How to Become a Better Witness

By Greg MacAleese

Police departments around the world are always asking their citizens to supply information about unsolved crimes. But what kind of information do police need and what can citizens do to improve their capabilities as witnesses?

First and foremost, police need timely and accurate information. As a former Violent Crimes Detective, I can echo the long-held belief that if investigators don’t get a viable lead within the first 48 hours of a crime being committed, their chances of solving the case are substantially reduced.

But while timeliness is important, the accuracy of the information is equally critical. Erroneous information can unnecessarily delay an investigation and in some cases, it can destroy any chance law enforcement has to solve the crime.

So what can citizens do to become better witnesses?

Let’s start with the crime itself. If the person was an eyewitness, it is important to get an accurate description about what happened. This information can be cross-referenced to what other eyewitnesses or victims (if they are alive) say and in relationship to what the physical evidence at the crime scene indicates. If the crime is a murder, I would want to know what type of weapon was used; what was the relationship of the suspect to the victim; how did the suspect commit the crime; was anything said during the commission of the crime; was anyone else involved in the crime?

When it comes to suspect information, the name of the suspect can be like gold to investigators, but it must be accurate or else it becomes like fool’s gold. This is one of the areas where mistakes are most commonly made. Make sure the spelling of the name, particularly the last name, is accurate. Street nicknames can sometimes be acceptable because investigators can often cross-reference the nickname with other detectives or patrol officers or witnesses who might be familiar with the suspect.

The suspect’s physical description is also critical. What is the approximate age and race of the suspect? This can be tricky. Many drug addicts and alcoholics look much older than their actual age because of the effect of the substances on their bodies. By contrast, it has been my experience that witnesses often underestimate the ages of people of small stature. When interviewing witnesses and there was some confusion about the approximate age of the suspect, I would sometimes show photos of various age groups. This helped us get an approximate age range for the suspect.

Over the years, determining the race of the suspect can also be challenging. There are so many people who are of mixed race, that it sometimes is easier to just describe someone by skin color than by race. As it is, some people are offended when we ask about a suspect’s race. But the object is to try to narrow the scope of the investigation as quickly as possible and that is one of the reasons why we ask the question.

Average height, average weight?

On many police reports, an officer will write “Average height, average weight.” This used to drive me crazy as an investigator. What the hell is “Average height,

average weight?” Look at this template:

Suspect’s Race/Sex Average Height Average Weight

Adult Male (North America)     5-9.5 195 pounds
Adult Male (Mexico)                   5-5 198 pounds
Adult Male (Europe)                   5-10 183 pounds
Adult Male (China/Japan)          5-7 130 pounds
Adult Male (Africa)                     5-4 130 pounds

Adult Female (North America) 5-4 160 pounds
Adult Female (Mexico)               5-2.5 150 pounds
Adult Female (Europe)               5-6 152 pounds
Adult Female (China/Japan)      5-2 117.5 pounds
Adult Female (Africa)                 5-4 105 pounds

This is just a quick overview. Obviously “average size and weight” varies with ethnic groups and the suspect’s country of origin. Nothing can be taken for granted. The more precise a witness can be, the more valuable they are to investigators and the more credibility they establish for themselves if they testify in court.

More than meets the eye

When I would question a witness, I often would ask them to close their eyes and visualize the suspect. Often this helps to eliminate distractions and forces them to focus on the suspect’s description. In addition to the basic information about the race, age, height and weight of the suspect as well as hair and eye color, here’s what else I wanted to know:

• Do you know the suspect? If yes, what is the suspect’s name? Does the suspect have a nickname? Has the suspect been arrested? Who was the arresting agency?
• If you don’t know the suspect, will you be able to recognize the suspect if you see him/her again?
• What clothing was the suspect wearing? Was there anything distinctive about the clothes or the suspect’s jewelry? Did the suspect wear glasses?
• Was a weapon involved? Describe the weapon in detail. If the weapon was a handgun or a knife, what hand was the suspect holding the weapon in?
• Did the suspect have any scars or tattoos? Describe them. Where were they located? Was there anything else distinctive about the suspect’s appearance?
• Did you see the suspect move? Did the suspect move normally or was he/she walking with a limp?
• Did you hear the suspect speak? Did the suspect have a distinctive accent…foreign accent or a regional accent? What did the suspect say?
• Was anyone else with the prime suspect? Describe in detail any associates of the suspect.
• Did you see the suspect’s vehicle? If yes, describe as much detail as possible (make, model, year, color, dents, bumper stickers, decals, hubcap style, other distinguishing details).
• Is there anything else about the suspect that you can add?
• Do you know the victim? Provide any details about the victim, the victim’s address, next-of-kin and the victim’s personal history if available.

Of course, very few eyewitnesses will have all the information to these questions. But there is no harm in asking. I operated on the assumption that my initial interview with the witness will be my best chance to get as accurate an accounting of the crime as possible. As time passes, a witness’s memory will usually begin to fade or play tricks on them. If the crime was particularly horrifying, many witnesses will block out the memory of the entire event.

If citizens concentrate for just a few moments on the events unfolding before them when a crime occurs, they would be able to focus on the kind of detailed information law enforcement needs to solve the case. Unfortunately, a person’s senses are often stressed by the confusion and fear they experience when witnessing a crime. The result is usually a wildly divergent narrative from various eyewitnesses. As the old saying goes, “The worst witnesses are eyewitnesses.”

But we can do better. It would be in everyone’s best interests if we helped citizens become better witnesses. Law Enforcement can do that by simply training them to be better observers. The first step in that training is to tell citizens what is important to investigators in solving a case. After all, “It’s Everybody’s Business….”

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