March 4, 2023

What do we do when officers’ initial reports don’t align with video footage?


PERF members,

A recent piece in the Washington Post concluded: “analysis of seven high-profile cases in which people died after use of force by police officers—from the fatal injury of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015 to the death of [Tyre] Nichols last month—found a familiar pattern: The initial police version of events was misleading, incomplete, or wrong, with the first accounts consistently in conflict with the full set of facts once they finally emerged.”

Here, for example, is how the Minneapolis Police Department’s initial statement on George Floyd’s death in May 2020—titled “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction”—described that “interaction”:

“Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”

All of those individual statements are factually accurate, but they don’t give a true picture of what we all saw on video later that week.

The public is noticing these discrepancies because of the ubiquity of video footage from body-worn cameras, cell phones, and security cameras. In the past, police reports were often published by reporters as the only account of an incident. If these reports were challenged, it usually happened months or years later during a trial. Now, cell phone video might come out minutes or hours after an incident, and police agencies face public pressure to quickly release body-worn camera video. The public views these videos as more credible than a written police report, though we all know videos may not show everything that happened.

It’s important to note that the Post did not analyze a random sample of cases, and I strongly believe these are outliers in how dramatically the initial reports differed from the actual events. But even one case like these is too many. And in high-profile cases, the question often asked is how initial reports square with the actual body-worn video. When there are wide discrepancies, it can erode the trust a department has built up.

It’s not surprising that we’ve arrived at this point. Responding officers want to write a report that is accurate but also presents their actions in the best possible light. To do so, they often use passive language that minimizes their role in an incident that ended badly – the Post’s examples include “the incident occurred,” “a struggle ensued,” and “a confrontation occurred.” And officers generally follow established agency policies, training, and cultural norms about what police reports should and should not include.

Officers, like people in most professions, are hesitant to share an unflattering portrayal of their coworkers’ actions, particularly when that unflattering portrayal might become public. Some may think that there are better places to resolve these kinds of issues than in police reports.

As John Timoney—the late NYPD veteran, Philadelphia Police Commissioner, and Miami Police Chief— once told me, there are two important lessons when it comes to obtaining information from police officers. First, the initial information you get is usually wrong. Second, cops tell their boss what they think they want to hear. So agencies are understandably hesitant to release information quickly. Whatever positive reaction a chief may get from releasing important information can be undercut if it turns out to be inaccurate. How often do you read that police “initially reported . . . only to state later that . . .”? So this is a balancing act, where chiefs always emphasize the word “preliminary” in initial statements.

The challenge is growing because public information officers and agency leaders are expected to release information much faster than ever before. Previously, television reporters might need a statement by the 6:00 p.m. news broadcast, and print reporters would want a quote before the next day’s paper went to print. Now, with a never-ending news cycle, reporters face pressure to be the first to publish a story online and want a comment immediately. And community members quickly find out about an incident and want answers. Public information officers are expected to provide those answers when they may not have much information themselves.

The reporting of police use of force has dramatically changed since the use of body-worn cameras and civilian video has skyrocketed. In the not-too-distant future, written police reports may become obsolete and video from body-worn cameras may become the official police report, with perhaps supplementary written reports—the opposite of what happens today. That could go a long way toward reconciling the disconnect between initial reports and video.

So what can police leaders do? To start, agencies need to set higher expectations for their police reports, and officers need to be trained on and held to those expectations. Before submitting a report, officers need to ask themselves, “Is this an accurate portrayal of what someone will see if they watch my body-worn camera video footage? Or if someone comes forward tomorrow with a cell phone video of the incident, will it generally match what I’m writing in my report?” They need to be able to say yes to these questions, regardless of whether any video will likely ever become public.

And agency leaders and public information officers need to be careful about the way they present information. In responding to demands that they make a statement quickly, they should make clear to the public that initial information is always incomplete and sometimes seriously flawed. This can be tough to do without seeming to question your officers’ credibility. Many police leaders and public information officers already do an excellent job of threading that needle, but everyone should take another look at their approach to these statements.

After making an initial statement, police leaders should look out for new information—even if that information doesn’t align with what they’ve shared previously—then quickly update the public.

There are no perfect answers here. Body-worn camera and cell phone videos aren’t going away, and social media and the internet will continue to create pressure for a quick response. But the police will lose the trust of the public if that quick response doesn’t match what people see on video, so it’s up to police leaders to help their agencies carefully navigate this new world.

PERF is hiring!

Finally, I want to mention that PERF is looking to hire! We are working on a number of cutting-edge projects that require excellent writing skills and management abilities. If you want to make a difference, let us know. Here is the job description.