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Investigating property crime: A checklist for success

From hints for the first officer on scene to overlooked investigative avenues for identifying suspects, here are some valuable keys to solving property crime


Article updated on September 13, 2017.

As police officers, we have a duty to provide quality services to the citizens of the communities in which we work. Taking report after report for burglaries, auto thefts, destruction of property and malicious burnings can wear down even the most energetic officer.

The frequent and repetitive nature of property crime reports raises concerns of officer complacency and cynicism. There simply is no room for these attitudes in a successful criminal investigation. Victims feel violated and a crime of this nature is often a personal crisis. Each victim deserves to have the best possible investigation conducted in each and every circumstance.

First responding officers are critical to any property crime investigation. (Photo/West Midlands Police via Flickr)
First responding officers are critical to any property crime investigation. (Photo/West Midlands Police via Flickr)

The following steps are meant to aid police officers in their property crime investigations and each officer is encouraged to do more to achieve case resolution and property recovery.

First responding officers are critical to any property crime investigation because they are able to document and capture the crime scene in its purest state.

Property Crime Investigation Checklist

  • Document the crime scene as you found it.
  • Identify witnesses and obtain statements.
  • Broadcast a detailed suspect description and update if more information becomes available.
  • Note points of entry, exit and flight.
  • Note force used to enter a property or vehicle.
  • Note the location of broken glass.
  • Check glass for blood (DNA) or fingerprints.
  • Check points of entry for tool marks and look for tools used.
  • Look for gas cans or other accelerants in the case of arson.
  • Check the location for other possible points of contact by the suspect, as suspects have been known to eat, drink and use the bathroom.
  • Determine what was stolen or damaged.
  • Ask yourself: “Who would benefit from committing this crime?” Was this simply a crime of opportunity or was the victim targeted?
  • Be diligent at the crime scene and consider all possible evidentiary avenues.
  • Recognize you usually only get one shot at processing a scene before it is tainted.
  • Ensure all collected items of evidence (fingerprints, blood, clothing, tools, tool marks, shoe impressions, gas cans and accelerants, food and food packaging) are submitted for analysis.

Get Detailed List of Stolen or Destroyed Property

  • A detailed description of the stolen/destroyed property or vehicle is key to bolstering the possibility of property or damage recovery.
  • Prioritize serialized property or property with unique markings or descriptors.
  • Place all stolen serialized property into NCIC.
  • Be particularly detailed when describing non-serialized property – include defects and unique identifiers if any are known.
  • Try and obtain photos of stolen property or vehicles.
  • Share all the information at roll call for at least three days. This way, officers who have been off for a couple of days can learn of the crime, and it will remain fresh in the mind of working officers so they remain on the lookout or you find another officer may have responded to a similar call for service.

Consider Other Investigative Avenues to Identify the Suspect

  • MO: Was this crime similar to any others within geographical proximity?
  • Check other reports and field interviews for suspicious subjects/vehicles, disturbances and neighbor complaints.
  • Check local pawn shops and computerized pawn shop databases if accessible for stolen property or possible suspect info.
  • Conduct a neighborhood canvass for possible witnesses or unreported incidents.
  • Check with known reliable informants.
  • Check impound lots and vehicle “chop shops.”
  • Check the location for surveillance video equipment.
  • Share all gathered information with specialized investigative units for follow-up.

Debrief All Arrestees Charged in Unrelated Offenses About Known Criminal Information

  • This can be a valuable investigative tool for gathering intelligence on property crimes or any other type of crime for that matter.
  • After processing your arrestees and post-Miranda questioning about the crime leading to their arrest, ask them about their knowledge of other crimes in the area. Be specific and ask open-ended questions. For example, instead of asking: “Do you know anyone committing crimes in the area?” you can ask: “Who do you know who is breaking into homes or businesses?”
  • You may have several arrestees who tell you nothing but eventually, with persistence, you will find the one who provides a wealth of information and clears several cases for you.

Consider the Application of Technology to Your Investigations

  • Consider electronic items in your investigations.
  • Many cell phones, laptops, iPads and vehicles can be tracked via GPS and most manufacturers offer tracking software for their products in the event of theft or misplacement.
  • Technology may not only lead to the recovery of property, it may also lead you right to the suspect(s).
  • Property crimes – by their sheer volume – are difficult crimes to solve and property recovery is often hard, but each victim deserves our best investigative efforts.

Proper crime scene documentation, evidence collection, detailed report writing, information sharing and the use of technology in furtherance of an investigation are steps we can take to determine who’s responsible for committing property crime(s) and aid in property recovery.

By following these basic investigative steps and adding any of your own, victims should feel satisfied a thorough investigation has been conducted and perhaps begin to feel a restoration of their greatest loss, their sense of comfort and security.

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