Creating a paper trail to follow up complaint calls to law enforcement, to report a traffic accident or to document an arrest begins with a police report. But these are just a few examples of the types of police reports that law enforcement uses. Internal investigations of misconduct among law enforcement’s own ranks also require police reports. Although some basic information on police reports is universal, much of the information varies, depending on the case specifics and the type of each report.
What Is a Police Report?
When police officers arrive at the scene of a traffic accident or a dispatch to a residence where a potential crime has been committed, for example, a reporting officer takes notes to document specific details of the incident or accident. The police report is the document that records the identifying information of the complainant/victim and the suspect, the reason for the report, and other details.
Importance of a Police Report
Police reports are integral components of the criminal justice system. These reports facilitate criminal prosecution, provide judges with a third-party view of circumstances pertaining to court cases, and serve as vital pieces of documentation that help victims of criminal injury recover damages and find justice. Because many court cases take place after much time has passed between an incident and a hearing, a police report doesn’t depend on faulty memories or even hearsay; it is a firsthand account of circumstances close to the moment of the incident.
Purpose of a Police Report
The purpose of police reports is not to issue charges for alleged crimes, which is the duty of a prosecutor such as a district attorney or judge. It’s only after a prosecutor issues charges to an alleged offender that a court case is opened. This is one example of when a police report enters the judicial picture; another example is when a person chooses to bring a lawsuit against someone in a civil matter.
Although police officers investigate crimes, a police report doesn’t drive the judicial process in either of these two examples. Instead, it serves as an unbiased account by law enforcement of the details surrounding an incident.
General Information on Police Reports
There is no nationally mandated format for police reports. Police departments in different jurisdictions use their own style of report forms, but forms in all jurisdictions contain similar information. A case number, or item number, typically is prominent on the form – at or near the top of the form. This number may begin with the year, such as “2019” or simply “19,” followed by a unique number that’s assigned to each incident.
The content of police reports describes not only what the reporting officer saw at the scene of an incident, but also heard from victims, suspects and witnesses. Officers also may snap photos, sketch diagrams, and take measurements of distances or objects, which they attach to a police report.
Different sections of the police report include event information, which is what prompted the opening of a report, such as:
- The date and time of an event.
- The location of an event.
- The reporting officer’s name, which also may include the officer’s badge number.
- The victim’s personal information, such as name, address and physical characteristics.
- The suspect’s personal information and physical description.
- Offenses that may have occurred.
- A listing of damages and/or injuries.
Types of Police Reports
Police reports are tailored to fit the specific event they document. For example, an automobile accident report calls for different details from those for an incident or crime report, so the report for each of these is different.
Other types of police reports include:
- Arrest reports.
- Investigative reports.
- Traffic reports.
- Supplemental police reports.
- Witness reports.
- Administrative reports.
- Internal affairs reports.
Police Vehicle Accident Reports
A driver who is involved in an automobile accident may call the police department to report the accident by calling 911 or the police department directly. Depending on the location of the accident, the police department may not file this report. If an accident occurs within the city limits in some areas, for example, the 911 operator may dispatch an officer from the county sheriff’s department to file the report. And if an accident occurs on certain highways, the operator may dispatch a highway patrol officer to take the report.
If the accident is “with injuries,” the dispatcher will also notify the local emergency medical service to go to the scene. The reporting officer will take statements from all parties involved in the accident, take photos and may take measurements, for example, of tire skid marks. An accident report is an important document for vehicle insurance companies, and all parties involved in the accident should receive a copy of this report, which they may have to request after the accident when the reporting officer files it.
Police Traffic Reports
When a driver sees the unwelcome flashing blue lights from a police car behind him, it may mean that the officer is simply signaling for the driver to pull over for a routine traffic stop to make sure that all documents are in order, such as his driver’s license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance. But it also may mean that the driver has violated a local traffic ordinance. Traffic violations include speeding, driving with an expired tag or without proof of insurance, and failing to yield (or stop). A police traffic report notes the driver’s offense as well as his personal information, such as his name, driver’s license number, vehicle tag number, and the make and model of his vehicle.
Police Incident Reports
When a citizen calls the police department for assistance after she’s been the victim of an alleged crime, the reporting officer goes to her location. This may be her residence, her place of business, or any other private or public location. Victims also may go to the police department to file an incident report there. Many jurisdictions offer victim’s advocacy resources as part of a police incident report, sometimes as a supplemental page to the report.
Different jurisdictions follow different windows of time during which crimes can be prosecuted. So, if a victim does not report a crime immediately, the time clock doesn’t start running when she reports the crime… it is retroactive to the date the crime was committed. This is an important reason for victims to report crimes immediately; it gives the prosecution sufficient time to build a strong court case, if warranted. Additionally, it keeps the details fresh in the mind of the victim and all witnesses.
Examples of criminal statues of limitations, which are not the same in all jurisdictions, include:
- Murder charges – no limit.
- Serious felony charges – six years.
- Misdemeanor charges – two years.
- Petty misdemeanors and infractions – six months.
Police Supplemental Reports
When a police report must be updated by amending or correcting it, an officer may file a supplemental report to reflect the new information. With an initial report, details may be inadvertently omitted by the reporting officer, or a typo in the report may incorrectly document something. If an incident occurred after dark, any photos the officer made at the scene may not clearly show all the necessary details. Although an officer doesn’t mark through the content on the original report to make changes, an additional “supplemental” page becomes part of the original document.
Police Investigative Reports
Once a case is opened by the filing of a police report, a police detective or other investigating officer may initiate an investigative report. And although many police reports are available to the public through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), investigative reports are not publicly available so as not to compromise the prosecution of an alleged criminal. Parties outside the police department, such as insurance companies and private detectives, may set their own investigations in motion. These reports, however, are independent of a police investigative report.
Police Witness Reports
When police officers interview witnesses to an automobile accident or to a crime, they document the interviews on witness reports. These witness reports are supplemental to the primary incident or accident report, but they typically are completed on different forms. Often, an original witness report includes a large blank area on the form for a witness to handwrite her account of the event. Sometimes, an officer may provide a blank sheet of paper for the witness to write her account.
Witness reports may be taken at the time of an accident or incident, or they may be added later during a follow-up interview with the witness.
Police Arrest Reports
Also called an arrest record, an arrest report identifies the charge or charges filed against someone. After a police officer arrests a suspect, often at the directive of the judge who signed the arrest warrant, the arrest report includes the allegations of a victim against a defendant, including all the details of the alleged crime contained in the original incident report. Arrest reports also include fingerprint identifier information, and they also may include the amount of bail (if any) the judge establishes.
Police Administrative Reports
As part of “doing business,” in a vein that’s similar to non-police businesses, police officers and departments also must maintain certain administrative reports. These reports may include arrest statistics, duty rosters, budgetary items and other day-to-day items. When a victim or other member of the public requests certain information on a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) form, these requests are logged into an administrative report and facilitated by a member of the police department.
Internal Affairs Reports
As part of the check-and-balance accountability of a police department, it is sometimes necessary for an officer to submit to an internal affairs investigation. These investigations are documented on internal affairs reports as allegations of misconduct. As the Chicago Police Department notes, these investigations are as serious for the officer who alleges the misconduct as the officer accused of misconduct.
Each allegation returns one of four findings: sustained (the allegation is proved); not sustained (the allegation does not return sufficient evidence to prove or disprove it); unfounded (the incident did not occur, or it was not based on facts revealed by the investigation); or exonerated (an alleged incident did, in fact, occur, but the officer’s action was deemed proper and lawful).
Getting Copies of Police Reports
In many jurisdictions, victims may receive a copy of their police report at no charge, but other members of the public have to pay for their copies. Sometimes, individuals may be able to look up police reports online using one of many database searches. Information retrieved from these databases is usually at a cost to the subscriber of the company that provides the information.
When people who request automobile accident information want a reporting officer to look up an accident report by case number, but they don’t have the number, providing the date and location of the accident plus the name of the driver may be sufficient for the officer to retrieve the report. The same holds true to look up police reports by case number.