No witnesses? No problem: Try these 6 investigative tips

It’s become more challenging to partner with citizens to obtain cooperation and glean valuable case information — here are some tactics to use when no one will step forward as a witness


Increasingly frail public trust — and greater public scrutiny — have presented new challenges for police officers and investigators trying to locate cooperative witnesses. There are still wonderful caring people out there who understand the value of partnering with the police and sharing information, but their numbers are diminishing. 

Keep trying. There is no substitute for knocking on doors and trying to talk to the people in your community. We must continue the effort despite how we may be perceived or received. 

Should you find yourself lacking a cooperative witness, consider these six tips in developing case information elsewhere.

1. Informants
Don’t forget to cultivate and use “sources of information” and informants. While a community member may be skeptical about sharing information with you, other “sources of information” within the community such as mail carriers, delivery persons, landscape workers, taxi drivers, or others working or traveling within the community may be more receptive to a police inquiry than a community member. Due to their frequency of travel within the neighborhood or business district, they may have seen or know something of value. 

A trusted network of “go to” people is something officers and investigators will use repeatedly throughout their careers. 

One of the easiest ways to cultivate an informant is to debrief your arrestees. A quick talk at the conclusion of the arrest process about what other criminal information the arrestee knows or is willing to share may surprise you. Naturally, many will have little to say, but if you keep asking the right questions, you’ll find some that are willing to help. 

Remember that open-ended questions tend to work best. For example, use “What kind of criminal information do you have to share with me?” as opposed to “Who do you know that’s been breaking into sheds or vehicles?”

Unlike a reluctant community member, an informant usually has a motivation for sharing information and in most cases it’s some form of leniency. Remember to consult with your local prosecutor’s office before making any promises or deals with your informant. Any information obtained outside the scope of legal boundaries is useless information, so be sure to take the proper steps and document them accordingly.

2. Crime Analysis
If your police department has a crime analysis unit, this is a fantastic — and often underutilized — investigative resource. If your agency doesn’t have one, reach out to the nearest jurisdiction that does. Often times, our neighboring jurisdictions are experiencing similar crime trends.

When most of us think of crime analysis, we think of pin maps. Pin maps are a great way for officers and investigators to know where and when crimes are occurring and what types of crimes there are. It gives officers and investigators an opportunity to place resources where they’re needed most and of equal importance, where they’re likely needed next. 

However, crime analysis is much more than pin mapping. Crime analysts are able to examine crime trends and provide specific information related to likely suspects, suspect vehicles, and their methods of operation. They can also provide lists of suspects who have committed similar crimes in the past based on a variety of collected data or they can produce detailed crime alerts for patrol officers working the area in question. 

3. Physical Evidence
Physical evidence offers fantastic leads. Evidence discovery may not always be easy — like going through someone’s garbage after a trash pull — but the idea is the same. Think about how you can use your evidence to identify and link your suspect to the crime. 

Surveillance video, cell phone records, biologic evidence, and good ole’ fingerprints offer investigators a lot to work with. Surveillance video can be enhanced, allowing for suspect and suspect vehicle photos to be distributed among patrol. Cell phone records can help determine a suspect’s identity, their travels, location and their associates, before, during, and after a crime. Biologic evidence will often reveal DNA and link the suspect to the crime, if the suspect is known, and if unknown, allow for a search of local and national DNA databases. Be sure to look at your evidence from every angle that might assist you and request the appropriate evidence testing as soon as possible — some results can take a while.

4. Social Media
All officers and investigators should familiarize themselves with social media like Facebook and Twitter and know some of the investigative benefits. For example, one officer knew the identity of a suspect but was unable to determine where the suspect was staying. The officer knew the account name used by the suspect on Twitter and followed his Tweets. 

It wasn’t long before the suspect Tweeted where he intended to meet his friends for a night out and the officer was able to locate him and make the arrest. Other investigative leads may include photos of the suspect engaged in criminal activity (holding a gun seems to be a popular one). They may even brag or post a video of the crime online. 

5. FI Reports
Field Interview (FI) reports can also reveal a great deal to officers and investigators. By checking who was stopped, talked to, and identified at a particular time and place, officers may be able to develop some possible suspect information when none had previously existed. 

Good patrol officers stop and talk to people all the time. When those stops are documented, officers and investigators are given the ability to search those details for the date/time of the occurrence, locations where crimes are occurring, physical descriptors, vehicle descriptors or the cause for the stop. These searches can be a bit more tedious, but are well worth the time. 

6. Jail Calls
If a suspect has been arrested, is incarcerated, and is awaiting trial, then the potential for additional case evidence exists in the form of recorded “jail calls” in facilities equipped to record them. Whether it is inadvertent or simply careless, inmates share a lot of good information that can and will be used against them.

Conclusion
Officers and investigators love it when they have a cooperative witness who can confidently recall vivid details of a crime, but there are still plenty of opportunities to develop case leads in the absence of a cooperative witness. Think about alternative means to develop leads, identify suspects and build your cases toward a successful prosecution.

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