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Departments : The Winning Edge

Five Things That Can Get You Killed or Sued

Thinking things through and taking just a little care can save you a world of hurt.

June 06, 2012  |  by Mike "Ziggy" Siegfried

4. Writing Too Little

Be humble enough to learn from your peers, especially the experienced ones. Most cops have a specialty or two. Something they love to do. Learn from the experts next to you. If you are constantly going to court and getting grilled on the stand, find out why proactive officers rarely have to go to court. Most of the time, you will find it’s because they write good reports.

Ask these officers if you can have a copy of their best reports. I have never heard a cop refuse this request. In fact, they are usually flattered. Learn from these reports and use them as a template for when you have similar investigations.

Many cops skimp on writing a good report. When calls for service are piling up, they feel pressure to get going fast. So they write short reports with minimal information. The problem with this philosophy shows up later. If their agencies have good report writing oversight, the officers will be asked to rewrite their reports. The report rewrite often involves re-interviewing victims, witnesses, and suspects. This usually takes a lot longer than doing a good report on the front end.

There are also legal consequences to writing shoddy reports. They often end up giving us bad case law. Bad case law makes it harder for every cop to do his or her job.

Bad reports also create potential liability for the officer and department. The focus should be on writing a report covering the elements of the crime and potential criminal defenses. By doing this, you will have a better reputation with victims, your department, and the district attorney.

Use-of-force incidents are one of the most important aspects of policing that require you to write a detailed and comprehensive report. I have seen many force reports that lacked the details necessary to defend the officer and the department from civil liability, let alone get a criminal conviction on the suspect.

Force reports should cover three areas:

• What was the officer's "legal standing," or put more simply why did the officer have a right to contact the suspect? If an officer pulls over a car without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, the officer has no "legal standing." Therefore, if the officer uses force that force will not be legal.

• What did the suspect do to actively resist you in your lawful duties? Being specific is very important. There is a big difference between writing, "The suspect took a combative stance," and "The suspect took a bladed stance and raised his fists to his chin. He moved his weight to the balls of his feet and tucked his chin to his chest. He moved his head side to side like a boxer. I recognized these movement from defensive tactics training. At that moment, I was concerned the suspect had a martial arts skill set that could be a danger to me and others in the area."

• Describe in detail how the suspect's "active resistance" created a danger for you or someone else. For example, "I believed my partner was in imminent jeopardy because the suspect with the boxer stance said, 'I'm going to beat you down.' He started moving quickly toward my partner. At that point, I believed it was objectively reasonable to deploy my TASER."

5. Pursuing Everything That Runs

Just because someone runs, does not mean you have to chase him or her. Sometimes patience is the better part of valor. If you know who they are, do you really need to chase them into an apartment filled with gang members when you are by yourself? We have lost too many officers to ambushes on foot pursuits.

Do you need to initiate a vehicle pursuit with a known suspect that may result in the traffic collision deaths of uninvolved citizens? No. Too many innocent people have been killed by officers who engaged in vehicle pursuits when they shouldn’t have.

Remember, if you started the pursuit you can call if off. You must constantly analyze what is happening. You might have to call off the 100-mph pursuit that started in a rural area when it enters a crowded urban area. Calling off a bad pursuit is not a sign of weakness. It is a tactical necessity.

My goal is to remind all of us to take a little time to analyze what we are doing and how we are doing it. Most of the mistakes I have listed can be attributed to some form of going too fast.

Take a minute and think about what you are doing, saying, and writing. Law enforcement is by and large a reactive profession. A suspect completes a crime usually entailing an "overt act" and we "react." By the nature of our work, we must adapt. This adaptation involves being technically, socially, and mentally nimble. We analyze current trends and share our experiences with others. I hope some of these suggestions will help you.

Mike "Ziggy" Siegfried is a detective, instructor, and use-of-force expert with the San Bernardino County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department.

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