10 Tips for Reviewing Use-of-Force Reports

While the burden of accurately reporting use-of-force situations is on an individual deputy or officer, the person reviewing those reports shares in the responsibility of making sure the reporting is done properly, with clear details included.

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Proper use of force reporting and the corresponding reviews are important for any department, but they can also provide valuable training feedback to defensive tactics instructors. Brian Walker has served as an instructor for years and when he was promoted to chief deputy at the Noble County Sheriff's Office (IN) he became the one who reviews all non-lethal use-of-force reports.

"I like it when I see that the officer was not injured. I also like to see that the offender was not injured, which tells me we're doing pretty good on our tactics," says Walker. "The other thing is, I'm looking for certain verbiage so that I know that the officer understood the techniques. I use it as a training tool."

Walker joined the agency in 2000 as a confinement officer and became part of the certified injury response team within the jail. He was promoted to merit deputy and attended the academy in 2005. Soon after completing the academy, he first became a general instructor and then a defensive tactics and firearms instructor.

About four years ago he became a chief deputy and currently is the only defensive tactics instructor within the department, so he reviews all non-lethal use-of-force reports. The department is comprised of 26 to 30 jail officers and another 23 deputies out on the road. Walker reviews all use-of-force reports related to road deputies, reserve deputies, and jail/confinement officers. He says that reviewing the use-of-force reports provides feedback on whether the department's training has been successful or could need to be modified.

If there's no complaint filed, Walker will look over the use-of-force report, the supplemental reports, and the narratives and make sure all make sense and there are no discrepancies within the reports. However, in those reports, he does not expect a deputy to know every proper medical term.

"When I first started law enforcement, it was very important to know different police jargon such as the mandibular angle or the hypoglossal, or some of those areas that were denoted by other instructors.," Walker says. "It's more important now to use plain language and just write out exactly what happened and paint me a picture of what you had to deal with. The jargon and the big words and the looking up stuff in a dictionary to find out exactly what it is, I don't necessarily care for that. But it is important that they explain to me exactly what happened in their own words."

He says it is imperative for law enforcement to pay attention to pre-fight cues and indicators. Did the subject have clenched fists, or maybe keep smacking a fist into a hand? What did they say?

"Don't just say, 'I was here at this date and time and the subject came at me.' Try to list those pre-fight indicators that tell me this guy was looking through you, had a clenched fist fighting stance, and was looking to evade arrest, which means they're looking left, they're looking right, they're looking behind them. If they have a weapon, normally they'll touch the weapon area, or they'll keep their hand in their pocket without removing it. Those are the really important things."

Walker says in the case of a typical use-of-force report, the review may only take 15 minutes. But if a complaint was filed or he thinks a deputy's actions may have been excessive, then he is more likely to spend three to four hours in review. In those situations, he digs a little deeper while doing his due diligence.

"I bring people in, we start reviewing videos, we start reviewing every single detail of it," Walker explains.

Both as a trainer and chief deputy, Walker doesn't want to see problematic behavior in use-of-force situations and the corresponding reports. But there are mechanisms in place if a deputy needs to be written up formally, or even be suspended or terminated. To date, Walker has not encountered a situation so heinous that he felt he needed to move forward and contact the local prosecutor's office to review the incident for consideration of charges. But he would if he ever felt it necessary.

"I don't want to be biased either way. I'm very proud of the officers that work for us and very rarely do we receive an excessive-force complaint," says Walker. "But if it's something that is outside that realm of reasonableness, then we want to make sure as an administration that we looked at that use of force from every different angle and did the extra efforts of pulling the videos, we read the narratives,  we talked to the suspect, we talked to the officer, and we did our due diligence to make sure that we did our jobs correctly."

While the burden of accurately reporting use-of-force situations is on an individual deputy or officer, the person within the department reviewing those reports shares in the responsibility of making sure the reporting is done properly, with clear details, and the actions conformed with the expectations of the department's standards.

Walker has developed some tips for anyone tasked with reviewing use-of-force reports. His tips are:

1. Inspect the Form First

Read the form first to make sure there are no errors. As with any form, make sure names, incident number, etc. are all correct. As the form flows, reassure that check boxes are filled in, with N/A being entered in the proper place if they are "not applicable." Look to see if the narrative/report is attached to the form. If it is not, do you have access to print the report? Each report requires a narrative.

2. Dates and Times

Date and time of the incident versus date and time of the report could be different. Most use-of-force reports are completed at the same time the actual incident/case report is written. Pay attention to gaps in time. As the person reviewing the non-lethal use-of-force report, it is important for you to know why there is a time discrepancy on the report.

A major non-lethal incident should be given the same due process as a lethal incident. After a few sleep cycles the memory becomes less clouded, at which time more information can usually be provided. This is not needed for every use-of-force incident.

3. Subject's Name

Each situation should be reviewed individually. It does not matter if the subject is a known "frequent flyer” or your agency has had multiple interactions with them. You will need to stay unbiased and base your review on the current situation. Patterns do present themselves, and officers' perceptions of the scene will play a part in the actions that take place. However, when reviewing, it is still based on the reasonableness of each situation.

4. Officers Name(s)

After seeing the form is complete, check the deputy's/officer's name. Look to see if this deputy's/officer's name has appeared on multiple recent use of force reports. This may help determine if there is an issue in training that needs to be evaluated. Does the deputy/officer need de-escalation training, more FTO training, or could it be the deputy/officer is the one that gets assigned the special situations/incidents?

5. Injuries

Was an officer injured during the altercation? If so, how? Was it preventable? Is there an opportunity to recreate the scenario for training purposes? Was the subject injured? Did the amount of resistance match the application of force by the deputy/officer? Again, was it preventable? Was either party treated by medical staff? If so, is there documentation?

6. Nature of Call/Reason for Use of Force

This is where it is determined what special circumstances surround the incident. Did this occur on the road, in a public area, on private property, or was the individual confined in jail at the time of the incident? Was the use of force used to effect an arrest, prevent a violent felony, restrain the subject for their safety, protect the deputy/officer, or protect someone else? Each situation is important, but some may dictate a different level of force to apply.

7. Levels of Resistance

It is important to focus more on the reasonableness of each situation as opposed to focusing on each level of resistance. However, reflecting on what levels of resistance were recognized by the officer, can help put things chronologically in order of events. Know if the resistance involved any of these:

  • psychological intimidation
  • verbal threats
  • passive resistance
  • defensive resistance
  • active aggression

8. Skills/Techniques Used

Officers need to indicate how they attempted to control the individual. The first step is always being officer presence, followed by de-escalation. Then again, to help put things in order for the officer and his reports, check if their levels of force were followed in this manner:

  • verbal commands/de-escalation — loud, clear, and concise word commands
  • empty hand techniques — striking, joint manipulation, muscling techniques
  • intermediate weapons — batons, OC spray, taser

9. Policies

Unfortunately, you as the reviewer of the non-lethal use-of-force report must decide if the level of force used meets the department's policy criteria regarding the actions that occurred. Was there a need for the use of force by the officer and was the force applied based on the information provided to the officer at the time of the incident?

10. Check with the Officer Involved

The most important step is to speak with the officer that was involved. Let them know you reviewed the document. Be sure to have them tell you in their own words what happened and actively listen to them, not just reply to them.

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