Every police academy recruit is taught the importance of writing a good report. Later, the same is done during orientation and field training when hired by an agency. Unfortunately, obtaining quality statements is sometimes not equally stressed. What officers soon forget is not necessarily the importance of obtaining information but that information has different levels of importance.
Most of what a law enforcement officer reports on is considered hearsay. What is written in a sworn statement is considered evidence. Hearsay and evidence are not the something. Therefore, the importance of obtaining well written statements from victims or witnesses can't be overstated. Let's go over what a sworn statement is, what its purpose is, and what factors are needed to make it worthwhile in an investigation for court purposes.
Sworn Statement Defined
A sworn witness statement is simply a written statement of the evidence a person is able to render in relation to a particular circumstance he or she is somehow involved in. It is a notarized statement taken with the clear understanding that giving false testimony is considered a crime of perjury and punishable by law. Ideally the witness statement should be legible, clearly understood by anyone who might read it, and contain important information relevant to the case at hand. The information should be presented in a logical sequence.
If at all possible, a statement should follow the rules of writing a good police narrative. It should be written with the journalistic approach of trying to answer who, what, when, where, why, and how. Obviously, there will be times when you have very little information, but the object lesson here is to get as much answered as possible.
Uses for Sworn Statements
As I stated earlier, the importance of a properly obtained sworn statement can't be overstated. After you have been on the job for a while, it's easy to become too comfortable with required paperwork. The need for obtaining a sworn statement gravitates to one of becoming something you do over than something that you need. It's at that point in your career that a review of what a sworn statement can be used for will help bring you back into focus about its importance.
Besides being the evidence you may need to help set up and prosecute a case, sworn statements have at least three other uses. The first revolves around it being considered a recorded recollection. The statement itself can be read at a deposition or trial without its author being present. As for the second, it can be used to refresh a witness testimony. And lastly, it can be used to question the credibility of testifying witnesses, otherwise known as impeachment. The sworn statement is as much a valuable tool as it is a piece of evidence.
You need to keep in mind that a sworn statement must follow three key guidelines:
1. Everything in the sworn statement must be true to the best of the person's knowledge. That means the person giving the statement can only include facts that he or she has first-hand knowledge of. The person can only describe what he or she saw, heard, did, or said.
2. A sworn statement must contain only facts. During your victim/witness interviews, be very wary of any sentences that start with "I believe" or "I think." Those should not be included in the statement as they are not facts but opinions.
3. The information in the statement must be related to your case. Although technically it is the witness' statement and the person can write whatever he or she wants, it's your job to keep the person focused on the events at hand and to his or her level of participation in that event.
Obtaining a Good Statement
Set-up is everything. Ideally you should wait until emotions have calmed down and you are able to focus your time on the person about to give the statement. It is my recommendation that you not multi-task when doing so. Stay with the person writing the statement and answer any questions he or she may have. Proofread the statement before the person signs it. You can't tell people what to write, but you can advise them of anything they left out during your interview. Here is a real-world example of what not to do.
I was working with a deputy who was one of those guys that would hand out the statement form, give the victim a few instructions, and then leave the person alone while he went off to process the scene or to do any other part of the investigation he had yet to complete. On a residential burglary, he gave the victim the standard "Here is how you fill out your statement" speech, checked for the victim's understanding of the task, gave him the form, and went off to process his scene by lifting fingerprints and taking photographs.
About 20 minutes later, he came back to check on the victim, and asked if he had finished with his statement. The victim said he had and gave him the form. Here is what it said: "Came home, stuff gone." Obviously, that was not the intended result and the deputy had to stay with the victim as he wrote a better statement. The point is, you need to treat taking a statement seriously and give it the attention it deserves.
What to Look For
The standard for report writing should be the standard you apply to statements whenever possible. Obviously that's a goal and not a mandate because you will run into people with all types of educational backgrounds. However, you can still help people giving statements by providing good guidance, reading the statement, and looking for the following:
1. Plain language. Put them at ease by telling them up front not to worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. What's more important is their content and that's its legible. In other words, it's more important that the statement can be read and understood.
2. Short sentences. Sometimes people try too hard in order to impress someone or they really don't know how to write well at all. Asking them to use short sentences helps overcome these situations. Ask that they be brief and to the point.
3. Organized and clear. Tell them to write it out as a story, just like they explained it to you during your interview. Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. In other words, there is an order to what happened; ask them to explain things in that order. Times and dates are very important. If they don't know an exact time, getting them to bracket the time is fine. For example, if they don't know the exact time of occurrence, they can say something like, "I left for work at 7:00 a.m. Upon my return at 5:00 p.m., I noticed that my front door had been forced open."
Don't include who did it unless it's absolutely known. I have heard of innocent people losing their jobs because they were named as suspects in a police report. You can handle a victim telling you who he or she thinks perpetrated a crime in one of two ways.
You could let the victim go ahead and write in the statement who he or she thinks did it. The school of thought is, you as the officer aren't making the allegation but the victim is. The problem I have with this line of reasoning is, regardless of who is doing it, this places on record an opinion that could be completely wrong. The potential for causing an innocent person harm is very strong.
A better way to handle this type of situation is to note your victim's information about the potential perpetrator by turning in an investigative lead. This lead is not part of your report narrative and is handled as a different cover. Your information still becomes part of the case file (and therefore public record), but not available until after the case is closed. How you handle this type of situation will depend on your agency policy and procedures and guidance from your state or district attorney.
Taking statements must be viewed as just as important as taking a good report if not more so. A statement has many useful purposes and part of what I consider Cop 101. Take your time with this up front and it will pay off in the long run.
Amaury Murgado retired a senior lieutenant from the Osceola County (FL) Sheriff's Office with over 29 years of experience and retired from the Army Reserve as a master sergeant. He holds a Master of Political Science degree from the University of Central Florida.