7 easy steps to improving police use of force reports
Even a reasonable, properly performed use of force incident can come under scrutiny if the report describing the situation is not effectively written
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To be safe and effective, a modern law enforcement officer must possess a variety of skills. Physical and verbal communication skills must be complemented with the ability to clearly articulate enforcement actions in the form of written police reports. In this article, I will discuss a specific type of report – use of force or subject control – and offer seven ways officers can improve their reports.
1. Setting the foundation
When it comes to subject control, what matters is exactly what the officer knew at the time their force was used. For this reason, a good subject control report includes everything the officer knew up to the point of the incident. Information obtained after the fact, while important to the overall criminal investigation, is not relevant in terms of the officer’s decision to use force. Things the officer was aware of that absolutely should be included in the report are;
- The nature of the call;
- The officer’s knowledge of past history with the subject;
- Witness statements given to the officer about the subject’s demeanor prior to the incident;
- Any information the officer received about weapons at the scene.
2. Painting the picture
One of the most common mistakes I see when reviewing use of force reports is overgeneralized descriptions that fail to adequately paint the picture of what took place. For example, lines such as “the subject started to become aggressive” or “the subject began to cause a disturbance” must be accompanied by specific descriptions of the subject’s actions. Failure to do this allows too much room for interpretation and argument when it comes time to explain the reasonableness of the actions taken. By describing that “the subject bladed his stance, clenched his fists, rotated his shoulders, screamed, yelled profanities (exact quotes), and stared at the officer without speaking” the officer paints a visual picture for the reader that allows them to understand how the subject was aggressive and why the incident was described as a disturbance.
3. Describe the actions of others, not their intentions
A common question, and often point of confusion, is how and when to report other officers’ actions. Some officers mistakenly think they only need to report what they did, and that it is up to the other officers involved to report what actions they took. Officers think by doing this, there will be less chance of confusion. The problem is, many times one officer’s actions dictate how and why another officer acted in a certain way. So as a general rule, officers should describe what actions they observed from other officers, but never attempt to articulate why those officers took those actions. By following that guideline, the officer can properly describe what happened, without the added confusion of having to explain why another officer acted in a certain way.
4. Articulate the event without sugarcoating
Incidents involving force are most definitely fluid and rapidly evolving. What they rarely are is picture perfect. Too many officers try to “sugar coat” subject control incidents to make them appear less violent or heated. I have seen lines such as “I gently assisted the suspect to the ground” when in fact the suspect (justifiably) was rapidly tackled to the ground. There is nothing wrong describing forcibly taking someone to the ground by tackling them. Officers are expected to use a reasonable amount of force to control or maintain order in a given situation. When officer’s attempt to downplay their actions by describing them in more gentle terms, it often has the reverse effect and makes the reader question whether or not the officer is attempting to hide something. Clearly and decisively describing the actions taken is the most appropriate way to describe police use of force incidents.
5. Understand the role of video
6. Proofread, get a second opinion and read other officer’s reports
The following tip applies not just to subject control reports, but to all reports an officer will ever write. After writing the report, an officer should take a few minutes to accomplish other tasks, then come back to it and proofread it thoroughly. This sounds simple, but in the rush of modern law enforcement, it is far too easy to type it, click send and let the sergeant deal with it. This can result in sloppy reports that increase workload for both the sergeant and the officer when it comes to making corrections. Furthermore, asking other officers, preferably ones who were not on scene, to read reports and check for clarity is an excellent idea. This easy tactic will be beneficial for both the report writer and reviewer. Finally, it is beneficial to review other officer’s reports frequently. It is amazing how much reviewing other reports improves police report-writing abilities.
7. Thoroughly document after-action procedures
A well-written subject control report is not complete without documentation of the measures taken once the force was stopped and compliance was gained. Noting when and if medical staff responded to the scene, what injuries were observed or described, and what measures or security watches were put in place after the subject was placed into custody are excellent conclusions to a thorough report.
Even a reasonable, properly performed force incident can raise questions and come under scrutiny if the report describing the situation is not effectively written. If an officer keeps the previous seven concepts in mind, I have no doubt the clarity, accuracy and overall quality of their subject control reports will improve. The result of quality reports is a better officer, a better agency and a better-served community.