Finding and using untapped sources for criminal investigations
By Rob Hall
Chief of Police (ret.)
La Crosse (Va.) PD
Conducting criminal investigations in a small town is truly a double-edged sword. The good news is that if the crime is local, you’ve likely got a relatively small pool of the usual suspects. As in larger jurisdictions, they may be willing to dime each other out to curry favor for their next time in the hot seat. On one hand, there’s likely some mother-in-law who’s all too willing to dish dirt on “that no-good, worthless bum of a son-in-law who’s ruined” her sweet daughter’s life. The bad news is that as soon as you step to one person about a person of interest, everyone in town will know you’re looking at them 15 minutes after you’re gone. It’s a balancing act, and it comes with the job.
There may be an untapped resource in your town, however: the disenfranchised.
They may be individuals — or entire groups of residents — who fall into this category information sources for your criminal investigations. In a town where I served as Chief/Investigator, we had both. There was a residential group home for individuals who had nowhere else to go... folks whose maintenance was primarily paid by SSI funds. Their life consisted of sitting in a main room, watching a decrepit TV all day — that, and walking around town.
They had no friends or social contacts outside of the home. No one in the town proper wanted to talk with them — they were “those people.” But they went everywhere, on foot, at all hours of the day and evening. By simply making friendly contact with them while they were out and about, and showing them respect as a human being, I was able to develop numerous potential sources of information that had previously been left untapped.
Another such resource was an entire segment of the population in town — the Latino community. This group lived in one of two general areas, was largely ignored by the rest of the populace, and was generally very fearful of law enforcement. They typically wouldn’t call 911 unless someone was bleeding so severely that they were in danger of dying. Rarely did we get calls of any nature from them, and they tended to stay “out of sight, out of mind” to the rest of the town.
I honestly didn’t realize the extent of the isolation and the potential negative impact until I was working a series of larcenies from vehicles. A used car dealership in town had a number of cars broken into (and the radios stolen) one night. After working the crime scene all morning, I started a neighborhood canvass that afternoon. The dealership was located on the edge of one of the Latino area, and my pigeon-Spanish was accompanied by a lot of pantomime. What I gradually realized was that the theft from the dealership was not an isolated event — the thieves had literally worked their way down a three block stretch, stealing radios one after another. Eleven Latino citizens had lost their radios in the night, and yet, not one of them had contacted the Police! Clearly, there were some bridges to be constructed…
Taking a page from the community policing (and problem-solving) handbook, we set about opening up lines of communication. A number of activities were produced by the department, including a Latino Community Picnic. Members of the department went door to door with English/Spanish invitations, accompanied by the “senior Senora” of the Latino community.
The efforts paid off in a major way. Once stereotypes of police generated by the actions of those “back home” had been dispersed, the Latino community began to trust us and, most importantly, communicate with us.
There will always be work to be done with communities of disaffected, but when you do it right, a previously ignored population can be drawn upon for intelligence information.