Patrol officers' role in suspect identification

Three simple reminders to reiterate during roll call training can go a long way toward increasing the success rate investigative efforts of your department

As police supervisors, it is your responsibility to ensure police reports contain the necessary information needed to apprehend criminal suspects. Remember, the investigation begins with the patrol officer preparing the police report.

“As a Sergeant, I’ve read thousands of police incident reports — many with very poor descriptions of suspects,” said Bob Del Torre, a retired sergeant from a San Francisco Bay Area police department. “I’ve spoken with many officers and supervisors in my department, as well as supervisors in other departments about this problem.”

The reasons given for obtaining a vague and poor description by a patrol officer were as follows:

1.) Officers are simply in a hurry to just fill out the report and go back in service
2.) Officers feel the crime has been committed and there is little or no chance the suspect(s) will ever be apprehended
3.) Officers simply check off the boxes on their report and do not ask any more detailed questions
4.) Officers think in terms of handling a crime report as only administrative and they are not thinking it should be investigative
5.) Officers in patrol, rarely are part of the investigative process. If they were, I am sure they would be obtaining a very detailed description, as it would benefit them greatly
6.) Officers do not see great statistics in the apprehension rate of the suspects — if they did see greater arrest rates, their investigative process would improve dramatically

“It is important to note that there are police officers who are extremely diligent when preparing a report and take phenomenal descriptions. These are usually the cases where the suspect is identified and apprehended,” Del Torre said.

Del Torre believes — and I agree — that supervisors must train those officers who are lacking in this area. We both believe that roll call offers a training opportunity that is often overlooked. A great deal can be accomplished during a 10-minute daily instruction session. Del Torre believes the following three steps can help you in your roll call training.

1.) Explain why a report is taken.
Obviously to report the incident, but more importantly, to apprehend the suspects! How are we going to apprehend anyone with poor descriptions? The answer is we’re not!

So, if as police officers you’re comfortable with just responding to a call and writing a report with a description that describes about 1,000 subjects in your district, you have missed the whole point of our job. Our job is to catch the bad guys.

2.) Think investigative — not administrative!
Stress this point and explain to your troops what the absolute goal of writing a report is. It is to document what crime occurred so we can identify and apprehend the suspect(s) responsible.

3.) Encourage patrol officers to actively work their cases.
Have them follow up leads, interview victims, and witnesses a second time, be involved in the case more than just filing the initial report. They will take better descriptions if you can afford the luxury of giving them the time to work on them.

“Once the arrest rate goes up, other officers will take notice and hopefully figure out that taking a good detailed description was the key. If a good arrest was made because of their conscientious report taking, reward them,” Del Torre said.

Acknowledge their good work in lineup and place a “documented good work” memo in their personnel file.

“Lastly, if we don’t know what the suspect looks like and we don’t ask more detailed questions, we will never ever catch the bad guy!” Del Torre said.

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor at Large for PoliceOne, responsible for providing police training content and expert analysis on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community. An award-winning columnist — he is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column — Doug has authored more than 900 feature articles and tactical tips. Doug is also responsible for planning and recording the PoliceOne Podcast, Policing Matters, as well as being the on-air host for PoliceOne Video interviews. Doug also works closely with the PoliceOne Academy to develop training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.

Doug regularly represents PoliceOne as a public speaker in a variety of forums and is available for media interviews — he has appeared on numerous local and national radio and television news programs, and has been quoted in a host of print publications. 

Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Contact Doug Wyllie

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