Good documentation may be the one thing that saves you in the event of a lawsuit. With the number of incidents and interactions you have each day, years down the road it may be virtually impossible to recall the details of a particular event.
Whether it is medical events, uses of force, unusual circumstances or simply just an effort made to reasonably accommodate, proper documentation is key.
As a mandatory reporter, documentation is also an essential part of your duty and responsibility. It not only represents who you are as a professional (your image), but also reflects your agency and the profession. It is critical to know your policy for documentation, and make quality documentation a priority. It provides a detailed account of the decisions and actions you made, and helps justify and articulate those decisions and actions.
REMEMBER, IF YOU DID NOT DOCUMENT IT, IT DID NOT HAPPEN!
BELOW ARE SOME TIPS TO REMEMBER:
PAINT THE PICTURE and tell the whole story (who, what, when, where, why and how)
As you paint the picture in your documentation, remember to KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE (Judges, Jurys, Attorneys, The Public)
STAY OBJECTIVE – Only document the facts, and don’t allow emotion to come out in your reports. Avoid opinions, and if you use them, label them as such.
Tell the whole story, but keep your report BRIEF AND TO THE POINT. Provide pertinent and relevant information only. This helps keep your report objective.
AVOID SLANG AND JARGON. This goes hand in hand with knowing your audience.
Instead of “cuffs” use “handcuffs”
Instead of “wasted” use “intoxicated”
Instead of “racked back” use “returned to their cell”
Instead of “patted down” use “conducted a pat search”
In the begging of your report, be sure to IDENTIFY THE DATE, THE APPROXIMATE TIME, THE LOCATION AND THE PERSON TALKING. The opening of the report should include a brief synopsis of who is talking, and what the report is about. Your timeframes should be in approximate time only, as your watch may have said something different than someone else’s.
Write your report in FIRST PERSON, using an ACTIVE VOICE, and keeping it PAST TENSE.
“I applied handcuffs on Inmate Anderson and he began to turn towards me.”
NOT: “Anderson then turns toward me as I’m applying cuffs.”
Write your report in CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER, IDENTIFYING ALL PERSONS INVOLVED, ALL ACTIONS TAKEN, and INCLUDE ALL FOLLOW UP ACTIONS. Don’t leave your audience guessing.
“I applied handcuffs on Inmate Anderson and he began to turn towards me. I told Inmate Anderson to turn and face the wall in front of him until instructed to move, and he complied.”
“I conducted a pat search on Inmate Smith, and nothing was found.”
PROOF READ – After you finish writing your report, proof read it, then have someone else proof read it. Another set of eyes may find spelling or grammatical errors you didn’t, or give suggestions for how something may be re-worded. Your report is your report, an accurate record of your actions, however, how it reads may be interpreted differently by someone else.
Make documentation a habit, and document everything. DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT!
Uses of force
Unusual behavior or circumstances
Threats toward yourself or others
Reasonable actions and efforts made to accommodate
DOCUMENTING THE LAWFUL USE OF FORCE
When necessary, force is used to safely and effectively control situations, and how we document and articulate the lawful force we used is critical.
HUDSON v MCMILLIAN (1992) is an excessive force case that speaks to excessive force constituting cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment. However, the 5 pronged HUDSON TEST the courts use to evaluate these cases are still critical to include in any use of force, regardless if convicted or pre-trial.
This 5 pronged test helps the courts determine whether or not your actions were reasonable, necessary and out of good faith; or malicious, unreasonable and unnecessary.
THE HUDSON TEST (PANAM):
1. P – perceived threat by correctional officers?
2. A – any and all efforts to deescalate?
3. N – need for the application of force?
4. A – amount of force that was used?
5. M – medical issues, and extent of any injuries?
The supervisor who reviews your report is responsible to ensure all 5 elements are clearly identified in your report.
1. Perceived threats – This is where you should identify many of the observable situational factors and Graham factors; primarily the level of resistance and the immediate threat.
2. Attempts to de-escalate – This is where you should articulate all efforts exhausted to try and control the situation without force (verbal commands), as well as identifying how there was no reasonably effective alternatives that appeared to exist.
3. Need for the use of force – This is where you should identify why you did, what you did, when you did it, for as long as you did it; your decision for the use of force based on the totality of circumstances. Your choice for the force option used.
4. Amount of force used– This is where you should articulate the force option you used and how you used it. It should be out of good faith, and consistent with the training you have received at your agency.
5. Medical – This is where you should identify the resolution of the incident in terms of any injuries that occurred to both staff and the inmate, and the medical aid that was provided. Regardless of any observable injuries following the use of force, medical staff should evaluate.
Bottom line is, in order for your force to be lawful, it must be objectively reasonable under the totality of circumstances.
Below is a formula to help you break down a LAWFUL USE OF FORCE and THE TOTALITY OF CIRCUMSTANCES. Credit given to Mildred K. O’Linn.
A lawful use of force (LUOF) must be objectively reasonable (OR) under the totality of the circumstances (TOC)
The more you capture in terms of the totality of circumstances, the less likely you are to be challenged in the court of law. Your report should convince practically any jury that your actions were objectively reasonable under the totality of circumstances. Again, if you didn’t document it, it did not happen.
Along with writing reports, remember proper documentation also speaks to how and what you send via email. Remember that email is public record and disclosable, so stay professional and always use tact.
Take extra care when discussing sensitive information.