THE FORGOTTEN AREA CANVASS

By Sgt. (Ret.) Tony Monheim, MS

 Reprinted from Law and Order Magazine

 

In the course of any criminal investigation, there are very few “Sherlock Holmes moments.” Rarely does the investigator shout, “Watson, I have it” to his partner (assuming his name is Watson) when the culprit’s identity is dramatically revealed through brilliant reasoning or magnificent deduction.  Regrettably, most cases are solved by tediously plodding through endless bits of desultory information until a vague image of who might have done it emerges.  Then, with the same dogged determination, the investigator must examine apparently random clues, trying to link them together cohesively, hoping they will somehow reveal the actual perpetrator.     

If conducted properly, many of these hidden puzzle pieces can be uncovered through the neighborhood canvass.  It is irrefutable that neighborhood canvasses solve criminal cases.  Seasoned investigators are well aware of the value of a conscientiously performed canvass; however, detectives new to the investigative process often ignore their importance.  With the advent of more sophisticated and alluring scientific methods of processing the crime scene, the area canvass has sadly become a lost art.  The recent spate of crime scene investigation dramas has, unfortunately, relegated the area canvass to the realm of the ineffectual and primitive.  Nothing is further from the truth.

 

CANVASS REWARDS

 While it is true that a neighborhood canvass can be tedious and boring, it can also be highly productive.  Countless cases have been solved by a single item of information gleaned during a well-done area canvass.  Admittedly, they are labor intensive.  Hundreds of contacts are often made without one shred of usable information being unveiled; however, it is that one exhilarating jewel that is occasionally quarried that makes the process so rewarding.  Charles Dickens is credited with coining the term detective in his novel Bleak House to describe “one who detects clues.”  The area canvass exemplifies this old-fashioned style of detective work, and the detection of clues, at its finest. 

 

HOW IS IT DONE

 Unfortunately, most textbooks and literature describing criminal investigative techniques make scant mention of the area canvass.  If mentioned at all, the suggestion “conduct an area canvass” is all that is offered without any further illumination as to how this should be accomplished.  Most new detectives perform an area canvass only because their supervisors insist that the results be recorded in their report.   Due to this lack of direction and training, some investigators resort to utilizing a cross-reference directory and a telephone to make the contacts.  This is not considered an acceptable way to complete an area canvass.

 Ideally, patrol personnel and plain clothes detectives should perform separate canvasses.  Some individuals respond more readily to an authority figure clad in a uniform; while others prefer the anonymity of the detective’s garb.  Since it is impossible to know who will respond more willingly to which approach, both should be employed.  This technique will give the investigator the greatest chance of eliciting vital information.  Obviously, if the first effort, either uniform or plain clothes, works well and the witness is cooperative, the other method should be held in abeyance. 

 How then should a proper area canvass be conducted?   First, know the phrases area canvass and neighborhood canvass may be used interchangeably.  They are interviews conducted in the field, in contrast to statements taken within the confines of the police facility. The canvass may be conducted in an area near the crime scene, or conceivably, hundreds of miles away from it.  In the aftermath of a bank robbery, for example, the getaway vehicle may be located several counties, or even states, away.  Two canvasses should therefore be undertaken: one at the original crime scene (the bank) and one at the secondary scene (the vehicle).  If a suspect is developed, it may be advisable to perform an additional area canvass in the neighborhood where that person resides to learn about his/her reputation and habits.  A complex case may require that a number of area canvasses be completed at various locations.

 The main goal of a neighborhood canvass is, of course, to locate a witness to the crime. It is this promise of the elusive witness that motivates the investigator; however, it is not only the “eye” witness he seeks.  On occasion, it may be just as significant to discover an “ear” witness.  Someone who may have heard a threatening remark, heard gunshots, or even heard how and in which direction the perpetrator fled. This information can point the case in the right direction.  A witness who hears a homicide subject flee in a vehicle with a loud muffler, for example, could be furnishing a valuable lead.  Likewise, intimidating or threatening statements the witness may have overheard could refute a subsequent claim of self-defense.  In an officer-involved shooting incident, a witness who hears the officer yell “stop police” or “drop the gun” is invaluable to the investigation.   Just as important as the eye-witness or the ear-witness is the “witness-who-knows-a-witness.”  Even though this person may not have first-hand knowledge of the crime he or she can direct investigators to a person who does and is, therefore, of great value.

 

IDLE TALK

 Rumors, innuendo, and gossip may not have a place in the courtroom, but they are certainly welcome tidbits that help navigate any investigation.   The type of approach the investigator uses to cultivate this information can often determine how successful he will be.  In certain situations, it may be necessary to coax and cajole the witness. In others, it may be beneficial to appear to confide in the witness and reveal some “inside scoop” about the investigation. This works particularly well with the neighborhood “busy body” who will derive motivation from being “included” in the case.  Also, remember that in certain situations an area canvass may more resemble an interrogation than a simple interview.  Eliciting information from a witness, who is not predisposed to furnish it, is the essence of any area canvass.   

 In high crime, drug infested neighborhoods retaliation for “snitching” to the police is a real life possibility that must be appreciated.  Witnesses who refuse or are reluctant to cooperate with authorities may have ample reason for their trepidation.  That is why each person approached should be provided with a contact number and assurances that they may remain anonymous. Accordingly, local Crime Stoppers organizations, that allow witnesses to impart their information in a discreet manner, should be utilized.

 

INFERIOR TECHNIQUES  

The repetitive and monotonous nature of the canvass should not cause the investigator to rush through the process.  If he appears to be hurried or distracted, the witness will sense this lack of resolve and not be as forthcoming.  A correctly executed area canvass should be slow-paced and deliberate.  The following exchange illustrates how an uninspired area canvass can be a disservice to the investigation:

            Detective:  “Hi, I’m Detective Jones…the man who lives across the street from you was just found murdered…do you know anything   about it?”

Citizen: “Uh, no…not really.

Detective: “OK, thanks.  Can I just get your name for my report?”

 It is troubling that this ineffective dialogue is, too often, commonplace.  The investigator who just “goes through the motions” during an area canvass can derail the entire investigation. This is an extremely critical juncture in the investigative process and must be seriously undertaken. 

 

CREATE EMPATHY AND ACCEPT HOSPITALITY

When initial contact is made with the witness, the investigators should politely introduce themselves and explain why they are there.  They should try to convey to the witness how potentially important their information might be even though, to them, it may seem inconsequential. Every effort should be made to personalize the event by offering such observations as, “they could have just as easily broken into your house” or “imagine if your kids were outside when all that shooting took place” or “they could have robbed your mother.”

If the witness invites the investigator into his/her residence, this invitation should always be accepted.  This is vitally important. In fact, every effort should be made to be invited in.  The reason for this is twofold.  First, the witness may feel more comfortable talking away from the prying eyes of others in the neighborhood.  Secondly, it is human nature for a person to be more polite, more accommodating and more gracious to a guest in his/her home. 

Similarly, if the witness asks the investigator to sit down, he/she should do so.  If the standard reply to this request is, “no thank you sir, I really don’t have time,” this implies to the potential witness that the inquiry being made must not really be that important. It also conveys an indirect disrespect to the homeowner. Make the person being questioned feel as though they have the undivided attention of the questioner.  If the witness offers refreshments, (coffee, tea, water), they too, should always be accepted.  Accepting the witness’s hospitality reinforces the notion that, as a guest in their home, the questioner should be treated cordially and respectfully.  

It has been repeatedly proven that a skilled interviewer must also be an adept listener.    Never cut off a witness who appears to be rambling.  That person may just be nervous and simply meandering until they are able to control their apprehensions.  Moreover, seemingly inane stories related about suspicious vehicles or persons in the neighborhood, that occurred days or weeks earlier, may actually be worthwhile leads when scrutinized. The bottom line…never discount any information received during a canvass.

 

CANVASS REDUX

During a protracted, difficult, case it may be beneficial to reprise the area canvass several times. Follow up contacts may allow the initially reluctant witness to now feel more comfortable about speaking with investigators.  It is also possible that the individual may have learned vital new information about the incident.  Seasoned detectives know that even if witnesses acquire fresh facts, they will rarely divulge that knowledge to investigators unless asked directly.  Also, by repeating the canvass, witnesses who were not originally available, or who were previously unknown, may now be located.

If the area canvass is to be redone or expanded, it is always advisable to conduct it at the same time of day as the original incident.  For example, if a burglary has occurred in a particular neighborhood on Tuesday at 1 p.m. , it is logical to perform a second area canvass the following day at 1 p.m. , and an additional canvass one week later on Tuesday at 1 p.m.   The reason for this timetable is that it insures that those who are on a fixed schedule particular to that day and time might be found.  A delivery man, say, who is only in that vicinity one day a week (Tuesday) may have seen a distinctive vehicle or suspicious person near the crime scene and furnish a unique description that solves the case.   A person whose days off from work are Monday and Tuesday and who may have been home at the time of the burglary will also be available when the canvass is undertaken.  This method works especially well in high traffic areas, such as malls and shopping center parking lots or busy intersections.  This does not apply, however, if the crime occurred in the wee hours of the morning.  Early morning contacts can make an enemy out of even the most cooperative of witnesses and should be avoided, if possible. 

 

THE CHECKPOINT

In addition to speaking with witnesses who are on foot, in certain situations, it may be advisable to set up a vehicle checkpoint, which is visible to or near the crime scene, in order to locate those who may have been driving by and unwittingly witnessed an important clue.

During each of these situations -- the door-to-door canvass, the pedestrian contact, and the vehicle checkpoint -- it may be advantageous to distribute a flyer to each individual contacted.  This flyer should include a brief description of the crime (including date, time and location, of course), a photo of the victim (when applicable, such as in a murder investigation), or perhaps a description or photograph of the property taken, and how to contact the lead investigator.  This provides the witness with a tangible reminder of the encounter that may subtlety prod him/her into recalling information and eventually coming forward.  If there is a description of a subject, or better yet any type of composite or artist rendering of a suspect, this should also be dispensed. If a particular getaway vehicle has been mentioned, a photo depicting a similar make and model should be included on the flyer.  In many death investigations, the primary purpose in conducting the area canvass is to identify the deceased.  This is often accomplished through the distribution of a flyer that displays the victim’s morgue photograph. 

 

CONCLUSION

 In summation, the importance of an area canvass to any criminal investigation cannot be overstated. Although occasionally monotonous and dull, canvasses have consistently proven to be productive and rewarding.  The slang terms “gumshoe” and “flatfoot”, which are sometimes used to describe police officers and detectives, are certainly not meant to be endearing, but they do denote a level of tenacity and perseverance that is definitely required to carry out an effective neighborhood canvass.  The venerable, experienced investigator knows that difficult cases tend to “solve themselves” if approached methodically and energetically. The area canvass should always remain part of this systematic approach. In light of recent advances in technology and forensics, it may appear to some that the area canvass is and antiquated investigative technique. This is not true.  There will never be a substitute in the police officer’s arsenal for face-to-face interaction with real people, who furnish real leads, and who are real-life witnesses to crimes.  

 

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