Improving Crime Observation Skills

Citizens have stopped countless crimes over the years and saved lives by becoming actively involved in protecting their communities. I know that the police can never do their job as effectively as possible without the assistance of the community. As the additional “eyes and ears “ of law enforcement citizens can help to reduce crime, improve safety and increase the quality of neighborhood life by knowing what to report and how to report it. It is important in today’s society that you know the proper way to observe someone or something suspicious in order to accurately relay that information to the police. The following goals need to be met:  

Learn the importance of being observant

Learn observation skills that can be employed in your Neighborhood

Understand that observation is the first step in reporting incidents or suspicious activities relating to criminal activity or terrorism.

Before we begin a discussion on how to properly observe people, vehicles and incidents that may affect us, we should learn what to observe.

Physical setting – Specific location, time of day, day of week

People – What do they look like? How are they acting? How many of them?

Specific Items – What are they important?

Routines – Did you notice any reoccurring patterns or routines? How often did they occur? Who was involved?

Observing a shocking event can be traumatic. Most people will focus on or “zero in” on the event and not think about other items that may be important such as the number of occupants, the description of the occupants or other valuable information such as the license plate number or specific vehicle descriptors such as previous or new damage.

One of the keys to successful memory retention after witnessing an event is recognizing the importance of using good observation skills to keep your neighborhood safeFollowing we will present information that will improve your observation skills when observing people and vehicles.

The first step is to remain calm. Often in stressful situations individuals allow their fears or nerves to take control. It is crucial to stay calm, remain in control of your senses and be alert to your surroundings. Never place yourself in danger when you are observing possible suspicious or criminal activity. Remember, stay calm and remain alert to your surroundings.When observing people start with the basics… gender, race and approximate age. Although these categories are broad, it is amazing how many people can’t even describe the most fundamental individual characteristics.

Repeat this process for all people observed (i.e.. three Hispanic females about fifteen years of age). Once you have made a mental note – or better yet, taken a moment to write down the information – move on to move specific information. Begin with the primary actor and then observe the others. The primary actor is the one who appears to be leading or controlling the incident.

Make note of specific identifiers such as: height, weight, hair color, clothing description (shirt, pants and shoes). Once again, repeat this process as necessary for the number of individuals you are observing.When you have recorded this information, take a moment to reorient yourself to the entire event. Stay alert and begin broadening your perspective.

Often observers become myopic or have “tunnel vision” when an incident occurs. This can be extremely dangerous and significantly reduce the amount of information that you observe. Take a deep breath, step back if possible and broaden your perspective. What other events are occurring? Who else is affected? What is the overall situation?

Finally, the last step is to observe and record any other detailed information that may be beneficial to other officers or investigators.What details can you add about vehicles, witnesses, time of day, location of activity, or outcome of the incident?

Vehicles can actually be more difficult because of the similarity between models by the various manufacturers and the lack of knowledge about automotive designs on the part of the observer. Many people cannot distinguish between a Ford and a Chevy, while others cannot tell the difference between one foreign car and another. When it comes to vehicles, the only way to improve your observation skills is to spend time learning about the various makes, models, styles and types of vehicles that are on the road today.

As observers, you may want to develop tools to help yourselves when describing various vehicles. One easy tool may be as simple as picking up guides from local car dealers on their types of vehicles, or locating an automotive magazine like “Auto Trader” that would show pictures of all types of vehicles and provide brief descriptions. Once you have established the Make and Model of the vehicle, you can move to specific details such as the body style, color and overall appearance.

To complete your picture of the vehicle, we want to add as many details as possible such as damage to the vehicle and if that damage appeared old (rusty) or new. Describe any bumper stickers you notices or signs or lettering on the vehicle. Did it have a phone number listed to report accidents or comment on driving? Was there a company logo on the vehicle and can you describe it or are you familiar with the company?

At this point we also want to add any details about the overall incident that the vehicle was involved in or the environment surrounding the scene. Were there multiple vehicles, what time of day was it, what were the weather conditions, what was the direction of travel? Did you see the occupants and can you provide descriptions of them?

There are numerous ways to improve your overall observation skills. One of the best is simply to practice by observing various events and then recalling the circumstances in a manner that would be beneficial to others during an investigation. Other practices to assist with your observation skills include staying calm and being patient when observing an event. If you become over anxious or unduly upset, you may not be able to respond or assist if you are requested or required to do so. Remember to pay attention to your overall surroundings so you can react appropriately if the circumstances should warrant it. Always be alert to specific incidents that may pose harm or potentially be dangerous (explosions, gas leaks, group turmoil).

Note your general environment (inside, outside, night, day, rain storm, snowing, downwind exposure) and how it is affecting the incident. Make sure that you actively work to avoid “tunnel vision” and observe the entire scene on a regular basis. This will give you a more accurate overall picture of the incident and keep you from focusing in on only one or a few items. Finally, be aware of people’s reactions to the incident. This information could be crucial during an investigation. For example, did someone calmly walk away from an explosion, did they speed away from an accident scene, or did they simply stand back and stoically watch the fire?

Be patient

Pay attention to your overall surroundings

Be alert to specific incidents around you that may be potentially dangerous

Note the general environment

Observe the entire scene

Be aware of people’s reactions

By organizing your thoughts and methodically recalling and categorizing details of an event, you can become an excellent observer and subsequent effective witness for investigators. Next time we will discuss how to report an incident to the police and most importantly how to get the police to respond to a call based on proper reporting technique.