The current COVID-19 pandemic presents challenges to law enforcement’s adaptability. Quarantined personnel create resource shortages and force agencies to find ways of increasing efficiency during the crisis. Current guidelines for controlling exposure are changing how we interact with each other and prompt questions about when we should or should not interact with members of the community.
I spent the majority of my law enforcement career as a criminal investigator for state law enforcement agencies. One of the benefits of being an investigator for a state agency was learning how to conduct investigations over long distances.
My jurisdiction was almost 85,000 square miles, and my work could involve meeting with a witness who was five miles from my office and then interviewing a victim who was over 300 miles away. It wasn’t efficient for our investigators to travel regularly throughout the state, so we came up with ways to conduct investigations over a long-distance while sitting at our desks or some other remote work location.
Since the current pandemic may have investigators working from home to control exposure, I thought some suggestions on conducting remote investigations might be useful for investigators to apply locally to help them increase effectiveness and adapt more quickly to a new working arrangement.
But first, a disclaimer. It is essential to discuss the below considerations and verify their acceptability with appropriate supervisors, prosecutors’ offices, human resources representatives, local agency legal counsel and others before implementation. Investigators are still responsible for complying with agency policies while working from home. Interim directives may modify policies during protracted crises like the current pandemic, so investigators should stay current on such directives and ensure they are conforming to the current direction.
Home Office Considerations
Investigators work daily with protected information such as criminal histories and driver license records and frequently have telephone conversations about confidential matters.
Supervisors should work with their agency’s legal counsel, records manager and terminal agency coordinator to consider whether protected information laws and regulations in their state allow for the access and possession of protected information in remote working environments and if so, develop related procedures for accessing and handling protected information.
If protected information accessing and handling is permitted in a home office setting, investigators are responsible for complying with applicable laws, policies and procedures. At a minimum, they should have an area of their home dedicated to work that can be secured to prevent protected information from being viewed by unauthorized persons. The home office area should also be situated in a way that prevents others from hearing confidential conversations.
The home workspace should also be set up using proper office ergonomics to reduce the risks of injuries and fatigue and promote productivity. Investigators may also be required to meet other obligations associated with working from home such as mandatory labor law postings and injury notification agreements.
Supervisors and human resources personnel should be able to provide investigators with more information about working from home.
Agencies should provide investigators with the appropriate technology they need to work from home.
Agency information technology personnel should verify that the technology issued to investigators and their intended remote internet connections and networks meet applicable performance, security and confidentiality standards.
A key point, however, on technology use: Investigators should be sure to use agency-issued equipment for agency work only and not use personally owned technology for work purposes. Investigators who use personally owned technology devices for work risk those devices being subject to discovery and search by opposing counsel and their client; using agency-issued equipment is crucial to avoid such a scenario. In all cases, follow agency technology use and information security policies.
Prioritization of cases can be challenging during times of limited resources and mobility. Investigators feel the constant pressure of a caseload and work hard to move investigations forward as much as possible on as many cases as possible.
In the current pandemic environment, investigators should work with their supervisors to prioritize their cases based upon their impact on public safety, expected solvability, statutes of limitations and required resources. Cases involving a low impact on public safety and low solvability, such as theft of low-value property with no suspect information, may be able to be put on the back burner until the current crisis abates. Effectively prioritizing cases can be a significant step in making the most of available resources.
Victim and Witness Interviews
One of the most rewarding aspects of investigations is working with victims and witnesses to gather information and solve crimes. In doing so, investigators can see the tangible results of their hard work based upon their direct interactions with those most affected. But keep in mind that while the information collected during these interviews helps to build the case, it is not always necessary that the interviews be conducted in person. Now that potential virus exposure is a concern, investigators need to find alternatives to the standard in-person interview.
One alternative is to collect detailed written statements from victims and witnesses. This can be accomplished via traditional mail or email.
These statements should contain instructions on how to complete the form and can include prompts (e.g., where and when did an event happened, who was involved, what happened, loss or injury suffered) to help a person complete the statement. The statements should also contain an acknowledgment where the person completing the statement signs or otherwise indicates that they understand they can be prosecuted for filing a false report or providing false information.
Agencies may also consider exploring software options that allow for digital signatures. Additionally, statements sent via traditional mail should be sent from your agency address and returned to your agency address, rather than from or to your home address.
Regardless of the option you choose, verification of the process with your local prosecutor’s office is a necessary step to ensure your methods for obtaining the statement are satisfactory for their purposes.
Another alternative to an in-person interview is a recorded telephone interview with the victim or witness. Before recording any interviews, investigators should consult with the applicable prosecutors’ office and agency counsel to be sure they are complying with laws (e.g., one-party consent, all-party consent, law enforcement exceptions) related to recorded conversations. Many quality telephone recording devices are available at a reasonable cost. Apps also allow investigators to record conversations on their agency-issued mobile phones. Investigators should check with their organization’s information technology team to obtain approval for any recording methods they intend to use.
Another alternative is to conduct and record interviews using a face-to-face call recorder app. These apps are similar to voice recording apps, but they also use device cameras to record video of the participants’ faces during the interview. Consult with your agency counsel regarding the legal requirements for recording these interviews in your jurisdiction. Just like recording phone calls, it is important to know which laws apply, the laws of your jurisdiction, or the laws of the witness’s jurisdiction if they happen to be in a different state or on federal property.
Following the recorded interviews, investigators should document a summary of the recorded interview on the appropriate form and include both the summary and the recording in the case file.
The suggestions above may be new for some investigators and may be standard practice for others. Some of the recommendations may not be approved for use in some jurisdictions or venues. But those investigators that can utilize them, or come up with other ideas for doing their jobs in ways that reduce travel and in-person interaction, can reduce the risk of virus exposure in the current pandemic environment, and everyone may benefit from the increased efficiencies provided by such solutions long after the pandemic has passed.