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Obtaining Written Statements

While scanning through some online communities of law enforcement officers I came upon a discussion about taking statements from people, specifically if the officers had the individuals write out their own statements or if the officer wrote it out for them. I was surprised at some of the responses, to say the least.

One response was, "I take the statement, I write the statement (well, type it) and they sign the statement. I am sure to write it using their words but by writing it myself it goes in chronological order and I am sure to cover all the points required. This is standard operating procedure over here." This is often the SOP for many police officers, but unfortunately it is not the best practice. There may be a reason why the individual did not make the account in a chronological order. Often, what is important to the individual goes down on paper first. If we write the statement in the order WE think it SHOULD go, we can loose potentially valuable information and insight. Also, by trying to get "all the points required" is a different focus than getting all the information the individual has, and assess WHAT'S IMPORTANT TO HIM/HER.

Another response was, "I usually do a question and answer which I type out, then, while I start on the other paperwork, I give the subject a legal pad and get him to write out a statement in his own words." We are getting better by having the subject write out their own statement in their own words, but by doing a question and answer BEFORE taking the statement you will inevitably influence the content of the statement. In effect, it will not be "in his own words" as hoped, but it will be a product, or by-product, of the question and answer session beforehand.

One officer stated, "I always write (or even better, type) statments [sic] myself. I HATE audio-taped statements. Not only do they take me twice as long to transcribe as they would have to type in the first place, but due to mumbling, phones ringing, radios squaking [sic], people walking through, prisoners yelling etc. there's always sections of the tape that can't be made out. I'll admit though, warned statements done by hand suck too, I try to avoid that."

My main question here is, "Where are you conducting your interviews???" There should be privacy, which means no phones, no radios squawking, no prisoners yelling, nobody walking through.

Although there were a couple responses within that discussion that were good, such as "having the individual write out their statement and ask questions to clarify the statement", or "audio and/or video tape all statements", etc, there were significantly more practices that were being employed that have been shown to be ineffective, to say the very least.

The best practice for obtaining a written statement is to conduct the interview in a private setting free from distractions and time limitations. Establish rapport with the individual and simply ask them to "Please write down everything that happened..." From that starting point we obtain their pure version account of the incident which we can asses and ask clarifying question about based upon the information they provided, by using open and probing questions.

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