- Recent recordings of police killings have highlighted inconsistencies between police narratives and the facts.
- One former Boston police lieutenant told Insider he trained officers to mislead in their reports.
- At the time, he thought he was doing what was right. Now, he understands he participated in a culture of deception.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
When Thomas Nolan was a lieutenant at the Boston Police Department from 1995 to 2004, he was the go-to guy for cops on the force needing help crafting their police reports after an on-duty use of force.
In his 27 years on the force, Nolan was never much of a “street cop,” he told Insider, but “I could write pretty well.”
He’d routinely advise his subordinates to incorporate a short list of buzzwords in their reports to frame themselves as the hero and the suspect – who might have been injured or killed – out as the aggressor. Those use of force reports ultimately were chock-full of words like “resist,” “overcome,” “vigorous,” “violent,” “subdue,” “fear,”and “attack,” Nolan said, even if they were exaggerations.
Now an associate professor of sociology at Emmanuel College, Nolan regrets taking part in what he believes is the systemic deception that is police report writing.
“I thought these cops were out there doing the right thing and catching bad guys, and oftentimes did it in ways that might not pass legal muster, and I got them over the hurdle,” Nolan told Insider. “I thought that was something that was my contribution, my necessary contribution.”
Nolan has come to realize that “framing the narrative” to demonize people who were, in some cases, victims is widespread in American policing and it bolsters a police culture of misconduct, where officers are trained and socialized to believe they’re above the law.
The rise in cellphone video and police body cameras might be the beginning of the end of this kind of misrepresentation, though, as more frequently the public is seeing high profile cases where the initial police report and department statement on use of force incidents doesn’t line up with what clearly occurred in the recorded evidence.
Following the killing of George Floyd, for example, Minneapolis police said he died from “medical incident during police interaction.” There was no mention in the initial statement of the nine minutes and 29 seconds that Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd to the ground with his knee while the man begged for his life until he stopped breathing.
In the 2019 arrest of Ronald Greene, Louisiana State troopers said the man died in a car crash following a police chase. This narrative lived on for two years until the Associated Press obtained and published body camera footage from the scene that showed troopers stunning, hitting, and dragging Greene on the ground outside of his car as he apologized for leading them on a chase and telling them he was scared.
It was later learned that the ranking Louisiana trooper at the scene tried to cover up the incident by denying the existence of his body-camera footage, the AP reported.
Widely reported inconsistencies like these have caused the public and the media to grow more skeptical of police narratives as controversial use of force encounters come to light.
“What we’ve seen unfold over the years since videos have become just everyday ubiquitous depictions of police interactions with the public, is that there’s pretty solid evidence that the police have misrepresented and mischaracterized incidents they’re involved in,” Nolan said. “The recordings give substance to the skepticism that many people now have about police and their version of the events”
‘It’s an art form’
In 2019, Nolan published “Perilous Policing,” a social sciences textbook that examines law enforcement in America.
One of the chapters is dedicated to how police report writing can be – and often is – manipulated to misrepresent and protect officers involved in questionable conduct on the job.
“This stilted, imprecise ‘legalese’ is the commonly used verbiage found in the police lexicon and forms the base of the narrative that police use throughout the United States,” he wrote in the book. “The purpose of the narrative is ultimately to exculpate the police from any blame or allegation the use of force being described was unnecessary, inappropriate, excessive, or unlawful.”
Nolan told Insider that when he sees stories about police incidents he’s capable of reading between the lines.
To him, unarmed robbery almost always translates to shoplifting, for example. Another trick is for officers to list themselves as a victim in a report in an effort to justify their use of force, he said.
“A use of force report, they’re all the same,” he said. “They basically say that … the officer was met with ‘vigorous resistance,’ or maybe ‘was attacked’ and in the attempt to overcome this resistance, the officer – and they always describe themselves in the third person – was forced and had no other choice but to use the force.”
This kind of misrepresentation is less common in the routine incident reports, where officers are simply filling in the blanks. “The real artwork” comes in during narrative writing, which is seen in use of force reports, Nolan said.
The goal, he said, is to paint the officers involved in the “most favorable light.”
“It’s something that I was trained in. It’s handed down. It’s a skill that can be an art form,” Nolan said. “I was very adept at crafting narratives, so the police would come in, officers off the street, and describe what they had done. I had to assist them and train them to put it into the language that was going to be palatable to the higher-ups and to the public.”
It’s about justification, not deception, another former cop says
Not every former officer agrees with Nolan’s take on police report writing, though.
Alfred Titus, a former NYPD homicide detective and hostage negotiator, told Insider that police are trained in report writing, but deception is not built into that curriculum. Justification is.
If an officer used force, that behavior is only allowed under specific legal circumstances, he said. So when they fill out the report, they need to make it clear why they believed that force was necessary.
“No. There are no protocols in place that teach an officer how to hide facts or skew facts so that they are in their favor or so they do not look liable,” said Titus, who is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Police officers are trained to describe the incident in a way that the laws or violations that occurred are clearly spelled out.”
For example, in an assault case, it’s common to explain that the victim was “placed in fear.” If there was resisting arrest, the phrases “flailing of the arms” or “refused to be handcuffed” are commonly seen in reports, he said.
“Terminology like that is commonly used in police reports to just match it up with the actual laws, in the way that the statutes are written,” Titus said. “So if, if an officer is charging resisting arrest, or if he decided that he had to use his taser, he would have to justify that in the language that he used in the police report. That part is true.”
Titus told Insider that he can’t think of one case in his 23 year career where an officer he knew at the NYPD wrote a police report that was inconsistent with what was later proved to be the facts of the case.
There are cases where justification of force could go overboard, Titus said, pointing to the case of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin.
“Obviously in the George Floyd case, there was no justification for that whatsoever. The officer definitely overstepped his boundaries and was extremely abusive,” he said, noting that Chauvin was ultimately charged and convicted of Floyd’s murder.
“This is not really a report writing issue, but I do recall that during that Derek Chauvin claimed [at trial] that the crowd was so loud and it was so concerning that he lost focus. It was one of his excuses for why he didn’t realize that his knee was on [Floyd’s] neck for so long,” Titus said. “With something like that, it’s clear as a law enforcement officer you should be more than used to dealing with crowds. If you have a perpetrator in custody, that should obviously be your focus.”
Titus said that police report writing is a topic that comes up at periodic service training. If issues are showing up in reports, that’s something training officers might address, he said.
“Towards the end of my career in 2016, the detective bureau had almost quarterly training for the detectives where we would go in and they would give an update on everything that has been changing and then they would address report writing,” Titus said. “But detective report writing is far more excessive than police officer report writing, so it’s kind of two different things. But there is training and if that was found to be a problem, then it would be addressed there.”
Putting an end to misrepresentation
Nolan said that departments are going to have to get stricter about ensuring reports are as accurate as possible if they want to rebuild trust with communities in an age where video recordings are readily available.
He’s not aware of any reform efforts happening in this area, but said some leadership have built policies that say deception is not OK.
Former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, for example, instituted a “zero tolerance policy” for lying in reports, Nolan said.
“He said that any police officer who was found to have lied in any official reporting or any court testimony would be terminated,” Nolan said. “That was his public proclamation. Now, as far as anyone knows, no one ever gotten fired for lying, but it was a step in the right direction.”
Former NYPD Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill announced a similar policy in 2018 regarding lying under oath.
The NYPD has a written policy that identifies penalties for making false of misleading statements.
Intentionally making a false official statement comes with a presumptive penalty of termination, according to the policy seen by Insider.
Intentionally making a misleading statement comes with the lesser presumptive penalty of losing 30 vacation days and dismissal probation. Dismissal probation is when an officer is dismissed from the department, signs a letter acknowledging that, but the penalty is suspended for a year while they are on probation.
Making a false statement that is not proven to be intentional is still cause for penalty, but only at the loss of 10 vacation days.
In 2018, there were 12 officers accused of making false statements and all of them pleaded or were found to be guilty, according to data in a publicly available NYPD discipline report from that year.
Of them, one was dismissed, seven were given dismissal probation, and seven were given penalty days.
Nolan said that the biggest factor in determining whether an officer will likely be fired for being misleading in their reports is usually how high profile the incident becomes.
He points to the 2015 killing of Walter Scott in South Carolina.
In that case, then-officer Michael Slager stopped Scott for a broken brake light and, in the end, shot him in the back as he fled.
Slager was found to have lied in his initial report – saying that Scott had attacked him – which contradicted video that surfaced later.
Slager has since pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge and is serving a 20 year sentence.
Just like Chauvin, Slager was fired before charges came down, when the video of the killing was made public.
“The chief fired that police officer and I think he fired him, not because of any kind of wrongdoing on the part of the police officer, but because of the widespread outrage that followed the release and distribution of this video,” Nolan said.
More often, though, police leadership will take the side of the officer, disputing any inconsistencies by saying the video didn’t show the whole encounter.
“And oftentimes it doesn’t,” Nolan said. “It’s not to say that there are people manipulating or editing videos, but oftentimes we don’t see what may have precipitated the event that we witnessed on the recording, and that may be relevant.”
Nolan said that this narrative, though, is “an out” for departments and their spokespeople so they might be able to continue deceptive practices even when recordings do exist.
“It’s my sense that the police are going to continue this,” Nolan said. “It’s formulaic. This kind of stilted legal-sounding jargon that the police use is a way that they use language to give some sort of an official imprimatur that this is a justification for what they did.”