Florida State Trooper Carlos Alves completes a traffic-accident report in his patrol car. Accident investigations often lead to complex civil litigation. Photo Dale Stockton
FEATURED IN TRAINING
Officers sometimes neglect their report writing, but it has very serious consequences if left unattended. What officers write in their report stays with them forever. The words on the paper cannot be changed, and an omission of critical details cannot later be added to a report without calling the report s veracity into doubt.
Every report should reflect the basic details of the event, and the important details must be included. Why? Simply put, in today s litigious society, police officers and their agencies are easy targets for civil lawsuits, particularly officers involved in a shooting or other incident ending in death or great bodily harm. It should come as no surprise that after a civil lawsuit is filed against a police officer and/or their agency, the plaintiff (the person suing) will ask for a copy of the police report(s) relating to the incident.
Surprisingly, many law enforcement officers fail to realize the importance of the words used in that report. All too often, officers write their police reports in haste for a variety of reasons: the shift supervisor wants the final report by the end of the shift, the officer wants to complete the report by the end of the shift because they don t want to deal with it the next work day, etc. However, that haste could result in severe consequences, especially when the words are not chosen carefully. The ramification of the written word is unquestionable, particularly in the context of a civil lawsuit.
It goes without saying that if the report will document an arrest or a charge, it must include the elements of the charge. But after that, it gets a little more complicated. What other details are necessary? What other facts should you include?
Typically, when police officers are first trained on report writing, they learn the purpose of a police report is to summarize the events in question. They are told it s not necessary to record every detail of the event, but only to record the important details. Indeed, when attorneys question officers on why a certain detail was omitted from the report (a tactic used by criminal defense attorneys as well), a well-prepared police officer should respond that the report is supposed to be a summary of the events, not a play-by-play recording.
On the other hand, in some agencies, officers are told they should only record those things that will help jog their memory should they be called to testify. In this case, the report may lack so much detail it s incomprehensible for others who later read it. What good does that do?
So, other than the elements of a crime, what else should you include in a report?
Always Record Officer Injuries
Whenever an officer is injured, no matter how minor, document it in the report. When an officer arrests an individual for a misdemeanor and during the course of that arrest the individual resists and suffers an injury in the process, the details of that injury are typically included in the report no matter how severe or minor the injury is. But what if the officer receives a minor injury during that arrest, such as a scraped knee? Or a cut on the hand? And let s say that in the above scenario, the officer, for whatever reason, did not arrest or charge the individual for battery to a police officer? Should the officer s minor injury be included in the report? The answer: Yes, always include information regarding an officer injury.
In my experience representing members of the law enforcement community in civil litigation, officers will typically disclose during the discovery process that they were injured if, in fact, they were injured. However, if the officer s injury was omitted from the report, the plaintiff s attorney will ask why the officer failed to record such information. The attorney will then go through a line of questioning similar to the following:
Question: Officer, isn t it true that you attended a police academy?
Question: And during that academy experience you received training in a variety of law enforcement related topics?
And even if the attorney really doesn t know the answer to the next question, the likelihood of a negative response remains extremely slim:
Question: As part of that training, did you receive training on how to write police reports?
Question: And during that training you were taught to include the important details of the event that you re reporting, correct?
Question: You would agree with me, wouldn t you, that your injury is an important detail?
Now, some of you may or may not agree that an officer injury is a big deal, especially if the injury did not require medical attention or hospitalization. However, in the non-law enforcement world, particularly in the world of jurors who are not your typical street officers, they may wonder why you did not include it in your report but now feel it important enough to share in the civil litigation.
Question: It s an important detail, but you forgot to include it in your report, didn t you?
An officer who falls into the rhythm of the attorney s questioning may be lulled into giving the Pavlov s dog response of Yes. However, the police officer listening to the question may take this as an opportunity to explain why that important detail was left out. That is, some officers leave out the detail of an officer s minor injury because it was just that a minor injury. The officer may go on to explain that in their job, officers are expected to receive injuries every now and then, particularly when it involves physical contact with people, and sometimes with people who physically resist arrest. In other words, It comes with the territory. This is a logical explanation and one that a jury should believe; however, why take the chance? If you were injured, simply record it.
Document All Related Statements
Another pitfall: failing to record statements that have a significant impact on the event. Example: Plainclothes police officers conduct surveillance on a residence suspected of dealing drugs. A vehicle leaves the residence after its female driver was observed buying drugs. The officers follow the vehicle onto a highway, and the suspect begins to accelerate away rapidly. The circumstances now require the officers to activate the lights and sirens of their unmarked squad car while they wait for a marked unit to assist them in the pursuit. Immediately thereafter, the suspect pulls into a parking lot of an apartment complex, gets out of her vehicle and quickly walks to the nearest apartment. Before she can enter, and before the marked unit arrives, the plainclothes officers catch up to her, grab her by the arm, and tell her she is under arrest. She quickly says, I m not the one you re looking for. A search reveals no evidence of a drug purchase.
One of the officers completes the report of the events but omits the apparently innocuous statement, I m not the one you re looking for. The suspect later files a civil lawsuit for false arrest, and as part of her defense, she claims she did not know the plainclothes officers were, in fact, police officers when they were following her. She also denies she told them she was not the person they were looking for immediately after she was apprehended.
Although the officers failed to document the statement, the officers assert throughout the litigation that the suspect made the comment. Of course, the statement is important because it s seemingly at odds with a person who claims not to be involved in unlawful activity. However, if the statement was not documented, and the officers later assert that it was made, the suspect s attorney can call into question the veracity of the officers version of the events by asking why an important statement such as the one made by the suspect was omitted from the report in the same manner described in the sample line of questioning above.
Answer the Why Question
Finally, police officers must avoid taking shortcuts when it comes to detailing the reasons they took specific actions, particularly in situations requiring the use of force. A typical report documenting the use of force such as pepper spray may include statements such as the following:
I told the offender he was under arrest and to place his hands behind his back. The offender refused my commands. The suspect threatened my safety, and I used pepper spray to subdue the offender. The offender was handcuffed and transported to the police department for processing.
It s clear the word threatened is critical in the above description. But this portion of the report doesn t describe why the officer felt threatened. A better report might read:
I told the offender he was under arrest and to place his hands behind his back. The offender refused. The offender also demonstrated he was a threat to my safety by engaging in the following acts: He continued to disobey my commands to place his hands behind his back on three occasions. He looked at me with a blank stare. He clenched his fists and placed himself in a boxing position. After continuing to refuse my commands to place his hands behind his back, he took off his shirt and again took on a boxing position. After warning him that if he did not comply with my commands to place his hands behind his back that pepper spray would be used, he continued to disobey my commands.
The second statement paints a more vivid picture by detailing the reasons why the officer felt threatened. If those important details were omitted and then later testified to in court by the officer, the suspect s attorney could have a field day questioning the officer in front of a jury why the officer failed to record these important details. Unfortunately, no amount of preparation for the officer could rehabilitate the damage done by the omission.
The Bottom Line
Although the event may have happened as the officer testifies to in court, if it s not documented in the police report, a savvy attorney representing the suspect will always argue that it never happened. Thus, when it comes to writing police reports, police officers should always strive to document all injuries they receive during any incident, even if it s a minor injury; record any unusual statements germane to the event; and explain why the officers took certain actions, particularly with respect to the need to use force.
Note: In this article, I do not address the complexities that arise in report writing when officers are involved in shootings or other high-stress situations. Recent studies demonstrate that some officers have no memory of shooting their weapon or have a distorted memory of the shooting event. See Alexis Artwohl, Ph.D., No Recall of Weapon Discharge, Law Enforcement Executive Forum, Vol. 3, No. 2, p. 41-49 (2003). As such, the report may not be accurate or may lack the details that one would expect to be present in a complete report. I will address this topic in a later column.
Do not construe this column as legal advice. Each police officer should consult with an attorney in their jurisdiction for legal advice on any specific issue.