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The ultimate Use-of-Force report
By Tracy E. Barnhart
Published: 11/26/2007

Tracy Barnhart is a Marine combat veteran of Desert Storm / Desert Shield. In 2000, he joined the Ohio Department of Youth Services at the Marion Juvenile Corrections Facility, a maximum security male correctional facility housing more than 320 offenders. Barnhart works with 16 to 21-year-old, male offenders with violent criminal convictions and aggressive natures.

You have just been involved in a stressful and violent situation. Your body has just had a major surge of adrenaline along with other chemicals that will be coursing through your system for hours. Now it is time to sit down and start writing what transpired. The severity of the incident will affect your recollection of the episode and individual clarity will not come into focus for several hours after the violent situation.

I know that a lot of department regulations mandate completing a use-of-force report prior to the end of your shift, but think about this. Due to your elevated stress level and adrenaline dump, you may want to take some time prior to talking to anyone or writing anything down on paper. If the incident resulted in major injury or death, you should go to the hospital to get checked out, and ascertain your current mental condition. Medication may even be recommended.

Law enforcement and corrections officers have been granted the extraordinary authority to use force when necessary to accomplish lawful ends. That authority is grounded in every officer’s responsibility to comply with laws regarding use of force and to comply with the provisions of their policy. Equally important is law enforcement’s obligation to prepare individual officers in the best way possible to exercise that authority.

In situations where force is justified, the utmost restraint should be exercised. It should never be considered routine. Agencies require officers to complete use-of-force reports in all use-of-force incidents, no matter the level of force used, for various reasons unique to the politics and culture of the individual agency. The general premise for these reports falls into several categories:
  • Law enforcement and corrections officials want data on the use of force as it relates to individual responsibility. This data, in turn, is tabulated for controlling the future application of force.

  • Rank and file want information on their member’s use of force to illustrate restraint, identify professionalism and compassion, and help protect the rights of officers in an after action review.

  • Oversight agencies want the data as a basis for analyzing the factors surrounding its application and determining how law enforcement and corrections can better minimize the effects.

  • News media have a natural interest in this because it is their job to report newsworthy items to the public; It also sells papers and assists TV ratings.
In addition, there are five reasons why force should be accurately reported:
  • Use of force is one of the most controversial areas of law enforcement and corrections activities. Citizens have a right to know what type of force is employed by officers and under what circumstances.

  • If the evidence of a use-of-force allegation against an officer is inconclusive, a point in the officer’s favor is a good track record. Past reports can demonstrate an officer’s good judgment and behavior during stressful violent situations.

  • The best defense available to a government agency in a civil suit is to have acted properly. This includes job related competency based training, proper updated policies, correct supervision, and a reporting system that facilitates all of the above.

  • These reports can be the basis of documentation that identifies and screens out unfit officers. Some officers should not be officers and just slip through.

  • Inaccurate reporting should not allow officers or supervisors to write themselves out of a bad situation. Untruthful, creative writing skills will only put themselves and the agency in a poor light.
While writing a use-of-force report, compile a comprehensive and chronological summary of the sequences as they transpired during the event while marinating the details. No two reports are the same, so there is no way to maintain a standard outline on how to compile one. However, we can tailor our reports to the specific questions that will be asked by our supervisors, investigators, or juries. Details are very important in a report and no particulars should be left out because of time constraints or brevity due to writer’s cramp.

It is at this initial stage of the critical incident that the agency can ensure that the documentation is consistent with the factual elements of the incident. Before any reports are submitted by an officer, records such as dispatch tapes, call logs, emergency medical treatment records, and video tapes from the area should be reviewed by the officers and supervisors.

Reviewing these items will not taint the report but instead serve to refresh the officer’s memory. Many agencies may not permit this, but the officer’s reporting accuracy and truthfulness should be check against actual video of what took place. Supervisors must read each report and edit them for grammatical errors.

These reports should contain exactly what happened accurately and truthfully. Any propaganda or deception will eventually be brought to light and will only lead to your eventual downfall or possible prosecution. You must set the scene for the reader as to what you were doing prior to the incident taking place. What drew your attention to the individual in question and most of all what feelings or fears you may have had. Reporting your feelings during a volatile incident may seem inappropriate but it may be able to justify use of force, as all force incidents should be seen through the eyes of the officers, and not second guessed.

Your supervisor will not be the only one who will read this report. Think about the prosecuting or defense attorney, the juror, or even the Supreme Court Justice. So write down everything. Be sure to include: your observations as you approached the individual and their level of defiance; whether or not they conspicuously or inconspicuously attempted to ignore you; the exaggerated or ceasing of movements; whether or not the individual was target glancing, or looking around to ascertain your back-up or eventual escape routes; your knowledge of the individual and his past aggressive or violent experiences; their exact verbal and non-verbal responses; the position of his hands and his (i.e. clenched into a fist).

Also, try to include: the subject’s actions or pre-attack postures; whether or not the individual took on a bladed boxer’s stance or shift his shoulders into an aggressive position. Record his hostility level, and if they were belligerent, rebellious, pugnacious or nervous, cooperative or just skirmish. Ask yourself: Did the individual advance toward you or walk or run away? Did he ignore you?

All of these facts are essential to the pre-force set up so readers can know exactly what you were observing, feeling and sensing as the incident unfolded. If you fail to leave out this essential element, the reader may not be able to correlate the reasons for your use of force and initially believe that the force may have been unjustified.

Other articles by Barnhart:
Understanding aggressive youth, 10/29/07

Three tiers of force, 10/1/07


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