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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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Comments (16)

Displaying 1 - 16 of 16

Serena Booth @ 6/6/2012 6:16 PM

Excellent reading.
I will make sure my officers read this article.
Good for ANYbody of ANY rank. In other words: If you wear a badge, you need to read.

tmhunt @ 6/7/2012 3:55 AM

Great article, a good reminder of the things we don't think much about that can come back to haunt us.

starrman69 @ 6/7/2012 6:05 PM

They can't stress enough the importance of a well written, detailed report. I didn't go to court as often as the other deputies and several assistant prosecutors told me it was the completeness of my's not surprising that when you deal with the same dirtbags day in and day out, that you forget little details of every can't bring it up in court if it isn't in your report.

Russ @ 6/8/2012 5:59 AM

Excellent article all around! I was glad to see report writing covered because the importance of good report writing is so often overlooked by many officers. Another benefit of writing a good, detailed report that wasn't mentioned is that it can be the deciding factor when admin is looking at promotional candidates and detective assignments - especially when the competition is about even on all other counts. When I taught report writing in the academies in a prior life, I told them on day one that regardless of what they had read, seen on tv or heard from friends and relatives about police work, by the end of their first year they would realize we are actually the best armed secretaries in the county because they would spend more time writing reports than any other single activity. I agree with Serena Booth: this article is good for anybody of any rank. Thank you.

Brad @ 6/8/2012 11:49 AM

Excellent read. Things we all have told ,but always need reminded of.

Chuck McKenzie @ 6/8/2012 5:40 PM

I wish I had had a training officer of your caliber. You're a .45 in a world of .22s. I rarely had to go to court because my reports were written according to your rules. My downfall was pursuits; no one was getting away. It is truly sad that you will probably never be a chief; you are far too intelligent for the caliber of individuals I worked for. Great article.

Rev. Lowrey @ 6/9/2012 4:01 PM

Excellent article. It seems your comments about reports really hit home with officers. There was something you brought up near the conclusion of your first point about being nice that I think should be expanded on. Compliant individuals will be just as compliant and perhaps remember details better if they don't feel intimidated. You never know when a less compliant personality will mirror an officers aggressive posture and end up in an unnecessary altercation. Taking a calm approach also lets the officer be more aware to the details of their situation and in a position of defusing rather than encouraging or aggravating a potentially dangerous engagement. The better PR can't be bad either. It pays to be nice.

Capt David-Ret LA County @ 6/9/2012 5:07 PM

Well said. Don't take things personal, keep as level headed as possible, keep good records and reports, make a copy of everything for your own files if possible, don't cover, lie, cheat, file false reports. Read and learn from it.

irmomarshal1 @ 6/10/2012 5:47 AM

I taught one of my classes last week entitled 'Leadership, Ethics & Egos' and this article is a perfect fit. I only hope those officers in management that need to give this some thought, take time to do so. Be safe.

sheriffbob @ 6/11/2012 3:47 PM

I had a Captain who once told me about writing a report, " Remember, your name will be at the bottom of this report". Great info. Stay safe.

Joe S @ 6/15/2012 12:10 PM

Great read! I'll make sure to pass it on.

Mike "Ziggy" Siegfried @ 7/2/2012 1:17 PM

Thank you so much for the very kind words. Writing is a solitary adventure and you never know how it will be received. I hope the suggestions I shared will help. We are all her to learn from each other.

Donnie Tinnell @ 7/18/2012 4:51 AM

I agree with everything you discussed but i'm afraid our academys can't instill some of these things,report writing you can, a lot of agencies control pursuits with policy and procedure,but young officers normally react quicker than they should. they seldom don't think things out. experience teaches us your statements are correct but how do we instill that in our young officers who have no real street experience,I don't believe our F.T.O. programs can fix this in such a short period only practical experience proves to us these things are correct. I salute you for your words, I pray they become part of our training culture. Thanks Chief of Police Donnie Tinnell Lebanon Junction Police dept.

Al Andrews @ 8/8/2012 7:30 AM

Exceptional piece! I've been very long retired but would have made this an issue handout for all my officers. Especially appreciate the wisdom and emphasis on report writing. In my career, a huge portion of the cases of occider actions on which I had to sit in judgment were obviously attributable to poor report writing. And, you can absolutely bet on the important influence report writing quality (or lack thereof) has on (not only) promotions but even more influence on duty assignments, etc.

In speaking to officers, I often tried to emphasize a "rule" I learned from my first chief and my first sergeant as a young patrol officer. Loosely (and a little carelessly and confusingly) stated as "When in doubt, don't!"

An officer who hinks about the "What if (such and such happened right now? and what he'd do about it and is a keen observer and thinker about the experiences of himself and other officers and understands where the courts are coming from, will generally find that if he has doubts about the course of action to take, he is probably being signalled by his professional subconscious that he is on tricky or dangerous ground and needs to rein in and take a look at the way events are moving. A corollary of the "rule" is "When you're angry, you have very good reason to be in doubt but probably aren't because you're angry. Whoa, boy, slow down!"

Thanks from an old chief who saw way too many officers in trouble because they were off the mark on one or more of your points. This is an exceptionally comprehnsive, and short, and well written piece of advice.

And the comments about applicability to the upper ranks are right on!

Good luck and I hope your chosen career path for the next years includes influencing police executives and writing for officer self-improvement.

J Hailey @ 9/10/2012 11:55 PM

I dont like the comment.....Too many innocent people have been killed by "OFFICERS" who engaged in vehicle pursuits when they shouldn’t have..... It's real simple, If YOU ! The "VIOLATOR" flee from Law enformencement, Police, Deputy, Troopers and you make them chase you, YOU ALONE SHOULD BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE FOR YOUR ACTION !! NOT EVERYONE ELSE, DOING THE RIGHT THING THERE JOBS!!!


Mike "Ziggy" Siegfried @ 4/25/2013 2:21 PM

J Hailey, I appreciate your point. There are situations when an officer must pursue. I understand that. But the suspect should not be leading the officer by the nose. In most cases, it is the officer that will have to make the determination to end a pursuit that is getting too dangerous for all involved. As I wrote, "Just because someone runs, does not mean you have to chase him or her. Sometimes patience is the better part of valor". The intent of this article and every one I have ever written, is to help cops not blame them. I sorry you missed that and the other points I was trying to make. I do thank you for the feedback. I tend to learn more from the people that do not agree with me. Be safe!

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