Thursday, February 20, 2014

If You Don’t Write It Down, It Didn’t Happen: The Importance of Paperwork

Paperwork. Most of us dread it—but especially for peace officers, it can be the key to a criminal conviction, a powerful defense in a civil case, and a very public example of an officer’s professionalism.  A police report is not simply a short diary entry recalling the day in the life of a police officer. Careers can be made or broken by a report.
Jason Hiveley

Someone who knows the importance of a well-written police report is local attorney Jason Hiveley. A partner with Iverson Reuvers Condon, LLC, Jason’s practice focuses on the defense of law enforcement and correctional officers in search and seizure, use of force, negligence, and wrongful death cases. 

He regularly conducts in-service training seminars for police and sheriff’s departments across Minnesota—and will be one of the speakers at the League’s 2014 Safety and Loss Control Workshops both this spring and fall.

Jason recently weighed in on just why good police reports are so critical:

What are some of the most common mistakes made in report writing? 
While grammatical mistakes are more common, using conclusory terms and leaving out critical information can be more problematic.  If an officer writes that a suspect was being belligerent without explaining what that means, it will be very difficult for the officer to remember—months or years later—how the suspect was behaving. 

Reports need to contain specific facts.  If the suspect yelled, “I’m going to stab you with my knife,” then the report not only needs to record that quote, but also needs to include the specific safety concerns of the officer, such as, “I thought the suspect was going to stab me or my partner, so I pulled out my firearm . . .”.  

Why are reports so crucial and necessary, especially to you as an attorney?
The statute of limitations for civil rights cases is six years. That means a plaintiff could file a lawsuit today for an arrest that occurred exactly six years ago. Most people do not remember what they were doing six years ago.

However, a police officer will be asked to recall what time they had contact with the plaintiff, why they had contact, where they were located, whether they were joined by other officers, what was said by everyone involved, what force was used, and why the force was used. 

Without a quality, detailed police report, most officers will have no idea how to answer those questions. The officer will be accused of guessing by a plaintiff’s attorney— and a jury may choose to believe the plaintiff’s story.  As a result, we will have a very difficult time defending the case.
Could you explain the phrase “If it’s not in the report, it didn’t happen”? 
This is the mantra of the plaintiff’s lawyer.  For example, in a use of force case, an officer may claim that he was injured by the suspect, which contributed to his decision to use his ASP or Taser to defend himself and effectuate the arrest.  However, if the report makes no mention of the officer being injured, a good plaintiff’s lawyer will note that this claim of an injury was first mentioned after the officer was sued and met with his attorney several times.  This can also apply to claims by an officer that their life was in danger.  If that specific safety concern was not mentioned, it will be tough to convince a jury that a safety concern existed. 

The bottom line? Nobody likes paperwork, but for all of us (not just peace officers) taking the time to get the facts clear up front can save a lot of headaches and trouble down the road. If you’d like to learn more about police report writing, please join us—or encourage your city’s peace officers to attend—the 2014 Safety and Loss Control Workshops in one of nine locations around the state this spring!

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