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Details Matter – Why Details are critical to a Good Investigation

Posted - February 24, 2024

A little over a year ago I made a video on how details matter in an investigation. You can find that video here. I was thinking about nothing one day (taking a break 😊) and scrolling through a social media platform recently. I can’t recall which one it was, but I came across an interesting quote by author Jay Kristoff:

“An avalanche starts with one pebble.
A forest with one seed.
And it takes one word to make the whole world stop and listen.
All you need is the right one.”

So, inspired over a year ago byBottom of FormSo, inspired over a year ago  the action-filled and often intense crime dramas that many people enjoy, and reminded by the above quote, it seemed apropos to put these thoughts in writing. Details matter. In any investigation the truth is meticulously tucked away in the details.

The ‘he said, she said’ conundrum is a familiar refrain in our line of work, where the path to truth is paved with the bricks, of detail. You can’t just scratch the surface with the who and what; you’ve got to tunnel down to the why and the how. It’s about collecting every shard of information that will eventually lead you to the bigger picture of credibility. There are various reasons why the information we are getting is limited, or even evasive:

  • Intentional deception
  • Poor historians
  • Group think due to pre-investigation discussions by various parties to the investigation.
  • Memory impacted by trauma
  • Fear of the investigation or investigator
  • Getting into the details will get you past all these potential obstacles.

But how do we get to these details? It certainly isn’t the rough-and-tumble interrogations glamorized on movie and TV screens. It’s about a smooth, respectful, and non-threatening approach. We must be thoughtful and strategic in the questions we ask and have the confidence to go there.

So, when camps form, as they often do, with one side rallying behind the Complainant and the other behind the Respondent / Subject, the air gets thick with bias and pre-conceived allegiances, often based on perception and rumor, or even conspiracies to deceive. In these moments, details become your friend. Coached and rehearsed statements tend to crumble under the weight of their own similarities when you scrutinize the specifics. When memory is the issue, cognitive interviewing techniques help, and we spend some time getting into a different type of details and perspective. When fear and or trauma responses are the issue, we still get into details but our approach of understanding, building trust, and offering support to those we interview, sets the stage for success. Information doesn’t always come neatly packaged in chronological order, especially when the trauma of a situation is being investigated, or past traumas have affected a person’s memory. Quick judgments have no place here.

Each case is unique, everyone’s ability to share and communicate is different. Gathering information with patience and precision is what separates a haphazard inquiry from a thorough investigation. Let’s look at some examples and the missed opportunity by failing to pursue the details:

  1. “I’ve never had any problems with him/her.”
    • Missed opportunity for follow-up: This statement could be taken to imply a harmonious relationship. Investigators should ask about past interactions, the nature of their relationship, and if there have been any indirect conflicts or issues observed by others.
  2. “I don’t remember exactly, but it was a regular day.”
    • Missed opportunity for follow-up: The vagueness of this statement can hide important details. Investigators should probe about specific routines, activities, communications, and any deviations from the norm that could jog the memory or provide leads.
  3. “I heard it from someone, but I can’t remember who it was.”
    • Missed opportunity for follow-up: This might be a reference to a rumor or second-hand information. Investigators should ask about the context in which they heard it, why it was memorable, and the potential sources of this information to trace its origin.
  4. “They seemed upset that day, but I don’t know why.”
    • Missed opportunity for follow-up: An emotional state can be significant. Investigators should inquire about the possible reasons for the upset, interactions the person may have had, and any events that could have contributed to the mood change.
  5. “I just know they wouldn’t do something like that.”
    • Missed opportunity for follow-up: This character reference lacks specificity. Investigators should ask why the individual believes this, if there are any facts to support their belief, and if they can provide examples of past behavior that would reinforce their assertion.
  6. “Yes, I saw that person there.”
    • Missed opportunity for follow-up: Simply confirming a sighting isn’t enough. Investigators should ask for the time, context, what the person was doing, their demeanor, and if there were others present who can corroborate.

Statements are important, and with proper follow up or clarifying questions, the information obtained can be game changing, but we must still seek evidence beyond the statements of interviewees that might corroborate their accounts. We must source carefully, and scour through the available physical evidence, documentary evidence, and digital footprints that can lead us along the right path to the truth. Each piece of information may tell a different story, but together they can reveal a coherent narrative. And here lies the art of detail – the meticulous analysis of every piece of information, exercising good judgment, remaining unbiased, and maintaining an open mind. It’s a juggling act of considering all angles, weighing the evidence against the statements, and determining what aligns with the known facts, what is plausible, and what motivations might underly the information provided. This is where the rubber meets the road, where keen observation meets critical thinking, and where the investigator’s ability is truly tested.

Of course, in some investigative work, typically regulatory investigations, the role of the investigator is not to officially document credibility and draw conclusions. However, using the approaches and skills outlined here provides the investigator with an understand of how much and from what sources to continue gathering information, in pursuit of enough information for decision makers to make appropriate decisions.

So, I’ll say it again, it’s clear: the details matter, and they are indeed the bread and butter of any investigation. It’s a meticulous process, but one that ensures, when the dust has settled, what remains is the closest you can get to the unvarnished truth. It’s the little things that count and, in our world, those little things are the difference between justice served and justice denied.