Television cops have an hour to solve a crime. For entertainment purposes, each episode usually involves a crash-laden vehicle pursuit and a shootout where the cop is the only one to hit anything. What you never see are the days if not weeks of follow-up investigations and the accompanying reams of paperwork that would go along with each episode if real. Television actors get to ignore paperwork because it's not in the script. The rest of us are not so lucky.
Paperwork is a real part of our life. Just because you made your arrest, knocked out a three-line probable cause arrest affidavit, and went home doesn't mean things are over for you or your case. Your paperwork must be correct, you must present the facts as accurately as possible, and you must meet your various timelines. The end of your report is merely the start of a process that involves many gatekeepers. The keys to getting past the gatekeepers are found within your agency's records section.
Your records section supplies the direction and control for gatekeeping. Getting your citations to the clerk of the court on time, submitting mandatory reporting data to the FBI for uniform crime reporting, and handling state or district attorney filing requirements are but a few responsibilities that a records section handles on a daily basis. In order for you to grasp the nature and scope of the gatekeeping work they do, let me show you by way of a simple example.
Let's say you write down the wrong date of birth on a traffic citation. No big deal, right? You write hundreds of citations every year and every once in a blue moon you make a mistake. If it were only you, the records section wouldn't mind, as the time invested to correct the problem would be minimal. But in reality, you are just one of many officers making similar mistakes. It may be one mistake to you but it becomes hundreds of mistakes to your records section.
Every mistake has to be corrected in a timely manner in accordance with local, state, and federal requirements. If not, you risk some type of penalty or dismissal. You have to consider that one simple mistake causes a ripple effect that affects many different people. Your mistakes in essence cause the wheels of justice to turn very slowly. They don't start turning at speed again until someone corrects the mistakes.
10 Ways to Maximize Gatekeeping
As a longtime supervisor I have had to deal with quality control issues my entire career. Paperwork is just not an attractive part of law enforcement and most action-oriented officers would rather be fighting the good fight in the streets than being bogged down behind a computer. Nevertheless, paperwork is part of the good fight and we need to give it at least as much attention as anything else we do, if not more. I asked two records supervisors for some guidance in how we can help maximize their gatekeeping. Here is what they had to say in no particular order.
- Every state has some type of statute or administrative code that tells you when you have to have your citations turned in to the clerk of the court. You need to follow your agency's procedure to make sure you turn them in on time. The easiest way is to make sure they get turned in at the end of your shift. For example, in Florida the citations must be turned in to the Clerk of the Court within five days.
- You need to submit your reports to records on time. Each state or district attorney has rules on their paperwork that revolve around a timeframe. If your case involves a juvenile, that timeframe is probably even shorter than for other cases. As with citations, the easiest thing to do is turn your reports in at the end of your shift; if that's not possible, shoot for the next day. Regardless of what you do, understand it's your case and the clock is ticking. If you miss a deadline it's on you and no one else.
- If your agency has gone through an accreditation process, then you have to follow additional procedures. Accreditation organizations like for agencies to account for all reports. When reports go missing, e-mails with lists of offending officers are usually sent out. This is time consuming and tedious for the records section. If you turn in your reports in a timely manner you keep your name off the lists. My records director hates it when I lovingly refer to all her list e-mails as "hate mail" because I hate getting them.
- Every state has some type of lead law enforcement agency that helps guide and direct law enforcement operations. In Florida, it's the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, or FDLE. These lead agencies require that certain data entry standards be met. When they are not met, the report gets sent back, which sets into motion a series of corrections involving numerous agencies. These lead agencies also conduct criminal history audits to ensure that everyone is meeting their standards.
- Records personnel have to code paperwork so they can submit their reports to the FBI's uniform crime reporting section. The FBI has been collecting, publishing, and archiving these statistics since 1930. The problem for records is they can't simply use the state statute number. Instead, they must read the entire report to assign the proper Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program code. If records personnel feel you have left out information that will help them assign the proper UCR code, they will contact you about the issue and wait for a satisfactory reply. This wastes time and energy for everyone involved and causes unnecessary delays.
- You must include the full number of any pertinent state statutes in all paperwork. This is very important because the full number helps establish the degree of the crime, which in turn helps establish the retention rate for the paperwork. For example, in Florida, paperwork on a 1st degree misdemeanor must be retained for five years after the offense was committed.
- Provide all necessary documents within the report to avoid being tasked by the state or district attorney. All requests of this nature are usually received by the records section first. They then have to process the request and track its progress.
- Personal information is not automatically exempt from disclosure because you're a victim of a crime. You must follow your state's guidelines or risk involving your agency in a lawsuit.
- Name and address verification for all subjects officers come into contact with is crucial for keeping your agency's database current. Normally it's records personnel who catch discrepancies between citations and arrest affidavits. To prevent any problems, officers should update their database prior to turning in their paperwork (assuming they use some type of in-car computer or office workstation). A great deal of responsibility is given to the officers for filling in and updating various data fields. It's not the records section's job to fix errors; it's their job to catch them. They have more than enough work already with things like handling freedom of information requests, archiving paperwork, and meeting timeline requirements.
- Not all paperwork that passes through your records section can be considered public record. When taking an initial report for a complainant or victim please inform them it will take up to 72 hours (some agencies' standard is five business days) before the paperwork reaches records. Explain to them how the report goes through a supervisory chain and then starts to get archived. Everyone wants things right then and there, but unfortunately it doesn't work that way.
Fill it Out Right the First Time
Nothing we do that gatekeepers find mistakes in can be considered rocket science. And yet, mistakes keep piling up every day. In fact, if you look at why gatekeepers exist in the first place, it's because we created the need for them. Paperwork may not be considered the most attractive part of law enforcement but it's definitely one of the main aspects that drives the train.
If I supervise you and have to consistently chase you down for your paperwork or you are a "frequent flyer" on the error list, I really don't need you or the headaches you cause. You can't consider yourself a good cop if your paperwork is always getting kicked back, creating tasking sheets, or causing case dismissals. If your case doesn't stick then what's the point? Those monthly stats don't mean a thing if they don't end up with cases that stick.
My advice has remained consistent over the years: Slow down, double check your work, follow procedures, and keep to the timelines. Doing so will help keep your gatekeepers at bay. An old mentor of mine told me long ago that if I mastered my paperwork I would have a successful career; so far, so good.
Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, has over 27 years of law enforcement experience, and has been a lifelong student of martial arts.