While the term police incident report sounds so straightforward you might think it's self-explanatory, it's actually just the entrance into a deep rabbit hole of law enforcement reporting jargon. It's absolutely necessary for police departments to maintain detailed logs of factual and eye-witness information pertaining to reported crimes, and alongside the police report, the incident report serves as one of the very first documents on that journey as told by the victim of the crime.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
While a police report is written by law enforcement, an incident report is an account of a crime written by the victim.
Police Incident Report: Definition
Right off the bat, the most defining characteristic of an incident report is that it is not written by the police. When a crime occurs and is reported to the police, the victim of the crime makes a statement regarding the incident. This is the incident report.
The incident report may include supporting documents that corroborate, or are related to, the victim's statement, such as letters or bank statements. Police departments often grant insurance companies and businesses that request a police report access to the incident report; these are not usually used as tools for further investigation for law enforcement agencies (leave that to the police report).
Before diving too deeply down the police jargon rabbit hole, it's crucial to bear in mind that nomenclature and naming habits often vary across police departments. And of course, the term incident report is also used for workplace reports, traffic incidents and medical incidents, which may further add to the confusion. For police use, incident reports are also sometimes called offense reports.
Police Incident Report: Contents
Even more so than naming conventions, the actual contents of an incident report vary widely with the nature of the incident. Most police departments offer incident report forms, which serve as templates for victims to fill in relevant information. These reports are packed full of info, often including:
- Type of crime.
- Date and time the crime began.
- Date and time the crime ended.
- Date and time the report was created.
- Location of the incident.
- Type of location, such as school or restaurant.
- Identifying information for the victim, including name, date of birth, driver's license number and Social Security number.
- Physical information for the victim, such as height, weight, age, hair color, race, sex and eye color.
- Contact information for the victim, such as residence address, business address, employer name, phone numbers and email address.
Because incident reports are commonly used in cases of theft, some templates may also include specific prompts for the type of theft, the method and points of entry and exit, and a space to list stolen property, including details such as the quantity, brand, model, serial number, color, estimated market value and monetary value of any damage that occurred. Similarly, other incident reports cater to injury-related crimes, such as domestic abuse, and may contain fields asking the victim to describe the type of injury and the victim's relationship to the abuser, if any.
Perhaps most importantly and characteristically, incident reports contain space for the victim's narrative (this can also be attached on additional sheets of paper). The narrative is a free-form section for the victim to write a detailed account of the incident as it occurred, as well as to provide any additional information the writer of the incident report deems relevant to the situation.
The victim signs the incident report, verifying a short, usually prewritten statement that the information contained in the document is, to the best of the writer's knowledge, true and correct.
Filing an Incident Report
Upon receiving the report from the victim, the police department adds information to the incident report, including:
- Report number used by police to easily look up and keep track of the report.
- Name of the officer who approved the report, if any, and the badge number.
- Exact classification and incident code for the type of crime.
- Name and badge number of the law enforcement official who reviewed the report.
- Case numbers for any associated cases.
- Case status, such as open, suspended or unfounded.
- Any known bias of the victim.
- Time and date the report was submitted to the police department's database.
Commonly, victims of a crime also have the option to file their incident reports online with the appropriate police department. Sometimes, though, this option does not allow for the attachment of supporting documents.
Once submitted, the incident report may or may not be reviewed by an officer, let alone investigated, as fraud investigator Mark Fullbright notes in his 2014 presentation, "Police Report vs. Incident Report: A Resource for Identity Theft Victims." Incident reports usually live in a records management system maintained by law enforcement agencies.
What Is a Police Report?
OK, if an incident report isn't even written by police, then what's a police report?
First, unlike an incident report, a police report is written by police. This document is a thorough description of the facts detailing a crime, written by the law enforcement officer or other police department representative who was assigned to the scene. It can't be stressed enough that police reports focus on logging the facts. These reports stay specific to the crime-related events that occurred.
Like incident reports, police departments often have different document report templates for different crimes, such as identity theft or traffic incidents. These often contain bespoke information, like details on the compromised information or auto damage, but some common items across police reports remain fairly consistent. This info is often similar to incident reports and includes:
- Basic identifying info of the victim, like name, birthdate, age, race and sex.
- Contact info for the victim, such as home and work addresses, phone numbers and email address.
- Location of the incident.
- Date and time of first and last activity.
- Date and time reported.
- Type of offense.
- Basic identifying info of the suspect, such as name, birthdate, age, race, sex, hair color and eye color.
- Additional information for the suspect, including known aliases and relationship to the victim.
- Contact information for the suspect, if known.
- Synopsis of the incident in chronological order, similar to the incident report's narrative, with an emphasis on fact-based, objective reporting.
- A photocopy of the victim's identification, such as a driver's license, state ID or passport.
- Any relevant supporting documents.
Unlike incident reports, police reports serve as crucial tools for investigations following the initial incident. Often, detectives use these reports in their ongoing work.
Other Types of Records
Among police departments across the country, police incident reports and police reports are far from alone. Law enforcement agencies maintain a wide variety of records, some similar to incident reports and some vastly different. These documents include:
- Logs of arrests or arrest reports detailing arrests made by law enforcement.
- Logs of incident responses detailing police action taken in response to incidents.
- Search warrants allowing law enforcement officers with reason to suspect criminal activity to search a location.
- Arrest warrants listing the defendant's name, description of the crime and bail amount.
- Custody and bail records held at county and city jails.
- Coroner's office reports.
Availability of Reports
It's important to note that police do not charge people with crimes; that duty falls to prosecutors. Court cases open only when a defendant receives formal charges.
For this reason, incident reports and other records created and maintained by police departments are not part of the court system, which means that – unlike court records – they're not automatically open to the public. Search warrants are the exception to this rule, as they are filed with the court; conveniently for reporters and the public, they also commonly contain detailed info on the related criminal case.
Alongside incident reports, numerous types of police reports are typically open to public perusal by request, such as logs of arrest, logs of incident responses, coroner's office reports and, of course, search warrants. Some reports provided to the public may contain edited or censored sensitive information.
State Laws and Police Records
Some state laws, such as the California Public Records act, specifically include and exclude certain types of police records from public disclosure. Similarly, police can claim general exemptions to public disclosure, such as withholding information that may put someone in harm's way or potentially compromise an ongoing investigation.
On a similar note, specific legislation like California SB 1421, the Right to Know Act, grants the public the right to access some records relevant to cases of police misconduct and serious uses of force. According to the NorCal branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, this act grants access to any relevant documents still in the agency's possession. As is the case for obtaining most types of police records, interested parties will need to submit a request form, available in person or at the particular police department's website.
Look Up Police Reports Online
As surprising as it may sound in the 21st century, even public accessibility doesn't always equal online accessibility. This is certainly true in the realm of police records.
The online availability of police records boils down to each individual police department. Some local departments freely offer documents like arrest logs, incident reports and incident response logs on their official websites. As an alternative, online arms of newspapers such as the San Francisco Chronicle regularly publish arrest records pertaining to their localities.
While a virtually countless array of commercial websites advertise the ability to look up police reports by case number (for a price, of course), their ability to deliver on those claims may vary. The time-tested, old-school method requires victims to mail a written request for a police report to the relevant police department's records division or document processing unit. It's often the case that police reports will only be provided to the victim or the victim's representative.
Police Report Case Numbers
At the scene of the crime, the reporting officer will often provide the victim with an identification number for the police report, which can be used to look up the report. Especially in terms of traffic incidents, this makes it easy for victims to look up accident reports by case number.
Traffic Collision Reports and Arrest Summaries
In a similar fashion, the department may provide copies of traffic collision reports or arrest summaries, but these docs don't always come free. The Los Angeles Police Department, for instance, charges anywhere from $17 to nearly $30 for certain reports.
- Berkeley Advanced Media Institute: Tutorial: Police Records
- Mark Fullbright, CCFI, CITRMS, CCRR: Police Report vs. Incident Report: A Resource for Identity Theft Victims
- Bakersfield Police Department: Summary Incident Report
- Stillwater Police Department: Uniform Incident/Offense Report
- Police Data Initiative: Incidents
- Los Angeles Police Department: Obtaining Police Information
- Nolo: Car Accidents and Police Reports
- Data.gov: Police Incident Reports Written
- Oakland Police Department: Identity Theft Report
- Cambridge Police Department: Incident Report
- ACLU NorCal: Access to California Police Records