A well-written report can mean the difference between a successful shoplifting prosecution and a civil liability lawsuit for false arrest.
Because incident reports are vital to a store's profitability, they must be written correctly and objectively. Everyone knows that a good report contains the five Ws and one H (who, what, when, where, why, and how), but those basic elements are broader than one might think. The objectivity of the report is also a key element. By leaving out relevant information or including emotionally loaded words or opinions, your security officers can torpedo what would otherwise be a good case.
THE BUILDING BLOCKS
Every report is built on the foundation of the five Ws and one H. In a good report, these categories include more than just the obvious.
--WHO: Identify the complaining party, the victim, the suspect, the witnesses, and any involved law enforcement personnel. In the case of a retail operation, these parties are not always so clear as they may seem. The store security officer or officers who make the apprehension must be named, of course, and so should the suspect(s).
And while the complainant is often the store itself, in some cases it is a separate corporation. If, for example, a theft occurs from a concession, or a store-within-a-store, such as a jewelry counter or optical shop that appears to be part of the department store but in reality is owned and operated by a totally separate company, then this information must be clearly spelled out in the report or the case cannot be successfully prosecuted.
Identifying information about persons involved should include home and work addresses, including corporate contact information, telephone numbers, physical descriptions and occupations.
--WHAT: Not only what was stolen, but what evidence was found? What was done with the evidence? What individual or police agencies responded to the scene? What agency has jurisdiction? What section or officers will follow up? What is the contact information for the prosecutor's office or prosecutor assigned to the case? What is expected of the security officer who made the apprehension: testimony, submission of written reports, etc.?
--WHEN: When did the incident occur? When did the suspects arrive? How long did they stay? When did they leave?
Information regarding the "when" of police response must also be included. When the law enforcement officers arrive? When did the officer have contact with the security officers, the witnesses or other parties to take their statements?
--WHERE: Aside from where the incident occurred specifically, the locations and activities of the loss prevention team should also be recorded. Where the witnesses and suspects were interviewed is important. Where the evidence was collected, marked and stored is another piece of the puzzle that should be included in the report. Where the police questioned and arrested the suspect is important to know.
--HOW: How the offense was committed is also important information. Was it an organized theft ring with several players, each of whom had a specific role? Was it a professional job, with a shoplifter who wore a booster coat or carried a booster bag? Was it committed by a juvenile working alone or with friends? Answering these questions helps establish a pattern both within the store and within the area.
How the store security officer identified the suspect, the merchandise and the witnesses is also important information.
--WHY: The "why," or the motive for the incident may be the toughest foundation question to answer in a report. Security officers may never discover the reason behind a theft. Nevertheless, prosecutors and jurors like to have a reason. It helps them understand the crime.
Should a suspect offer a reason -- "My friends dared me" or "It was stupid, just a spur-of-the-moment thing," or even "I heard this store was an 'easy steal'" -- by all means, include it in the report. But if a motive cannot be established, a security officer must never make one up for the sake of writing a "complete" report. Fabricating information only weakens a case; it doesn't strengthen it.