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The importance of identifying everyone in an investigation and the potential legal issues for getting it wrong

Mislabeling people in police reports is a problem. Follow these steps to prevent errors


During your investigation, you will have a suspect, a victim, and maybe a few witnesses. But what if you think someone is a suspect, but you don’t know for sure?

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I think all of us have stopped a person from committing a crime, and that person ended up having a warrant. Somewhere along the way, the suspect claimed the person on the warrant was not them. But since the physical descriptors matched, we arrested them anyway. After the suspect was fingerprinted, we discovered that the person we arrested was telling the truth except that he used his brother’s information instead.

Correctly identifying people and documenting how you identified them in a police report is critical for an investigation. Many countries outside the United States require officers to identify a person using three different methods. Verbal, biometrics, government ID, fingerprints and government database are all excellent ways to identify someone. But inside the United States, we are relaxed. We should be identifying people using at least two methods, but sometimes, a single fingerprint identification is enough to prove someone’s identity.

Misidentification of a person will open the officer and their agency up for a civil lawsuit. It is never a good idea to arrest the wrong person – the more methods of identification, the less likelihood of a claim. But what happens if an officer mislabels a person in a police report? What if we list them as a suspect instead of a witness, or a victim when they are a suspect?

Always properly identify everyone

The first thing every officer should do when talking with anyone is to ask them for their name and date of birth. Depending on your state’s requirement, ask for their physical and mailing address and social security number. I ask for as much information as possible, including updated hair color and weight.

The second thing to do is ask for government identification. Why ask for a government ID second? Simple:

  • If your computer system is down for any reason, you have both the person’s government ID and verbal identification – enough identification to meet the standard for arrest if you have to.
  • This is a perfect time to tell if the person you are speaking with is telling you the truth.
  • This is a great time to update personal identification information and addresses.

The last thing to do is verify the person’s identity using a government database. I know it is hard to believe but many bad people use fake IDs or lie about their names. Running a person using a government database will help you verify who you are speaking with and that the government ID the person gave you is valid.

I have read thousands of police reports from all around the world, and I am always surprised by how often I see officers document one method of identification. Or worse, fail to document how the person was identified. Verbal identification is never enough. You always need at least one more method of identification.

Give a person a label

In grade school, we were all told not to label people. We are not talking about that kind of labeling. During your investigation, you will have a suspect, a victim, and maybe a few witnesses. But what if you think someone is a suspect, but you don’t know for sure? Do you just label that person as a suspect in your report? I hope not.

These are the most common labels for people in a police report:

  • Suspect (S)– A person who probably committed the violation but without certain truth
  • Investigative Lead (IL) – A person who is suspected of committing a crime
  • Victim (V) – A person harmed by a crime, tort, or other wrongs
  • Witness (W) – A person who saw or heard the violation
  • Reporting Party (RP) – The person reporting the crime, if not a victim or witness
  • Involved Other (IO) – Anyone else involved in the case

Everyone an officer contacts or is going to contact in an investigation should be given one of these labels. The most common mislabel error is when an officer labels an investigative lead a suspect. They are not the same. Mislabeling may cause you to lose your criminal case or open your agency up for litigation.

Last year, I reviewed a case where an officer listed a person as a suspect in a police report. That person was denied employment because his future employer found out he was a suspect in a crime. When I reviewed the case, it was clear that the person was only a witness to the crime. He was not the subject of the investigation.

Be careful when labeling others in police reports. When in doubt, always consult your department’s legal team for their recommendation.

My label changed, now what?

What do you do when you realize your victim is now the suspect, or your suspect is just a witness? Changing labels during your investigation is completely acceptable. Chances are that the initial report was completed and approved when you found out your investigative lead is now a suspect. Never change approved reports. Instead, write a simple supplement explaining the reason for the change. It is that simple.

A simple way to include labels in reports

In “The Future of Report Writing,” I mention making a section at the beginning of your report listing everyone involved in your case and how you identified them. It will look something like this:

(S1) – Jason Carter, DOB 03/22/1984. ID confirmed with MVD phot and verbally

(S2) – Jaqueline Anderson, DOB 03/28/1984. ID confirmed with MVD photo and fingerprint

(V) – Blake Oshaghanosee, DOB 03/01/1990. ID confirmed with MVD photo and verbally

If you have more than one person that fits an identifier, just add the numbers 1, 2, etc.

You may notice that I used abbreviations (S, IL, V, W, IO) instead of the full name. Using abbreviations in your narrative is a great way to keep the reader on track. Here is what it looks like:

I spoke with (S1) Jason CARTER who told me that he punched (V) Blake OSHAGHANOSEE in the face.

Once you introduce a person into your report with the proper identifier, you don’t have to use that identifier again. It will look like this:

CARTER said he yelled at OSHAGHANOSEE, “Give me back my purse!”

The flow of your report is really important. The last thing you want to do is interrupt (interject) your sentence with phrases like “…was identified as ____ with his driver’s license.” This is what I normally see:

I spoke with CARTER, who I identified as Jason CARTER with his Arizona Driver’s License, who told me he punched OSHAGHANOSEE in the face.

Including a list of the people involved at the beginning of your report will reduce any interruptions (interjections) in your sentences. It will also reduce redundancy throughout your entire narrative and reduce your passive voice.


Identifying and mislabeling people in police reports is a problem. Take your time to find out who-is-who and make sure your suspect is really a suspect before you label them as one. Clean up your report by including a person’s section at the beginning and listing the ways how you identified them.

Take your time with report writing. It is these little changes that make a big difference.

NEXT: Why every police report needs a synopsis

Joshua Lee is an active-duty police sergeant for a municipal police department in Arizona. Before being promoted, Joshua served five years as a patrol officer and six years as a detective with the Organized Crime Section investigating civil asset forfeiture, white-collar financial crime, and cryptocurrency crimes.

Joshua is a money laundering investigations expert witness and consultant for banks, financial institutions, and accountants. He is also an artificial intelligence for government applications advisor and researcher.

Joshua holds a BA in Justice Studies, an MA in Legal Studies, and an MA in Professional Writing. He has earned some of law enforcement’s top certifications, including the ACFE’s Certified Fraud Examiners (CFE), ACAMS Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialist (CAMS) and the IAFC’s Certified Cyber Crimes Investigator (CCCI).

Joshua is an adjunct professor at a large national university, and a smaller regional college teaching law, criminal justice, government, technology, writing and English courses.