A police report is a written version of an officer’s investigation of events after responding to a call, the report of a crime or making an arrest. Specialized police reports may also present arrest data, information about requests for service, 911 call transcripts, as well as information about the department’s response to certain kinds of incidents.

Citizens can report incidents to law enforcement for a wide variety of reasons. For example, people may report domestic violence, traffic accidents, burglaries, stalking, and many other incidents that may involve criminal acts. To make a report, citizens usually begin by calling 911, or their local police department’s non-emergency line.

When a citizen reports an incident, police dispatchers assign it to an officer in the area in which the incident took place. The police officer travels to the location and evaluates the situation, makes observations, interviews witnesses, records data, and completes forms and reports as required by the department for which they work.

Officers gather and record lots of information and data in a police report. They do this to ensure that their investigations are thorough and accurate. They also want to create complete factual records of those investigations.

Complete and accurate police reports also support criminal prosecutions if they become necessary. In addition, businesses and others who conduct background checks may refer to police reports in the course of performing their reviews. The information contained in the typical police report may vary from agency to agency, but most capture very similar information. Law enforcement officers are trained on their agency’s requirements for police reports.

Again, there are many different law enforcement agencies in the United States, and there is no universal format for a police report. Their contents are going to vary from agency to agency. However, the kinds of data and information that may be included in a police report are as follows:

  • Identifying information for all the people involved in an incident, including full names, addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth, and driver’s license information;
  • The date of the event or incident;
  • The location of the event or incident;
  • The name and badge number of the officer who prepared the report;
  • The names of other officers who were present and may have contributed to an investigation;
  • Diagrams or drawings of the scene;
  • The names of witnesses and their statements;
  • The reference number of the report.

The law enforcement case file may also contain information about any motor vehicles that may have been involved in the incident, as well as specific details about any other evidence associated with the case.

How Do I Obtain a Police Report?

Again, it pays to remember that there are many different law enforcement agencies in the United States. There are municipal police departments, county police departments, county sheriffs, state law enforcement agencies. There are federal law enforcement agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as well. While there are probably similarities among them in connection with requests for reports, there are also undoubtedly differences.

If a person wishes to get a copy of a police report, they should begin by researching the requirements of the law enforcement agency that is responsible for the jurisdiction in which the incident occurred.

To obtain a police report, first make a visit to the law enforcement agency that employs the officer who made the report. If the agency is large, a person may want to visit the records department. A person could also call a non-emergency number to ask where the records department of the agency is located. This is information that would probably be available online.

A person would ask the clerk on duty for the form needed to request public records. A person should fill out the form and await the department’s response. A request generally takes one to five days to process.

Once the report is ready, a person should receive a telephone call asking them to come to the station to pick up their copy of the report. But of course, a person would want to ask the clerk on duty when they submit their request what the exact procedure is for that law enforcement agency. They would then know what to expect in terms of when they should receive the report.

Some kinds of police reports are exempt from public disclosure. There are two main reasons for which certain reports may not be publicly available. First, law enforcement would not want to disclose information when doing so could undermine an investigation that is still in progress.

Second, disclosure may not be made if it could jeopardize the privacy and safety of a person involved in an incident. In some cases, departments might release certain information related to an incident that is still being investigated, such as to a reporter doing a story. However, they would rarely release a full copy of the report.

By law, on the other hand, certain police records prepared and maintained by a law enforcement agency must be made available to the general public.

What Information Do I Need to Obtain a Police Report?

A person should have the following information to ensure that they receive a police report as quickly as possible:

  • A driver’s license or other valid photo ID;
  • The names of all the parties involved in the incident addressed by the report, if they are known;
  • The date of the incident;
  • The location of the Incident;
  • The police report ID number;
  • The payment for any fee that might be charged for the report.

How Much Is the Processing Fee?

The amount required for the processing fee varies from state to state and agency to agency, but it may be related to the number of pages in the report. The fee is used to cover the agency’s filing and copying expenses. Some agencies have a lower fee for crime victims requesting a copy of the police report about the incident in which the person was victimized.

Why Has the Police Report I Requested Been Delayed or Denied?

Although police reports are typically public information, certain restrictions apply to distribution of reports to the public. Police reports are divided into two categories, public and confidential.

Confidential reports are not accessible to the public. If a law enforcement agency is still investigating a case, then the report would still be confidential. Or a report may be confidential, if the case has been transferred to the District Attorney’s office for further processing. If the investigation is complete and the prosecutor’s office does not plan to pursue criminal charges, then the police report can become available to the public.

A police report about an incident involving a juvenile offender is usually confidential in most states, whether the case is complete or inactive. Most, if not all, law enforcement agencies do not disclose the names of juveniles who are involved in criminal incidents, except under certain limited circumstances, e.g. if the juvenile is directly charged as an adult.

For example, in Colorado, a law passed in 2017 prohibits the public disclosure of a juvenile’s name, birth date or photograph if the juvenile is charged with a serious crime. The public can still find out that an arrest took place on a particular date at a particular place. It can know which law enforcement agency made the arrest and the crime with which the juvenile is charged. But the juvenile’s identity must remain confidential.

In a few rare cases, agencies may deny requests for police reports if the agency believes the report may be used for unlawful activities, such as retaliation or witness tampering.

In addition, the identity of victims of certain kinds of crime are protected from disclosure. For example, the identity of victims of domestic violence, sexual offenses, human trafficking and possibly other kinds of crimes are protected from disclosure. And, in most states, the names and identifying information of child victims cannot be disclosed unless they are the victims of traffic accidents or a fire.

If a person believes that their request for a police report has been unfairly denied, the person should ask to speak with the officer in charge of records.

I’m Trying to Get a Copy of a Police Report, Do I Need a Lawyer?

While you should not need a lawyer to get a copy of a police report, you should contact a lawyer if you require any legal assistance.

If you request a police report that you think should be available to a member of the public, and the police refuse to provide it to you, you may wish to consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Or, if you believe that your identity has been disclosed by the police in error, again, a criminal defense lawyer can advise you of your rights and the remedies that are available to you.