For law enforcement officers, filing an accurate report can be all that stands between a department and a costly settlement. Strong reporting can mean the difference between an agency paying out, facing a fine or even preventing the loss of a job. Documenting incidents in a legally defensible way not only improves compliance with department policy but can drastically reduce department liability as well.
Police Magazine reported that a vast majority of the civil rights lawsuits that a municipality or department will face will never go to trial. Instead, the city or county will settle out of court without admitting any wrongdoing. Often, plaintiffs will subpoena the incident report and use it as a basis for their claim. Poorly written incident reports can be a contributing factor when the decision to settle is made as the department is unlikely to prevail during litigation.
The author, Mark Tarte, points out that in addition to costing a department or county money, the direct settlement solution contributes to damaging officers' morale and the public's trust of law enforcement.
Instead of paying out settlements, a department can benefit from training their officers how to write excellent reports. Too many officers are either making reports more complicated than they need be, forgetting important elements or not making the account easy to follow. The purpose of these reports is to convey the actions of the officer and parties involved in an incident to demonstrate that an officer's actions were reasonable and appropriate given the circumstances.
However, in litigation defense, a detailed report isn't the only thing necessary. The report must be appropriately filed and easily accessible. In addition, the education, training and certifications the officer has can often be a factor, as these substantiate what department policy was at the time and what an officer has been trained to do under similar circumstances. These factors will be carefully weighed by the court when assessing the accountability of the officer and his or her department. Training records often become part of the discovery process and can be used as evidence either for or against a "failure to train" claim by the plaintiff. A department's training records management system must be more than just a spreadsheet or simple database in order to hold up in court. Prosecutors are becoming more knowledgeable about the ease with which electronic records (like a spreadsheet) can be altered – often arguing successfully that because the department cannot prove the records are accurate, they should not be admissible. Legally defensible training systems however maintain internal audit trails that negate a prosecution's argument that they can be altered.
In our litigious society law enforcement is often a target of frivolous litigation. However, departments can reduce their exposure by training officers to write solid incident reports. Also, maintaining legally defensible records of officer training and compliance significantly increases a department's chances of success during litigation.
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