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Think about the money that could be saved in a properly defended lawsuit due to the foresight in booking such evidence. Juries love visual aids. And what better visual aid is there to justify your use of force than your ripped uniform? Such evidence can make a greedy suspect and his lawyer slink away licking their judicial wounds.
Of course, no amount of report writing or evidence collection is going to help any officer who maliciously or criminally assaults a suspect, regardless of how justified he or she feels in doing so. No matter how much you may want to slam some punk's head into the hood of your patrol car, you have to be a calm professional when no one else can. Unjustified use-of-force cases are thankfully rare, but the perception of the public is that it happens much more often than it really does.
Thanks to cell phone videos, the Internet, and the hour news cycle that plays a supposed excessive force video over and over, the public receives a tainted view of law enforcement use-of-force incidents, poisoning jury pools and sometimes making necessary an out-of-court settlement. Many times, your report doesn't seem to jibe with the video.
What better tool, if it is available, to use to help you write your report? You have your perception of what occurred, and it is a valid perception, but viewing that impartial video can help your recollection and aid you in writing an even more complete and accurate report. A properly written and factual report, along with supporting documentation, witness statements, and evidence, are your best defense against a lawsuit.
Audio and video are even better. Having all of this documentation and evidence probably won't reduce the number of lawsuits that are initially filed against you or your department, but it may give plaintiff lawyers pause about taking you on if they know how well you document and support your actions in the field.
With the advent of video recorders, both in patrol cars and in everyday life, it is imperative that the reporting officers be as accurate and factual as humanly possible in their reports. That doesn't mean writing longer reports; it means writing smarter reports.
If your reputation is such that prosecuting attorneys and judges have a high regard for your integrity and honesty, your report writing ability, and your courtroom demeanor, then plaintiffs' attorneys won't want to mess with you. If, on the other hand, your reputation is suspect in any way, word will get around and you can bet next month's pay that some lawyer, somewhere, will take on that lawsuit that might be frivolous but still profitable.
Your reputation can shield you, and it can bury you. A decision by the U. Supreme Court in 's Brady v. Maryland requires any adverse disciplinary information about officers' integrity or honesty to be turned over to the defense by the agency. This decision has caused many California district attorneys to tell chiefs and sheriffs they will not use an officer's reports or testimony if he or she has been disciplined for not being truthful.
Do you want to have something like that hanging over your head? I know of one young former officer who was involved in a use-of-force incident and wrote a report on it.
His report was lacking, not due to deception, but rather haste. Another officer had witnessed the use of force and reported it to his sergeant who in turn initiated an investigation after the written report was filed. The report did not mesh with what was reported by the witness officer and other witnesses.
The officer who was involved in the use of force lost his job because the agency believed he had falsified his report. He has applied for other police positions at many different agencies, but not one has given him a second look. This is a good officer who sunk his career through haste and lack of detail in a report. This tragedy could have been avoided if he had reviewed the facts and made sure all known information was included.
The information was there; he just failed to gather it and use it, torpedoing his career. It is a fact of life in law enforcement that force, including deadly force, will have to be used. It is how you apply that force and, just as importantly, how you document it that will reduce the filing of frivolous lawsuits as well as preserve our careers. As with any other officer safety training, surviving a legal challenge to legal and proper actions is worth the time it takes to record and document the events and evidence.
Your survival in a civil or criminal trial is only as good as your report. Make your report writing better and you'll survive any courtroom challenge. Read reports written by fellow officers who have a reputation for being thorough and accurate. Talk with other officers about their experiences. Talk with the prosecuting attorney. Talk with defense attorneys about bad reports they've seen.
Take an English refresher course if necessary. If your department doesn't have a good report writing manual, find a department that does and use theirs as a model for your department. You use that pen, paper, and computer a lot more than you use your OC, baton, or sidearm, and they are just as important to your survival. If you don't practice with the weapons you are issued, when the time comes to use them it could be dangerous to you.
The same goes for report writing. Practice, learn, and protect yourself. Mark Tarte is a retired Livermore, Calif.
He currently runs the criminal justice program at Las Positas College. Tarte makes very good points here. He touched on something else in his article, and I feel it needs to be expounded upon - the inclusion of details. A phrase used often during my career was, "If it ain't in the report, it didn't happen. It's NOT in your report? You mean it is important now, but wasn't THEN? I remember in the early years of my career I watched as a defense attorney dismembered a police officer on the witness stand.
The trial was on a drunk driver but the officer did not include the results of his field sobriety tests and his visual observations of the individual or the individuals driving in his report. Needless to say the offender was found not guilty by a jury and the officer was left looking like a total idiot.
Other cops got down on the attorney however we must remember that the attorney is representing their client, not the police, and their job is to get their client off. They usually have their homework done, so we are law enforcement professionals better have ours done also. The more descriptive and detailed the input the better the chances for greater accuracy in the media output.
Spelling counts and try to write using plain language not police lingo. It's important to be complete in a report but not ad filler. Answer the basic facts of who,what,when,where and why, if you know why. Your report is the basis for warrants and proving probable cause for an arrest or offense classification. Valuation of items lost or stolen are required for classification of the offense. It may seem like the mundane part of a crime but it is the most important fact laden part of the offense and without a well written report the case will have no chance in court.
Do not ADD filler. I remembered once I forgot to get the right names of a place and I lost the case. I'm fairly new in law enforcement. I would really appreciate if anybody here could recommend a book to help me write better reports.
Alex, welcome to field!
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