Let’s be S.A.F.E. out there

Follow these report-writing tips to improve the outcomes of your cases

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By Steve Pratt

How many of you remember this famous saying: “Let’s be careful out there”? It was a safety call by Sergeant Phil Esterhaus from the television show Hill Street Blues. Today we say to each other “be safe” or “stay safe.” We understand the meaning behind those sayings. I would like to offer another meaning of how we can be “S.A.F.E.” out there.

Often after reading court decisions, I find myself asking questions such as, “How did the situation get that far?” or, “How did the court come to that decision?” Sometimes court findings tell us the officer failed to explain why they did what they did. In some decisions, they say the officer explained “X” or “Y” but we found “Z.” This article will provide a way to approach police report writing that will improve the outcomes of your cases.

Officers asking themselves the S.A.F.E. questions throughout their investigations and report writing will lead agencies to become more successful in the courts.
Officers asking themselves the S.A.F.E. questions throughout their investigations and report writing will lead agencies to become more successful in the courts. (Photo/PoliceOne)

Details count

Over the years the courts have given their guidance about what information is valuable for their decision-making. In Graham v. Connor (1989), the Supreme Court guided us to make reasonable decisions based on an objective consideration of all the facts and circumstances involved in an incident. Information not included in our reports would not be able to be considered by the court.  

Criminal statutes are divided into specific elements of each crime. These elements are fulfilled with “facts” to classify an incident as a specific crime. We are taught in our basic academies to become “trained observers” and what details to observe in various situations. Information about how our training and experience influence our perception of an incident are valuable in establishing reasonable suspicion or probable cause.   

Taking a S.A.F.E. approach

Based on the guidance of the courts, academy training and continuous training, I offer the acronym S.A.F.E., which stands for Specific Articulable Facts Exhibited, as a method to improve police report writing.

Here is a field example of the S.A.F.E. approach in action:

You were working your beat when you saw a subject exit a known drug house. Your agency served a drug warrant at the same house two days prior to the incident. You recognized the subject, because you had arrested him seven times in the past and were familiar with the subject’s criminal record. Every time you had arrested him, he had drugs in his possession.

The subject was recently highlighted on an officer safety bulletin. The bulletin stated the subject had been in possession of a firearm and was a convicted felon. As the subject walked away from the house, he repeatedly looked over his shoulder. You noticed the front right pocket of his clothing was drooping down and he was conducting a security check (patting the area) with his right hand. You also noticed his right arm wasn’t moving with a natural swing while walking as his left arm moved naturally. His right arm was instead held closely to the side of his drooping clothing.

One month prior to this incident you had attended training about concealed weapons that included physical indicators of persons carrying concealed weapons. The subject demonstrated three of the indicators you had been trained to identify.

In the example above, how many Specific Articulable Facts Exhibited (S.A.F.E.) were there? Were there details that could be valuable for a court in determining the validity of a lawful detention? If the subject fled the detention and reasonable force was used to capture the subject, would the details available help to lay a solid foundation for the necessity of that reasonable force?

What reports usually miss

Too many times we read reports by officers like this:

I observed the subject, John Smith, a known police character. I stopped him because he left a known drug house. I patted him down and located a firearm on his person. The end.

Isn’t something missing in this example? Field supervisors reviewing their officers’ reports after a resistance response or use of force should be asking some basic questions:

  • What did the subject Specifically do?
  • Are those actions Articulated with detail?
  • What were the objective Facts Exhibited during that encounter?

The field supervisor should kick back reports when the answers to those questions are not present. When I have returned reports to my officers, it has been my experience that they have always had the answers to the S.A.F.E. questions. Once they got used to asking themselves the questions while report writing, it was an easy fix!

Changing report-writing habits 

The challenge for officers and supervisors is to see the entirety of the investigation being conducted and to know that the S.A.F.E. details are invaluable for follow-up investigators and the courts, as well as the court of public opinion. S.A.F.E. report writing is a must in our current age of policing.

As leaders, we influence the mindset and habits of our officers. We have the power to create positive change in police culture. Officers asking themselves the S.A.F.E. questions throughout their investigations and report writing will lead agencies to become more successful in the courts. This will reflect positively on the profession as a whole.

Let’s be S.A.F.E. out there!

About the author

Steve Pratt retired as a patrol sergeant with the Springfield (Missouri) Police Department in 2017 after 23½ years of service. Prior to his service in law enforcement, Steve served 9½ years in the United States Marine Corps. Steve has been a law enforcement trainer since 1996 and has an Associate of Science degree from Drury University. Steve is an original member of ILEETA. He has completed the IACP Leadership of Police Organizations course along with numerous other certifications. He is also an FBI LEEDA Trilogy graduate. Steve is currently the assistant academy director of the Drury University Law Enforcement Academy in Springfield, Missouri.

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