The Importance of Effective Note-taking in Law Enforcement
I have a lot of memories of a 40-year-plus law enforcement career-- some are good, some are bad-- and some are of very uncomfortable moments. I remember the camaraderie of my classmates and I, standing at attention outside of our barracks during a fire drill at the New Jersey State Police Academy on a cold January night, and the team building required to not just simply run from danger, but to quickly assess the situation and determine the steps necessary to reach our simulation's end goal: to save our mattresses. I remember a child’s face on a domestic disturbance and the only sane thing happening in that kid’s life was a police uniform. I remember the faces of friends who made the ultimate sacrifice and whose names are inscribed on that wall in Washington, D.C. for eternity. I also remember that uneasy feeling in court while being cross-examined by a good defense attorney. It’s not very comfortable to be questioned by a defense attorney about tasks that you performed several years before and have performed hundreds (or more) times since. Even after asking the court if you can use your police report to refresh your memory you realize that the report you wrote isn’t sufficient to jog your memory so that you can answer the question completely. Maybe you wrote something in your notes that you didn’t write in your report, and if you’re in a jurisdiction where you weren’t required to destroy them, those notes might just be your life-saver.
Notes are emphasized early in a police officer’s career. The importance of note taking, in fact, begins on that first day at the police academy. We keep a notebook starting day one and record notes in each class in preparation for future exams. We also record notes of schedules, duty rosters, and, in my day, patrol charts. Throughout our careers if we were asked about a specific event, day, or time frame we referred to our notes. I recently destroyed many patrol notes written by my grandfather, Philadelphia Police Officer Joseph W. Schwartz, Badge #2474.
Some jurisdictions like New Jersey require an officer’s notes to be destroyed after a report is written. There are some good reasons for this practice-- the primary one being that everything contained in the notes should be written in the report without contradiction. This is one of the reasons police reports are often choppy rather than well written prose. We, the officers, are just trying to capture the facts. Conversely, federal jurisdictions require that notes are retained and maintained as a part of the case package. Investigative reports in federal jurisdictions are carefully written narratives that evolve as a detailed story of the events under investigation. The notes are discoverable, and a good case agent writes them neatly and without unnecessary commentary knowing that they may be introduced to the court both on direct and cross examination. A police officer accepts early, or learns the hard way later, that notes are a part of the job. Notes about a simple stop, a PRA, or a major investigation contain critical facts that may be needed by that officer many years after the event occurred.
Notes taken to document administrative functions, such as those around property and training, are just as important to a police officer’s work. Property is procured, used, maintained, transferred, and destroyed on a routine basis by many agencies. Even the smallest police departments perform the daily routines of transferring communications equipment, vehicles, and firearms between shifts. Some agencies do a very good job of this and have accurate documentation containing the names, dates, and times of these routine equipment transfers. Agencies with good maintenance programs have detailed records about the work that was performed on a firearm, vehicle, or other piece of equipment. Trainers from academy staff to FTO’s document curriculum, circumstances, and student activity. Notes can augment whatever method an agency is using to capture this important data.
Regardless of the size of the agency and the method used to capture and maintain data, notes can provide additional information beyond the requirements of the recording system. The reason a firearm was taken out of service and placed in the armory may not be included in the tracking data, but a note by the processor may provide that information. A lower than normal qualification score merely recorded in a database may not reveal circumstances such as environmental, equipment, or personal factors that may have contributed to the lower score; a note by the range master may help to answer this question should it arise. As a Force Science Analyst I’m convinced that in a use of force investigation there is never enough information-- more is always better-- and notes in a training or maintenance record may provide that “more”.
As officers we learned early in our career the importance of taking notes. Some of us learned the hard way and have embarrassing memories to remind us that note taking is not only important for policing and investigative duties but also for administrative functions. A knowledgeable, accurate, and concise answer to a question is the most effective way to diffuse an uncomfortable cross examination by a defense attorney. Notes may answer the unanswered question, fill in the gap of time and place, or provide a reasonable answer as to “why”.