5 tips to prepare for unexpected turns in an investigation

Criminal investigations don’t always go according to plan, but “the unexpected” need not be a black cloud looming large over your case

Criminal investigations are dynamic, fast-paced, unpredictable and full of surprises. Each investigator or investigative team works hard to see their investigations culminate in a successful prosecution, and trusts justice is served for the victim(s) and their respective families.

Things don’t always go according to plan, though. A witness who cooperates in the beginning can become uncooperative, a key piece of evidence can vanish or become unusable, a motion to suppress evidence can suppress way too much, or what seemed like a rock-solid confession can be tossed out on a technicality.

By being mindful of the potential for the unexpected to occur, we will be better prepared to isolate problems as they arise, have resources in place to effectively and even creatively confront them, and minimize the chances of similar problems from happening in the future.

Below are five tips to help you prepare for, manage, and even embrace the unexpected.

1.) Build Resiliency
By always striving for success as an individual investigator or as an investigative team, an underlying resiliency is established that aids in our ability to adapt and respond to several unexpected case impediments. 

Building resiliency enhances investigator performance, but establishing it may not be easy. It requires an honest self-assessment, seeking the counsel of others, accepting that in order to succeed we sometimes fail, valuing the lessons learned from making mistakes, and possessing a willingness to constantly improve.

Resiliency can also shift our paradigm. By perceiving unexpected problems as challenges — as opposed to roadblocks — we can be more effective in overcoming them.

2.) Be Mindful
Constantly thinking about the unexpected helps us to prepare for when it occurs. Although the unexpected can be positive — as in the form of an anonymous tip — more frequently it’s negative. Mindfulness helps to mitigate the surprise. If we are able to reduce the occurrences of the unexpected surprising us, we allow ourselves the opportunity to craft targeted and thoughtful responses.

Being mindful also means possessing a high degree of situational awareness. Investigators should always be scanning the episodic landscape while paying particular attention to early, subtle signals that precede the unexpected rather than taking things as they come. The idea is to sense the little ripple in the pond and address it as early as possible rather than find ourselves confronting a tidal wave that significantly impacts case success. Detecting the weaker signals early permits us the necessary time and resources to craft a strong response.

3.) Fantasize
Sounds like an odd investigative tactic, but when preparing for the unexpected it is invaluable. By “fantasize,” I mean regularly running mental models of how your case might unfold.

As early in the investigation as possible — even while responding to the crime scene — consider all the possibilities, angles, twists, and turns you can.

Think defensively... and by that I mean like a defense attorney. Try to imagine all the things a defense attorney might ask, any case weaknesses he or she may attack, any strategy he or she might use in court.

Think of all that could go wrong at each stage of the investigation and, as best as you can, craft a response that answers every question or overcomes any hurdle. By richly fantasizing about your cases, you will better prepare yourself to respond to those scenarios as they unfold.

As mentioned before, the unexpected need not always be negative, so allow yourself to imagine a positive yet unexpected surprise. Imagine an anonymous tip coming in or a critical piece of evidence turning up, because it’s just as important that we prepare to deal with the pleasant qualities of the unexpected.

4.) Share Information
By sharing case information with our various departmental entities — those who work in neighboring jurisdictions across the profession — everyone benefits. We help prepare others for the unexpected by providing them as much relevant information as possible (without compromising our investigation). Being informed allows them to process and accept information and events as they occur, adapt to the unpredictable nature of an investigation, know where to direct information, and offer desirable investigative response. 

Sharing information, even informally, allows us to tap into the knowledge bank and expertise of others, those who have dealt with similar case challenges or previously confronted the unexpected in a successful way. Learning and adopting what has worked for others keeps us from reinventing the wheel so that we can efficiently address the twists and turns our cases take.

5.) Be Cautious About Oversimplifying
As investigators, we look forward to the occasional slam dunk — they break up the monotony of the whodunits. But, due to heavy case loads and constant demands on our time, we sometimes try to make less-than-straightforward cases as streamlined as we can.

In most cases, things work out fine, but a word of caution: Efficiency is great, but a tendency to oversimplify sometimes diminishes our vision of the subtle — yet important — aspects of a case.

Limited vision can translate to limited options, whereas a big-picture approach to your case will allow you to recognize substantially more and, in turn, improve your ability to sense things that may be amiss as early as possible. This also affords you greater options should the unexpected occur — you can then adapt with an appropriate response.

Embracing the unexpected is a good method of case management. By thinking about it all the time, empowering those who assist us, seeking the advice of those more experienced than us, and demonstrating a willingness to always improve, we lessen the toll of the unexpected and improve our chances of success.

Stay safe.

Weick, K. & Sutcliff, K. (2001). Managing the unexpected: Assuring high performance in an age of complexity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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