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Why every perspective in an investigation matters

All the subjects involved in an incident have their own idea of what happened based on their observation of what happened

When we arrive at the scene of an incident it is important that we gather all of the information and evidence before determining what really happened. All the subjects involved in an incident have their own idea of what happened based on their observation of what happened.

When we receive their statement, it is not strictly what they saw or what actually happened. We receive their perception of what happened.

Their perception is based on a combination of their past experience combined with their observation.

Experience + Observation = Perception
For example, on one occasion I was working with a very new recruit trainee. We had approached the rear of a house known for selling crack cocaine — buyers would often go to the rear of the house to smoke their crack.

As we approached the rear of the house, I saw a subject smoking his crack with a small liquor bottle converted to a crack pipe. He had his head tilted back with the bottle in his mouth and a lighter over the metal pipe holding the crack.

When he saw us approaching, he put his hands to his side, dropped the pipe and turned to walk off. I asked the trainee to get the pipe while I cuffed the subject.

After I had him cuffed, I looked back to see the trainee looking for the crack pipe — it was right in front of her.

However, she did not recognize the bottle modified to be a pipe.

After securing the prisoner, I asked her if she had ever seen a crack pipe made from a plastic bottle. She had not. I asked if she had seen the subject standing there with his head back holding the bottle and lighter.

She stated she had.

When I asked what she thought he was doing, she quietly responded she thought he was putting drops in his eyes.

I asked, “Then what was the purpose of the lighter?”

She told me it was to see what he was doing.

She had never seen a person smoking crack, and she’d never seen a bottle modified in this way. She did wear contacts and had to keep her eyes moist with eye drops.

Like all people, she took an unfamiliar observation, and compared it to her own experience to arrive at her perception.

Her perception was not what she observed. This was — in this moment — true for that officer, and it is equally true of subjects and witnesses to a criminal incident.

Six Blind Men and an Elephant
When we arrive at the scene it is necessary we collect all the information and evidence before we make our determination. Keep in mind that perception is merely an interpretation of the observation based on experience.

There is an old nursery story that demonstrates this effect. It is the story of six blind men trying to describe an elephant.

These six blind men trying to describe an elephant could not see and had to rely on their sense of touch to describe the elephant. The first blind man felt the elephant’s trunk as it turned and moved.

He said, “An elephant is like a like a big snake.”

The second blind man felt the leg of the elephant and said, “No, the elephant is like a tree, round and strong.”

The third blind man felt the side of the elephant and said, “How can you be so confused? The elephant is like a great wall.” The fourth blind man felt the elephant’s tusk.

He said, “No no!” The elephant is long, hard, and smooth like a spear.”

The fifth blind man felt the elephant’s tail as it swished back and forth. He said, “You are all wrong. The elephant is flexible like a rope.”

The sixth blind man felt the elephant’s ears. He said, “The elephant is thin and flexible like a giant leaf.”

Each of the blind men was right, and yet they were all wrong. Each one was emphatic that his perception was correct. However, each blind man could only describe his part of the elephant. Only when all of the descriptions are put together could they fully understand the shape of the elephant.

An incident — and the ensuing investigation — is similar in that each principal has a little piece of the story.

Each version of the story is true — it is merely the part of the incident that the principal witnessed from their own perspective.

When they tell the story, they add to it their own interpretation based on their own experience. When you conduct your investigation and gather information to write your report, remember these six blind men.

John Bowden is the founder and director of Applied Police Training and Certification. John retired from the Orlando Police Department as a Master Police Officer In 1994. His career spans a period of 21 years in law enforcement overlapping 25 years of law enforcement instruction. His total of more than 37 years of experience includes all aspects of law enforcement to include: uniform crime scene technician, patrol operations, investigations, undercover operations, planning and research for departmental development, academy coordinator, field training officer and field training supervisor.