Out of Service for the Remainder: Documenting on the way out the doorWhen you were 21 and first pinned on a badge, let’s face it; retirement was not ever present on your mind. There were rumors about some “old folks” (who, by the way were probably 50), who were getting ready to retire and leave the department. You thought for a minute about what they would possibly do all day if they weren’t working in law enforcement!  For a second, you wondered what you would do…then you snapped out of it and went to the next call. Over the next few months though, you heard these LEOs talk about their plans and heard people wish them well.

Not everyone leaves their agency upon retirement. Some move on to jobs they have pursued while others leave involuntarily. Although it infuriates me, we still have jurisdictions in the United States wherein LEOs are viewed as fungible assets who are dismissed without reason when the agency head changes. That little problem is a topic for another article. However, those transitions can be sudden and unexpected without the time allowed to prepare for a “graceful exit.” In one case, one of my clients had her replacement attempting to move into the office while my client was still cleaning out her desk!

Papers, Files, and Stuff!

When I was an investigator, people often teased me that they heard rumors that there was a desk under that pile of papers in my office! I remember cleaning out a couple of offices and feeling like Indiana Jones! While I did not find any items of historical importance, I did find training materials, manuals, phone numbers of contacts, and an assortment of important items that lost their “measure of priority” in the daily pace of the job.

When you leave an agency, many of these items that are currently low on the importance scale may become critical. The business card of the guy you met at that conference who worked for the company that you thought was a great opportunity is now a real find among the pile of business cards in your office. Maybe the brochure on the Masters in Criminal Justice program now looks like more than just a bookmark for the latest novel you are reading. In any event, you must take the time to go through these items even if that means that you will take it all home and sort through it later when you have time and are perhaps in a better frame of mind.

Perhaps most important are the files that document your time with the agency. These vary from files maintained by others like your personnel and training files to the list of files you maintain that contain documentation of your accomplishments. In either case, you must ensure that those documents are available for you when you leave the agency. It is always easier to obtain these files when you can dial a four digit extension and ask for a favor.

You may be wondering why you would need these files. I have heard this question from plenty of clients. I hear statements like, “I’m retired, there is nothing there that I need,” or “After the way they treated me, they can have that place!” In every case, at least in my experience, these LEOs regretted not obtaining critical documents when they were still in the loop and were able to do so. Take the time to obtain a copy of the incident report regarding your most memorable arrest or something for which your efforts were recognized. You will always treasure such documents.

Personnel, Internal Affairs, and Training Files

Files from personnel or human resources as well as internal affairs or your office of professional standards are extremely important. First, there is no better way to apply for another job in law enforcement than to advise the background investigator that you have a certified copy of your personnel file from your previous employer. Even if they ask for the file on their own from your previous agency, you will gain some credibility by having made the offer. Second, your former agency may destroy the files that are critical to you at some point or put them in a storage facility making it very difficult to retrieve them when needed.

“Certified copy” is a legal term of art and may have various nuances in your jurisdiction. However, every jurisdiction and every court has a procedure to recognize the importance of documents that are “made and kept in the normal course of business.” These are commonly known in the law as “business records” and include your personnel files, training files, internal affairs files and others. Every company and public agency generates business records and they take many forms. When you request a “certified copy” of those business records, you are asking someone to make a copy of that record and attach a document known as a certification that verifies that the copy is a true, accurate and complete copy of the business record as it is maintained by the agency. Put simply, a certified copy provides proof that what you have in your hand reflects what the agency has in their files. I routinely insist on receiving a certified copy of relevant files when I settle with an agency regarding a LEO’s employment issue.

When you have a certified copy of your personnel and internal affairs files, you will have a level of comfort about what future employers will see when you apply for a job. However, there is another reason that you should get a certified copy of important files that is not pretty. If someone attempts to add to these files or “embellish” the events that preceded your departure, you may discourage them from doing so if they know you already have a certified copy. If they do embellish the file after you leave, you will be able to prove it was done after the events. In one example, I had a client who obtained a certified copy of his personnel file when he left his agency. Six months later, he asked for another certified copy. The second copy contained over 80 pages of “enhanced details” surrounding his resignation. You just cannot make this stuff up.

Internal affairs files and other investigative documents are particularly important. If you face suit after you leave the agency, you will need a copy of these files for your attorney. While the attorneys for your former agency will usually represent you in such a suit,that is not always the case. I am involved in cases now on behalf of LEOs and public safety personnel who either were told they were “on their own” to defend such cases or felt very uncomfortable about being represented by the same lawyer hired to represent their former agency. Make certain that you obtain DVDs or other electronic copies of suspect or witness statements as well as video of interviews. In my experience, those items get misplaced or “purged” to save server space far more often than most folks realize. Be certain that you have a complete and certified copy of any administrative and criminal inquiries into any use of deadly force in which you were involved.

Training files are often overlooked when LEOs leave an agency. Your department likely maintains files to document all sorts of training from in-service roll call training to formal classes and annual firearms qualification. If you are like most LEOs, you turn your training certificates over to the departmental training officer or chain of command and probably do not have your own well-organized personal file with all of this documentation. However, it is critical that you obtain this information and keep a copy. I also recommend that you verify that your state licensing agency has an accurate record of all of your training and certificates. In most states, the obligation to maintain the accuracy of the state licensing agency files rests with the LEO. You are the one will suffer harm if that file does not accurately reflect the many hours you spent developing your professional knowledge.

Even in an age of electronic records, law enforcement agencies maintain a lot of paper. In those reams of paper are the personal histories of the LEOs in that agency. The files tell the story of commendations, promotions, training, investigations, and injuries that brought each LEO to the place they stand before they walk out the door the last time. Whether your exit is planned and preceded by parties and celebrations or a results from a hasty resignation, take the time to obtain and maintain your own copy of your story. You should absolutely have a complete copy of all administrative and criminal inquiries into any use of deadly force in which you were involved. Aside from protecting yourself legally, who knows? Perhaps one day it might make good reading. Stay safe.

Lance LoRusso is an attorney, former LEO and founder of LoRusso Law Firm, PC in Marietta, Georgia.  He is the General Counsel for the Georgia Fraternal Order of Police and author of a blog, www.bluelinelawyer.com.  He speaks at many conferences for law enforcement on use of force, responses to critical incident, and other topics of interest to law enforcement. His book on critical incidents entitled, “When Cops Kill: The Aftermath of a Critical Incident” is available through www.whencopskill.com. Profits from this book will support law enforcement charities such as www.huntingforheroes.org. You can follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter (bluelinelawyer or lancelorusso).