Police incident reports an exercise in collaboration, transparency
It's a black binder that sits in the lobby of the Aiken Department of Public Safety headquarters on Laurens Street. In it are copies of each incident report written by officers, published as they are approved and become available.
Much has been made of the department's incident reports, especially recently in the Aiken Standard, but how does the information on that piece of paper go from “incident” to “report”?
A paper trail
Lt. Jake Mahoney explained that calls come to Aiken Public Safety in two categories: a call initiated by an officer who sees a violation or criminal activity, or a call to service initiated by dispatch, usually from an individual. The dispatcher takes the information, and each separate incident generates a case number which, once generated, is assigned to an officer.
“Not all calls that we go to generate the need for an incident report,” Mahoney said, adding that an officer may document a call with a traffic citation, a traffic warning or computer-entered notes.
State law requires police agencies to make incident reports available for public inspection. In addition to being provided to people involved in an incident, they are published in a book for news media and the public to view. The crime blotter in the Aiken Standard is generated from these reports, as are a number of stories.
Incident reports also provide proof that officers took the proper action in a case, according to Mahoney.
A common example is when officers find an open door during a property check. Often they are unable to reach the owner or a key holder.
“To show that we've done the right thing, we'll document on such-and-such date and time, we found this door unsecured, entered and didn't see anything disturbed,” he said. “(The officer) attempted to notify key holder, was unsuccessful. Report done for documentation purposes only.”
'Ready to write'
All reports are generated through a special software that officers can access through the mobile data terminals in their patrol cars or through their desktop computers at headquarters.
Mahoney asked dispatch to assign him a test call for lunacy. Dispatch typically sends a narrative that may include a description of suspects or vehicles involved, as well as the case number. The officer responds and takes any action necessary, including interviewing witnesses and victims or making an arrest.
“I've answered my calls, I'm going to clear myself. I'm ready to write my report,” Mahoney said. From there, the officer has a number of options for documentation, including an incident report, an accident report, animal control log, a fire report or turn over to another agency. The officer can write the report from the patrol car or headquarters.
“There are some reports where your responding officer may get on the scene and realize this is something that requires in-depth, detailed investigation,” Mahoney said, which may include homicides, sex crimes or crimes involving juveniles. “His report may be, 'Arrived on scene, notified investigations. Turned over to them.' That officer's primary responsibility is to get there and handle the call, but he may have another one to go to.”
Once completed, the report is submitted for approval by a supervisor. The supervisor reviews it to make sure all mandatory information is there. He can reject it and send it back to the reporting officer with notes or approve it to go on to the records division.
Up until the report is “merged” in the records division, the reporting officer can still get copies of it, according to Mahoney. The merge is a holding section for records technicians, such as Angie Gibson.
“Every morning, I pull up mobile, I pull up merge and I pull up what they call report viewer,” Gibson said. Once the merge is brought up, Gibson takes a screenshot of all the new case numbers she's working with that day. The number of reports varies each day from 25 to 75, with Mondays usually being busier.
Gibson has the authority to make small changes, such as those involving a number. Larger changes require her to send it back to the supervisor or reporting officer.
The “merge” process takes the approved reports and puts them into a system that can be accessed by the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division for statistical and analytical purposes, Gibson said.
“When she's satisfied with it, she merges our software with the SLED-based software for digital transmission to the state,” Mahoney said. “After all those checks and the reports are complete, she'll pull up her list of reports that were completed today and print them out.”
After the reports are printed, Gibson redacts any information needed, such as the identities of a criminal sexual conduct victim or a juvenile victim. The reports are then hole-punched and placed in the binder.
A new step
The binder contains two weeks of reports. Gibson said she goes through each week, and any reports that are two weeks or older are removed. From there comes a new step that Aiken Public Safety has implemented.
The reports that are taken from the binder are placed into a file cabinet and remain there for six months. The move allows records officials to know exactly which week a report was in the binder.
State law only requires Public Safety to allow access to the reports – not to have the reports printed out and in a binder.
“This entire process is a way for us to be even more open,” Mahoney said. “… Is it error-proof and flawless? No, but it's another check, another balance, another way we're going above and beyond to demonstrate our transparency.”
The process of taking reports has changed dramatically, especially with the advent of report software. Formerly, officers would have to write out each report by hand, lining through mistakes along the way, and the records technician would have to type each one up. That is still done in rare instances when the electronic system is down.
With the old days finding an officer flipping through files in a cabinet to retrieve a report, the digital age makes that process easier as well.
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.