When you are the victim of a crime, you know to call the police for help. A report is started, the police come to assist and investigate the situation, but the process doesn’t end there. You must then decide if the situation warrants filing an official police report and possibly pressing charges. When are police reports filed? How long does a police report stay on file? Read on to find out all the deets!
Police reports are official documents that record the details of a complaint or incident reported to or by law enforcement. Some situations that would involve filing a report would be an automobile accident, theft, vandalism, or assault. Police reports may change accessibility or be archived at a later time, but they customarily remain in the system indefinitely.
While researching this topic, I was surprised to learn that there are so many factors involved in filing a police report. Take a look at what I found!
When Are Police Reports Filed?
When you call the police on their emergency line, a police report (also known as an incident report) is automatically created based on the information that you provide. This is not the FULL police report, but it does help get the right people sent to you and decides how your situation will be approached. How many officers will arrive on the scene and what questions will they ask you? Were there any witnesses? Is your situation emergent or non-emergent?
There are a broad range of scenarios for which you would file a police report, but some possibilities are if you have been in a car accident, you believe someone broke into your property, or you have witnessed someone being violently attacked.
When circumstances occur in which you need to file a missing person report, many states have a requirement that you wait at least twenty-four hours before officially filing. After the waiting period has passed, you then file a missing person report by phone or person. You will need to provide as many details as you can to the officers helping you with your case. A physical description is very helpful, information regarding any mental health issues that the missing person may be experiencing, and a couple of recent photos if you have any. The hope is that by acting fast, it gives everyone the best chance at finding your missing person safe and unharmed. The more time that passes by, unfortunately, the chances of success decrease.
What Information is Documented Inside a Police Report?
Police reports are public records that contain many details that are provided by everyone involved, the investigating officer, and any witnesses that saw the incident. Some of these details include:
- Type of crime
- Date and time of both the report and the incident itself
- If any injuries occurred
- Statements of any witnesses about what they saw
- Information about anyone involved (including victims and suspects, if there are any)
- If damage occurred to any property
- Narrative or the story about what specifically happens according to the victim and/or witnesses
Depending on what happened, the information contained in a police report might slightly vary. For example in car accident reports, any damage to vehicles, weather, lighting conditions on the roadway, diagrams, and if any citations will be issued for violating the law are all factors included in the report.
How Long Do You Have to File a Report?
Generally, your gut will probably tell you to file a report as soon as possible and that is what is ordinarily encouraged. Unfortunately, the situations we find ourselves in may not always be so obvious and can get pretty complex. Sometimes you may know the person who has hurt you and want to protect them. Perhaps you’re scared of what may happen if you move forward with doing so, or maybe you just don’t want word getting out that something like this happened to you. Sadly, about forty percent of crimes go unreported in the United States every year! That’s a pretty big number! Nevertheless, you may find it interesting to know that different types of crimes and states have varying statutes of limitations attached to them.
The statute of limitations are laws set in place to regulate a maximum amount of time after an event takes place, that any legal actions can be initiated. These exist to ensure that a resolution is reached within a reasonable amount of time for all parties involved. If no action is taken before the statute of limitations is reached, then technically that act is considered “forgiven by the law” and is often dismissed.
Many states require that a traffic accident be reported within a few days because there will not be much evidence left to investigate as time goes by. Petty offenses like vandalism, are usually required to have a police report filed within one year in order for it to stick. Misdemeanors have a statute of about two years. Felonies generally have about a five-year limit, unless they are one of the few most profound types of felony (not that any of them are good).
Some of the more grave categories of felonies have no statute of limitations at all. These kinds of felonies include:
- Child abuse
This means that any time down the road, even if it has been 20 years since the crime allegedly takes place, a victim or witness can come forward and a police report can be filed. We see this happen frequently with celebrity cases such as Hollywood actors or producers, on entertainment news!
In general, you can stick to the rule that the sooner a report is filed, the better! Keep in mind that the longer window of time that passes, the harder it can make for you to establish a case and move forward with it. Time can blur the recollection of what happened for witnesses who are trying to remember every seemingly minute thing that happened in those moments. The more time that goes by, the more challenging it will be for law enforcement to investigate and it will become extremely difficult to produce admissible evidence. However, difficult does not mean impossible.
How Do You File a Police Report?
You will usually file a police report in person or over the telephone. Depending on your location, most places will have guidelines as far as what kind of incidents are considered emergent or non-emergent. These guidelines will decide how you can proceed in filing the police report!
Emergent situations would entail that someone or someones’ property is in danger, a crime is in progress, and the police are needed immediately. The emergency would prompt you to call 9-1-1 or whatever the correct contact number for emergency dispatch is at your location! Police would arrive at your location and you would proceed in filing a report with them in person.
A non-emergent situation is when you do NOT need police assistance immediately. For example, maybe your car was broken into and your expensive stereo system was stolen out of it. While it may feel emergent to you personally, you aren’t in danger and the damage to your property has already been done with no suspect to pursue so it is considered non-emergent. Many jurisdictions have separate telephone numbers for non-emergencies such as this, which is available 24/7. When you call that number you can either file a report over the phone or make an appointment to file it with an officer in person later on.
In some locations, there is now the option of filing your police report online! In order for this to be possible, you must be at least 18 years old with a current email address for communication purposes. In many circumstances, filing a police report online is possible for crimes without a suspect, such as financial identity theft, trespassing, harassment or damages to your property such as graffiti.
How Long Does a Police Report Stay On File?
These days police reports are all entered into an electronic system. If there is an open case associated with the police report then the report exists attached to that case file.
If no charges ever came forth from the report or it was later dismissed, the report probably still exists, but it is not something that will be visible to just anyone. Normally this is information that only law enforcement agencies will be able to see when they enter your name into the system, but nobody outside of law enforcement will be able to view it. Furthermore, in accordance with the specific policy on holding records on-site at a department, any paper copies may be destroyed or archived after a fixed amount of time. However, the electronic version of the police report can be kept indefinitely and cannot be erased from the federal system.
Police reports are sometimes called incident reports and are automatically generated when you call the police or they respond to a situation that you are involved in. Alternatively, if you are the victim of a crime, have a suspicion that a criminal act has occurred, or have actually witnessed what you believe to be a crime, you can call the appropriate number to file a report and in some cases, you can even file a report online. Police reports may only be kept on-site for a few years or so, depending on the specific policy for that police department. Once the outcome of the police report is determined, they may choose to destroy or archive the records. However, due to the fact that all reports are entered electronically into the main system, they could potentially exist longer than you do, presumably forever.
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A creative writer from Arkansas with personal experience in many different career paths, including criminology and medical science. I always find my way back to writing as it is what I truly enjoy and have a passion for. I love having a voice and helping give a voice to others who may not be so fortunate. Quote that best describes me “she has that look of eyes that see things much too far, and of thoughts that wander off the edge of the world”.