However, when a police officer uses the same technique on a report, it can get messy. Or worse, illegal.
Critics of the practice call cutting and pasting police reports "dangerous" and say it puts the integrity of law enforcement at risk. Others say the technique can be used effectively in certain situations, such as using one report as a template for another and maintaining accuracy.
The issue resurfaced in East Contra Costa earlier this month when a Pittsburg police officer testified in court that he cut and pasted one portion of a witness account onto another in a felony hit-and-run case.
The revelation came three years after two former Pittsburg police officers were convicted of intentionally falsifying drug arrest reports dozens of times in a similar manner. After their termination and six-month home detention, and an internal and independent review, the police chief instituted a new report-writing program that includes software preventing officers from using some cut-and-paste techniques.
"It's a shortcut and I shouldn't have done it," Officer Daniel Pratt said in his recent testimony, before apologizing on the stand.
When asked by defense attorney Mary Carey why police officers aren't supposed to cut and paste, he responded: "For the obvious reasons of mistakes and every statement is individual."
Carey said, "I'm absolutely appalled that the person who we trust to be honest would present evidence in an official document that was false. "The fact that there's history in that department presenting falsified police reports makes me extremely worried of the propriety of any reports coming out of that department."
"It's impossible to know whether it's one bad apple or a culture of fraud and deceit," she said.
Pittsburg police Lt. Brian Addington said Pratt's actions were done within police department policy and resulted in an honest typographical mistake, not intentional falsification. He said the improved software still allows for cutting and pasting within one case, just not between multiple cases.
Contra Costa public defender David Coleman, a vocal critic of Pittsburg police during the 2004 scandal, said whether mistakes are made intentionally or not, cutting and pasting is dangerous.
"The problem is whether people are being prosecuted on accurate information," the county's head public defender said. "(The 2004 case) was not all about intentional falsification. It was about taking shortcuts and not caring about accuracy when people are accused of crimes."
The issue first came to the public's attention in March 2004 when two county prosecutors noticed suspiciously similar drug arrest reports by Pittsburg police Officer Jim Hartley. A departmentwide investigation found 39 suspicious reports by Hartley and Officer Javier Salgado. The officers cut and pasted one computerized report onto a new one, changing only basic information.
As a result, the district attorney's office dropped charges against more than 10 individuals whose cases had suspicious arrest reports.
"You are not going to find a more complete review of (drug arrest) reports anywhere in the county," Chief Aaron Baker said at the time.
The chief, who referred calls to Addington, set up reforms that were lauded in an independent review by an outside consultant.
"Whatever software program they put in place didn't work because they're still doing it," said Carey, a former public defender. She coined the term "cut-and-paste injustice," saying Pratt should be prosecuted for his actions.
Deputy district attorney Kate Wharton, the prosecuting attorney in the hit-and-run case, said the officer will not be charged, calling it a "typo."
Pratt was the investigating officer in the case of Rashied Ahmadi, 21, of Antioch, accused of intentionally striking a man with his car while he left a party on Sept. 24, 2005. Ahmadi faced as many as 10 years in state prison before a jury acquitted him of all charges Dec. 19.
When asked why he cut and pasted, Pratt testified: "To the best of my ability, I wanted to keep the statements in line. I didn't want to jump around and say one person said this thing and the other person said this thing."
Addington said the "honest mistake" was blown out of proportion by a "defense strategy."
"We write hundreds of pages of reports and sometimes errors and typos appear, but we make every effort to correct them," Addington said.
After the 2004 scandal in Pittsburg's department, Antioch Police Department commanders issued a departmentwide memo prohibiting cutting and pasting.
Officers are taught at the police academy level not to cut and paste reports, Antioch police Lt. Pat Welch said. Even cutting and pasting reports to use as a template or format is a "dangerous practice," he said.
Brentwood police Chief Mark Evenson said his department emphasizes "100 percent factual accuracy" in report writing but does not have a specific policy regarding cutting and pasting.
"Nowadays, in the electronic age, officers will use old reports as templates and write over them. If they do that, they're at risk of making a mistake," Evenson said. "They're not intentionally trying to fabricate anything, but sometimes cops can be lazy."
Officer Jake Bassett teaches report writing at the Oakland Police Department's academy. His department has written policies for officers to avoid using cliches or boilerplate language, mostly to encourage detailed, accurate report writing.
Bassett said officers often cut and paste on repetitive paperwork, such as filling out search warrant requests, which have standard terminology for certain cases. However, he said cutting and pasting a "narrative" should not be done.
Wharton, as a prosecutor, said she just wants to work with an accurate report.
"However they want to go about doing that, as long as it's the truth, I'm not going to micromanage how to do a report," she said.
Reach Matthias Gafni at 925-779-7174 or firstname.lastname@example.org.