in silence
To induce officer to talk moreIf finished answer, remain silent and wait for next question


Being a police witness testifying in court is always stressful. The key is to:

    1. Do a thorough investigation
    2. Maintain your integrity throughout the investigation and the trial
    3. Prepare for court
    4. Tell the truth

If these steps are always followed, then the stress of testifying in court will be greatly diminished. Judges expect that in the course of an investigation, mistakes will be made. They do also expect that when officers attend court they will be respectful to the court and well prepared.


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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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