Why the truth may not be what you think

How to make sure your corrections incident reports won’t get you in trouble


An intoxicated subject has been in your sobering cell for the past three hours. It’s time for the nurse to check his vitals. He’s been cooperative so far this evening.

You escort the nurse to your booking hallway, unlock the sobering cell and have the subject step out for vitals.

“Joe, come out, this nice lady wants to make sure you’re doing OK,” you say to wake Joe from a deep sleep and get him to zig-zag to the door. You know Joe. Joe knows you. You have escorted him into the facility about 15 times in the past two months without one issue. He’s normally comical and unsteady at worst. Not today.

With enough experience, you can improve your incidental observational skills specifically to prepare for a report.
With enough experience, you can improve your incidental observational skills specifically to prepare for a report.

Today, Joe tries to grab the nurse and she backs off. You call for backup and take hold of Joe’s extended right arm, turning it into a twist lock and forcing Joe into a safer position. Joe is cursing and spitting. Backup arrives, including Deputy Smith and two others. Your focus is on Joe. You have his right arm secure. He’s not going anywhere. You have turned his face away from you so his spit lands on the floor. Now you’re talking to Joe and trying to calm him down.

Staff gets full control of Joe and places him in Safety for staff security. Time to write a report. You are pretty sure that Deputy Smith had control of Joe’s left arm.

GETTING THE DETAILS DOWN

The crux of a report in the correctional setting is to accurately explain to a non-involved third party what you saw happen during an incident. In doing so, you justify your actions and help a disciplinary officer or prosecutor bring forth the proper charges against an offender. Your report will be read by your supervisor and, most likely, your command staff. Your reports will be read by lawyers who don’t know you. Your reports will be read by judges. A report you write may be the missing piece that helps someone figure out a crime.

Even with the importance of reports, there is still a likelihood you will not know every detail of every incident in which you are involved. There are so many pieces to every incident that there is the potential to miss some of what happened, especially during a quickly unfolding interaction with an arrestee or an inmate. A corrections officer may miss a critical component of an incident and, with the best intentions, make an earnest attempt to fill in the blanks to describe the incident more completely in a report.

This is a trap. Of all the seemingly good reasons in your head that you feel you should tell a complete story in your reports, none of them are valid if, in fact, you don’t have the complete story.

[Read: 9 documentation tips for correctional officers]

JUST THE FACTS, NOTHING MORE

How accurate are your reports? The answer to this question may seem obvious. However, if you write that Deputy Smith took control of an inmate’s left arm, but you didn’t see Smith take control of the arm, that little piece in your report could be used in court or in an internal investigation to destroy the rest of your report. A false detail will also destroy your credibility and stands to get you in trouble at work.

You might reason that since Deputy Smith was there, who else could it have been? While you were busy talking to Joe and controlling the right arm, you saw Smith coming, but he was actually controlling the legs, and it was Sergeant Jones who took control of the right arm.

When we speak to someone who is absolutely sure about every bit of information shared with us, the general consensus is that this person is telling untruths sometimes because nobody knows everything with certainty all of the time. It is much easier to believe someone who tells you from time to time that they are not sure about the answer to your question. Not knowing everything at all times reflects a reality of the human condition.

USE QUESTIONS TO BUILD A COMPLETE TRUTH

If you only know that something happened but don’t know who made it happen, it is perfectly acceptable and expected to state exactly those facts. You can write, “I controlled the subject’s right arm. Another staff member had control of the left arm. After debriefing the incident, I found out it was Sergeant Jones who had control of the other arm.” That’s a simple bit of truth, and it stands to further legitimize anything you WERE sure of in your report.

If an attorney later confronts you on a matter of fact you wrote in your report, asking if you are sure that is what happened, you can easily say, “Yes, I was sure when I wrote that report because if I hadn’t been, I would have written that I didn’t know and found out from another participant after the incident concluded.”

When you build a history of accurate report writing, including statements that you were missing information, you increase the credibility of the statements of observation you do include in your reports.

Ultimately, we would all like to have every detail of every story to tell. With enough experience, you can improve your incidental observational skills specifically to prepare for a report. Realistically, you will likely miss details of the incident, but it is imperative your reports only reflect what you actually experienced.

Take our quiz: Are you including the right things in your reports?

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