Tag Archives: completeness

Completeness

Police and corrections reports have to be complete. It sounds easy – just write down everything that happened, right? But surprisingly often, officers forget to record a piece of essential information.

Problems can arise later on when an investigation stalls or a court hearing has to be postponed because important facts are missing.

Here are some tips to ensure your report is complete:

1.  Make an extra effort to get contact information from anyone who might assist in an investigation, especially in a major case. If you suspect you might have difficulty reaching a victim or witness, ask for a backup telephone number for a friend or family member.

2.  Always include the results of an investigation, even if the results were negative. It’s embarrassing not to have an answer ready if a defense attorney asks about the results of a sobriety test. Here are some examples of things you might look for that should be documented in your report, no matter what results you get:

  • point of entry or exit
  • missing or damaged items
  • vehicular damage
  • signs of trauma
  • signs of chemical abuse
  • evidence of a break-in
  • fingerprints
  • results of a sobriety test
  • evidence of vehicular damage
  • blood and other bodily fluids

3. Be particularly careful to document evidence that establishes probable cause, especially in a Type 4 report (when you, the officer, set the case in motion – a traffic stop, for example). Even a strong case against a suspect can be thrown out of court if you can’t establish a solid reason for your initial involvement.

Note that “solid reason” means something specific that you saw, heard, smelled, touched. It’s not enough to say that a suspect was “behaving suspiciously.” What did he do? The classic example is a person carrying a wire hanger who’s looking into parked cars on a quiet street after dark. But a person who’s simply walking down a street in an expensive neighborhood after dark isn’t “behaving suspiciously,” even if you suspect that she doesn’t live there.

 4. Start every sentence with a person, place or thing, and use active voice. These practices ensure that you’ll be documenting who performed every action at the scene. You don’t want to write a sentence like this one:

Kettleman was transported to the county jail.  PASSIVE VOICE

WHO transported him? The sentence doesn’t say. Omitted that essential piece of information can be embarrassing if later on there are questions about that ride to the county jail. Active voice eliminates the problem:

Officer Jay transported Kettleman to the county jail.  ACTIVE VOICE

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Completeness

The year was 1903, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had just published another Sherlock Holmes story: “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder.” It’s fun to read, but it certainly isn’t relevant to today’s police officers, right? After all, most modern forensic techniques hadn’t been discovered yet. Fingerprinting was brand new then and makes only one brief appearance in the story.

But maybe there’s something in the story for officers today. Let’s take a closer look.

The story is about a homicide, and for once the police were smarter than Holmes–or so they thought. Detective Lestrade, triumphant with the discovery of a bloody fingerprint on the wall, crows, “you must acknowledge that we have been a little in front of you this time, Mr. Holmes.”

Later, though, in a private moment with his friend Dr. Watson, Holmes says, “The fact is that there is one really serious flaw in this evidence to which our friend attaches so much importance.”

“Indeed, Holmes! What is it?”

“Only this: that I know that that mark was not there when I examined the hall yesterday.”

Gulp. At the end of the story Holmes once again finds the true killer. The thumbprint was a red herring, planted there to implicate the wrong man.

What’s the message for today’s officers? Here it is: Always document not just what you did, but what you found (or didn’t find). Writing “I looked for fingerprints” is meaningless unless you add “and found none.” Sometimes–as Holmes knew very well–what you don’t see is more important than what you do see. Write it down so that you’ll have evidence if you need it.

 

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