How to Report Police Misconduct

A great deal of police misconduct occurs, but goes unreported.1 This is a shame for several reasons:

        •  Reporting police misconduct is the first
step in stopping it.

        •  Reporting police misconduct may help a victim win a 
           lawsuit against the officers who injured him. 

        •  Reporting police misconduct may help show that a 
           defendant in a criminal case was coerced by officers 
           to confess or consent to a search.

One reason many people don’t report police misconduct they’ve seen or experienced, is that they’re not sure how to go about it. The following material will help you provide clear and powerful testimony, if you’re in a position to report police misconduct.

There are three tricks to being a good eyewitness:

        1.  Learn in advance what categories of information 
             will be relevant in court, so you can catch the right 
             details. That’s why you should familiarize yourself 
             with the Police Misconduct Report form now.

        2.  Describe what’s happening in words, while you’re 
             witnessing it. By mentally giving a running 
             commentary on the action, you make much stronger 

        3.  Write down everything that happened. Don’t wait—
             do it immediately after the incident. If at all 
             possible, make notes while you’re still at the scene, 
             especially about names and numbers.

Experiments have shown that our minds don’t normally retain very many details of our experiences.2 There’s also a myth in our society that when you see a shocking event, it’s branded into your memory and under the right circumstances (such as hypnosis) you’ll be able to play it back, just like a videotape. That’s rarely true. The reality is that if you’re very angry or afraid, your mind stores fewer of the details that you’re experiencing, because your attention is divided. For example, it’s not unusual for rape victims to find themselves unable to remember even their assailant’s race or hair color. So, if you’re experiencing or watching police violence or threats (which is naturally upsetting), you’ll have to concentrate carefully to see and remember the details. You’ll do a much better job if you say in your mind exactly what’s going on while you’re watching, the same as a sports announcer. It might sound like this:

Now there’s five, six, no seven cops, all piling on him! They’ve got him pinned to the ground. They’re handcuffing him. Okay, they’ve rolled him over on his back…and what are they doing? Oh, man, they’re spraying mace or something right in his face! He’s coughing and gagging. The cops keep on spraying him, over and over. He’s trying to twist away, but they’re all holding him down. Damn, they’ve used up that whole thing of spray on him—nothing more is coming out! He’s not breathing too good either, he’s straining for air, with his mouth wide open and his head thrown back… Whoa, that big cop just kicked him in the ribs!

If you have a cell phone with you, call a voice mail or a message machine and record your play-by-play description. And then make a copy of your message afterward, before it gets erased. Your “live coverage” could be very powerful evidence, both in court and in the media.3

Police Misconduct Report

The incident report form on the following pages was created by several lawyers,4 to help witnesses to and victims of police misconduct record what they experienced. Naturally, no one will be able to answer every single question on this form. The point is just to write down all the information you do have, before it fades away. And memories evaporate quickly. The best time to fill out the police misconduct report is within a few hours of the incident. Even by the next day, you’ll find it much harder to remember critical details. To do a good job, you need to be familiar with the form before you witness the incident. Otherwise, when it comes time to fill it out, you’ll be kicking yourself because you missed lots of information that you could’ve collected, if only you’d known it was important. So read through the police misconduct report form now. Better yet, practice actually filling out the form, using the material from the story Protect and Serve or your own experiences. Afterward, look at the Sample Police Misconduct Report describing the events in Protect and Serve. If you take the time to work with the police misconduct report in advance, you’ll get the outline of it in your head, so that when you’re at an incident, you’ll know just what information to seek out. (You can download the Police Misconduct Report.)

1.   For more information on police misconduct and what can be done about it, see Suggested Reference Material on Police Misconduct.

2.  To learn more about providing accurate eyewitness testimony, see Elizabeth F. Loftus, Eyewitness Testimony (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.)  It's important to know which details require greated concentration, such as remembering the features of someone of a different race, noticing other facts when someone's brandishing a weapon, and perceiving details during a stressful or violent incident.

3.  Even if you do record the event using your cellphone, you must also fill out the police misconduct report right away.  The questions in the report will help you remember material that you didn't happen to talk about while you were making your recording.  The written report and the spoken recording will each make the other stronger.

4.  The lawyers who designed this police misconduct report are: Katya Komisaruk,  Osha Neumann, and Bill Simpich.