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May 30, 2014
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Matt Stiehm Campus Safety
with Matt Stiehm

How to protect your career by writing better use-of-force reports

We must change our “less is more” mentality on UOF reports to a “more is more” mindset for the next generation of police officers

Law enforcement officers are trained to document every minute detail in every criminal investigation, incident, or traffic collision. But officers are too frequently failing to appropriately document the application of force — they too often fail to articulate the objective reasonableness of force they used on a subject. 

As you know, law enforcement and the use of force is governed by the United States Constitution Fourth Amendment, appropriate state statutes. The reality is that the United States Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Fourth Amendment in Graham v. Connor provided clarity for what is objectively reasonable for the application of force. 

This case — and subsequent decisions — allows for a lot of latitude with the lawful (objectively reasonable) application of force, but officers routinely short change their efforts with the application of force in their reports. We must change our “less is more” mentality on UOF reports to a “more is more” mindset for the next generation of police officers.

Telling Your Story
Police professionals are excellent at describing interactions between a suspect and victim. We tell their story well, but we rarely share our story in full. Our story of a violent encounter —of why the suspect forced us to use force to control any situation — is important and we need to learn how to share it. 

For example, a police use of force report form limits the story telling of the incident in which force was applied. This type of report allows for quick reference and but it does not allow for a full telling of your story. Details are lost, memories fade, and by the time civil litigation comes around, we’re often left to wonder “what did those check marks really mean?” or “what are the chicken scratches on the paper?”

The story of an application of force needs to be as detailed as possible — detail protects everyone, even the subject. The absence of details allows for conjuncture and speculation that any civil attorney can use create problems for you during litigation and depositions. 

I contend “too much detail” does not create problems — it allows for a richer picture of the incident, and allows for fuller, more rich memory recall. A good report can clearly describe the whys and hows of an application of force.

Telling the Subject’s Story
As a police officer there is also a need to demonstrate in writing, the subject’s actions, all of their actions. The subject’s actions, reactions, comments, statements, verbal utterances, and physical features are important because it sets the stage for the application of force. 

The lack of details about the subject again creates a void of information, which cannot be filled once the report has been submitted, and a 1983 suit has been filed. As a police officer, you only get one chance at it. How longer after an incident can the civil suit be filed? 

Storytelling Suggestions
When you write a use of force report, start with the call for service. Describe what was going on in your mind, what the traffic conditions were, whether or not any other officers were responding, whether you had prior contact with the suspect in the past. Include the location of the crime, and obviously any information related to crime — weapons or presence of other people at the scene. This sets the stage for preparing for the contact.

Reflect back on the scene. Document your observations, interactions, comments, discussions, reactions, threats, and factors generally known as “the totality of circumstances.” Continue to document your decisions and justification for selection of a specific weapon or force option. 

Understanding how to document objective reasonableness is relatively easy. The practical side of doing the documentation is not that easy! 

Officers, recruits and FTO’s tell people the old street philosophy that less is more, but that adage needs to change. In UOF reports the “more is more” tactic protects the officer. We need to understand that tellingour stories is how we protect ourselves!

Conclusion 
Without a fully written narrative of the incident that including reasons, decisions, and actions, juries and armchair quarterbacks alike will introduce conjecture and speculation. The “experts” who weren’t there during the tense and rapidly unfolding incident will opine on the reasonableness of your actions.

So just tell a complete story. You need to put them into your shoes, your decision-making process. 


About the author

Dr. Matt Stiehm has received an Educational Doctorate from Argosy University, where the focus of his research was campus safety and security. He has served as a police officer in three states (CA, MN and NE), he keeps current on law enforcement trends.  He currently is a member of ILEETA, MN Infragard, FBI LEEDS, an Associate Member of the IACP, Support Member of the MN Chiefs Association, the Midwestern Criminal Justice Association, and recently Police Executive Research Forum Subscribing Member. He is currently conducting some independent research projects into police use of force, campus public safety use of force, and general leadership trends.

Contact Matt Stiehm





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