8 keys to a well-written police use-of-force report

A well-written force response report may take a little longer to write on the front end, but will certainly save you much more time (and trouble) later

Considering the number of contacts officers have with citizens, police use of force is statistically a rare event. “A 1999 BJS report estimated that less than half of one percent of an estimated 44 million people who had face-to-face contact with a police officer were threatened with or actually experienced force,” according to a DOJ document.  

Further, when officers do use force, it’s been shown that in a high percentage of these events (as high as 99.58 percent) the force was reasonable and justifiable. Even with the high percentage of reasonable and justifiable uses of force, we seem to be losing a disproportionate amount of cases in civil lawsuits. 

The most likely culprit for this disparity is poor — or lack of — documentation of use-of-force incidents.

Writing a Great UOF Report

When an officer uses force in an event, the force response event should be thoroughly documented by the involved officer(s). This documentation would include, but not be limited to:

  • Written report
  • Photographs
  • Evidence collection
  • Recorded statements

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s focus on written documentation. This is not an exhaustive list but it is a good starting point to remember while writing — or, for supervisors, reviewing — a force response report. 

1. Pre-Event Details: Include the facts and details prior to the force response. These include:
    a. When/Where/What of the event
    b. How did the officer get there?
        i. What type of event: Call for Service/Flag down/On-view…
        ii. Officer appearance and mode of transportation
    c. What drew the officer’s attention specifically to the suspect?
    d. What commands were given to the suspect?
    e. What were the responses to those commands?

2. What was the reasonable suspicion/probable cause prior to the seizure and/or force response?
    a. Describe each and every fact/element to support the seizure/ force response

3. Pre-assault indicators should be noted if present.
    a. They should be described in detail, not with canned phrases like “fighting stance”

4. The “totality of the circumstances” should include all the facts known to or perceived by the officer. Some people have reduced this phrase to just some snappy catch phrase. In reality this is one of the most critical elements of the report that some officers feel they can skimp on.
    a. Why did the officer use force? These include:
        i. Severity of the crime(s) at issue. This is the crime that was occurring when the officer decided to use the force option, not necessarily only the original crime.
        ii. Threat to officers and others
        iii. Level and duration of resistance 
        iv. Other force factors relevant to the event describing “why” the officer used the force response, including but not limited to:
            1. Number of officers/suspects
            2. Proximity to weapons
            3. Size and strength differentials
            4. Injury or exhaustion of officer
    b. What force option was used and how was it used (intrusiveness of the force)?
        i. Describe the force option/technique in detail 
        ii. Describe how it was used, including the intention of the officer
        iii. Describe the effect and/or non-effect of the force option

5. Suspect action drives officer response. This is a theme that is true and should be reflected in the report. The only innate tool possessed by officers to obtain compliance with the suspect is their voice. After that, it is the suspect that chooses not to comply through his/her actions. These actions are then what compel the officer to use a force option to affect the arrest, prevent the escape or overcome the resistance of the suspect.

6. Each officer should document what they did and why they did it. 
    a. It is proper for an officer to describe what he/she saw another officer doing
    b. It is not proper for that officer to describe “why” the other officer was doing it. The “why” should be documented by the officer using the force option. 

7. Post-custody actions should be described in detail. 
    a. Was medical treatment provided?
        i. When was it provided/What was it/Who provided it?
    b. Were the handcuffs properly tightened and double-locked prior to transport?

8. Supervisory review. It is extremely important to have a supervisor respond to a force response event to oversee the investigation and make sure all the proper steps are taken to insure a thorough investigation is done. It is also important that the officer’s report is reviewed and approved prior to submission. 
    a. It is the supervisor’s responsibility to make sure the report is the best it can be. Supervisors should not by shy to send a force response report back to be re-written if important facts or details are missing.

The well-written force response report should provide enough detail so that a reader of the report could make a short film about the event. When the filming is over and the involved officer views the film, the officer should be able to say, “that is how I remember the event.” A well-written force response report may take a little longer to write on the front end, but will certainly save you much more time and trouble later.

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