Appreciating the art of the LAPD report

ellen-collett.jpgEllen Collett was a writer first: B.A. from Yale, M.F.A from the Bennington Writer’s Seminars, short story collection, crime novel on the way. Her day job is in crime analysis for the LAPD. She has written a piece in the current Utne Reader about a South L.A. street cop she knows only by the name on his incident reports — Martinez — and by the way his writing stands out among the dry narratives she reads all day. "Monday through Friday," she writes, "I’m enthralled by a man I’ve never met. His name is Martinez and he’s a cop with the Los Angeles Police Department." From The Art of the Police Report:

Words committed to paper have an agenda. The purpose of a police report is to be cited in court as proof of who did what to whom. Its ultimate agenda is justice. It seeks to protect the weak and punish the guilty. Because the stakes are high—freedom, death, or life without parole—it’s written with special care. Above all else, it aims to be truthful. At the same time, to do its job, it needs to be convincing. The story it tells should persuade 12 people in a jury box of something.

On the face of it, these two goals—truthful and persuasive—seem uncomfortably at odds. Shouldn’t facts alone persuade? Should truth need composing? And assuming that it’s possible to write toward this goal—to be truthful and persuasive at once—shouldn’t all fiction writers want to learn how?...

Despite the neutrality of his diction, Martinez’s choices are idiosyncratic. Everything he sees reveals him. And syntactically, though he bends every rule to the breaking point, you can’t bust him.

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From a reader’s perspective, Martinez’s incident reports are deeply satisfying. They engage us emotionally; they vest us in the events he describes, and in the teller....My Sergeant Martinez may be writing reports, but he’s also using the alchemy of inflection to turn them into stories—narratives that believe themselves and make us believe them, too.


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