Legal Insight: Report the whole story

An officer contacted me recently requesting information on report writing. As is often the case, he was in trouble over a use-of-force incident. He wanted to know how detailed a report should be – especially if you were being investigated for your force response. My answer is pretty much a stock answer. A use-of-force report needs to be thorough, complete, and above all truthful. It really doesn’t matter whether you are being investigated or not because all use-of-force reports should be investigated -- i.e. reviewed by the department -- anyway.

If you ask me, one of the greatest challenges that I face as a righteous use-of-force law enforcement officer defense expert is the tendency of most officers to write short, incomplete reports that are not adequately reviewed by their departments. These reports later, often times much later, will need to be expanded/completed through the use of supplemental documentation, which are always viewed in “suspect” manner. I have heard these supplemental reports referred to as confabulation – a false story made up later to justify the actions of the officer.

The bottom line is that an officer’s initial report is the best time to document his/her decision-making, threat assessment, force response, and other important information. Due to the emotional impact of the incident or injuries to the officer, this report may not be competed the day of the incident but it needs to be completed in a timely fashion. Remember the report writing maxim that I am closely associated with, “If you didn’t write it down and it would make you look good, it didn’t happen.” Get that thorough and complete report completed and reviewed by the department and ready for the criminal and civil cases that most likely will follow.

The question then becomes: What information should be recorded in a thorough and complete use-or-force report? The answer has been around for over twenty years and was included in the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminars of the middle 1980’s, where we referred to it as the Disturbance Resolution Model. This use-of-force training, report writing, and force evaluation tool has been adopted by numerous state, county, and municipal agencies, including the State of Wisconsin Law Enforcement Standards Bureau. It has been modified over the years but still serves as a national template for use-of-force issues.

The Disturbance Resolution Model is divided into Approach Consideration, Intervention Options, and Follow-Through Considerations. This model makes sure the officer deals with all aspects of a force encounter: the beginning, middle, and end. Unfortunately most officers focus only on the actual use-of-force in their reports and miss important aspects of their approach and follow-through after the force encounter.

The Disturbance Resolution Model can be used as a template for training an officer on how to respond to a force situation and as a guide to writing the officer’s report, to evaluating the officer’s force response, and to defending the officer’s actions in court.

The first component of this is Approach Considerations and can be divided into:

1. Decision-making,
2. Tactical Deployment, and
3. Tactical Evaluation.

The second component is Intervention Options and can be divided into:

1. Presence.
2. Dialog.
3. Control Alternations.
4. Protective Alternatives.
5. Deadly Force.

The third component is Follow-Through Considerations and can be divided into:

1. Stabilization through the application of restraints, if necessary.
2. Initial Medical Assessment.
3. Search Procedures.
4. Escort Procedures.
5. Transport Procedures.
6. Turnover through removal of restraints, if necessary.

The Street Survival Seminar has dealt with strategies for protecting officers from attacks from plaintiff attorneys in all three of these components, referred to as Level One, Two, and Three Lawsuits.

Level One Lawsuits are attacks on the officer’s use of and/or level of force or continued use of force when no longer necessary.

Level Two Lawsuits attacks are upon the officer’s decision-making, tactics, and threat assessment.

Level Three Lawsuits are attacks on the officer’s follow-through after the initial use of force and focuses on how the subject was stabilized, restrained, medically cared for, searched, escorted, and/or transported.

Officers need to write complete reports that defend their force decisions prior to these legal maneuverings. Future Police1 Legal Tactical Tips will focus on how to prepare for these legal challenges.

[Download a copy of the Disturbance Resolution Model Use-of-Force Documentation Checklist to assist you in writing your thorough and complete force report.]

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