Contemporaneous Notes as a Police Officer

A robbery in daylight, a murder in the dark alley, a drug racket in the downtown and a chase through the by lanes of the city. That’s the day in the life of a Police officer. A lot happening… Right? But there is only so much a human mind can remember. The chronology, the details of the vehicles, the description of the weapon or the facial features of the accused. Eventually, most of these cases go into the court for proceedings. At that moment, it becomes very crucial to reproduce the event, as it is, in front of the judge. One detail here and there can put someone’s life at risk. Hence, during the process of preparing witness statements or collecting evidence, proper contemporaneous notes should be maintained by the concerned enforcement officer. It is required to note each and every detail, like it was seen and told, in the same sequence as it happened. These notes are legally referred to as the Contemporaneous notes, which can be consulted later as well. It is always preferable to make these notes as soon as the event takes place. The delay in jotting of these notes by a police official increases the chances of fading away of the minor details from his memory.

Usually, the hearing of cases and legal proceedings takes place after months or even years have passed since the event occurred. At that point of time, these contemporaneous notes by the police officer serve as a reliable documented proof in front of the court. In case the memory of the police office or the witness fails himself or herself, these contemporaneous notes come as a blessing in disguise.

For the notes to be admissible as evidence they should be written in a certain manner which complies with the Rules of Evidence and statutory codes of practice which can be found in Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984(PACE). They should be fact-based, chronologically written, original, true to the memory and  unchanged once written. No page should be torn out once the whole memoir is made, no blank spaces left in between so that they can be filled later, no writing between lines and no page attached to it. It is necessary to write down word by word every conversation that is made with the accused. These notes form the basis of the whole argument on which the judge proceeds the legal course, hence, it is incumbent upon the concerned officer to behave extremely responsibly while jotting down these comprehensive notes within a notebook. It is not necessary to follow the notes verbatim, but rather be used as a reference by the witness while making an oral testimony.

There was a case, R v Bass(1953) 117 J.P. 246, where these contemporaneous notes were prepared by two officers, one officer made them after the defendant was charged and the other made them an hour later. The defendant requested the jury to read out both the notebooks but was denied the request on the grounds that the police officers, both of whom were present at the scene of crime at the same time, denied preparing the notes in collaboration with each other. The judge said that the notes prepared by two officers at different points of time almost always have incongruous information and hence cannot be considered as a proper evidence, which made no sense. It was then, Circular No. 172/54 was released by the Home Office which publicized the fact that practice of collaboration was lawful and proper.

With the advent of CCTVs smartphones, body-worn video cameras, it has become all the more crucial and mandatory for the police officer to be more responsible and careful while making these contemporaneous notes and meet a standard of excellence that shows that the notes are both comprehensive and accurate. If the event is documented on video camera and the notes made by the police officer deviate from what is seen, then it questions the integrity and the usefulness of the whole system. It creates an impression that the investigation done by the police department is inadequate and sketchy. The trust, reputation and morale of the police officer in particular and police department in general comes at stake. One of the most infamous incident that highlights the importance of accurate contemporaneous notes took place in Canada. Robert Dziekanski was detained at the Vancouver International Airport in 2007 by four members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He was unarmed but non-compliant due to several factors eventually leading to him being Tasered by the police officers. Robert Dziekanski died as a result of this confrontation leading to numerous debates about the action of the officers and the use of Tasers in general. The whole incident was recorded by a by-stander and produced before the court and media. It was also found out that when the contemporaneous notes made by the police officers were tallied with the video, there was a significant inconsistency which led to considerable criticism for RCMP. Charges were laid against the four police officers. Hence, it becomes mandatory for the police officials to make the contemporaneous notes of the event exactly how they happened, till the last alphabet. In United States only, numerous incidents related to incongruency between the recorded video and contemporaneous notes made by police has been noted.

This raised a new issue that should a police officer be allowed to see the video before creating his contemporaneous notes. Majority of the police officers are in support of the view as it will help the police officers to recall the incidents more clearly. There is another school of thought that says that  police officers should not view the video prior to making a statement, as they tend to believe that what mattered was the officer’s perspective of what occurred.

The police officers do not have superhuman memories. Human memories is affected by several factors such as emotion, selective attention, stress, etc. It is not like a video recording which captures each and every detail at the scene, it tends to focus selectively on certain frames. Police are expected to make some deviation from the actual happenings of the case, hence if they read from their notes before entering the witness box, it is considered to be a normal practice.

As per Code C:11.7 of PACE, also known as Codes of Practice, ‘an accurate record must be made of each interview with a person suspected of an offence’. This method is helpful in two ways. Not only does it help the police officials to have an opportunity wherein he/she can go through the notes and later check each of his answers but also, it is for their protection to ensure that later on it cannot be suggested by the accused that he/she was forced or persuaded to confess an offence by using untoward approach or  improper manner. Contemporaneous notes by a police officer should be safeguarded at any cost, at any point of time. If a proceeding is devoid of any contemporaneous notes, then it deprives the judge of the primary evidence that helps him to recognize the evidence presented before him. Although, a recording device can be used while conducting interviews with the accused but it, in no way, can replace these notes. In addition, these contemporaneous notes in no way can be undermined even in presence of audio or video recorded evidence as the contemporaneous notes are taken from the police officer’s point of view which takes into consideration what he sees, hears and feels, three senses that video alone cannot provide. When it comes to refreshing the memory about a specific case, the contemporaneous notes that are presented play a crucial role in steering the whole judgment.


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