A private investigator must be aware of any possible leads or clues when conducting an investigation. Private investigators maintain awareness, take photos, make notes, and diagram scenes. They don't overlook anything. Following are important items and information that can lead private investigators to important clues:
1. Timing - "Timing is everything!" - In an investigation this cliche may be true. What time was the witness at the scene?, When did the target arrive?. Private investigators always ask people they interview for times. Approximate if they did not specifically know. Then ask how they knew the approximate time. You can easily create a timeline documenting key facts.
2. Clothing Descriptions - Specific - "She was wearing a red shirt and blue jeans." Not a lot of detail there. When playing back the video, you may be surprised to find 3 or more women wearing red shirts and blue jeans. Ask for specific types of clothing. Collared shirt?, Specific colors such as dark or light. Ask what type shoes they were wearing. More detailed information you can get, the smaller your list of suspects will become.
3. Phone Call Times & Numbers & Sounds!! - If your investigation includes information from a phone call, ask for specific times, phone numbers, and then inquire if there were any background noises. Smartphones log calls so times and numbers are easy to get. Background sounds the person being interviewed heard while talking could be important. Maybe there were traffic noises in the background at a time the suspect was claiming to be in the office.
4. Items laying around - Any good private investigator knows all clues do not stand out at first. Make sure to photograph and document anything you see whether you think it is relevant or not. This is important when conducting surveillance. Maybe there is dry cleaning hanging in the back of the car, hamburger wrappers laying on the desk in the office late in the afternoon, or other items. This is important information that can be used in interviews, or creating a timeline for a target's movements. Not all items you see will be clues, nor will there be a clear sign indicating that an item is a clue.
5. Receipts or actions that create a paper trail - In any investigation, this information is important. Maybe your target claimed to be eating dinner late at night. A quick scan of a credit or bank card statement can help determine if it is accurate. Of course you may need to ask, "How did you pay for that?". Leaving a secure parking deck, or card controlled access point at a building can be another important clue that can help you separate facts from fantasy.
Information that may not appear to be relevant at first, may later become important to the investigation. If not captured in writing or in photographs, it may be lost. Information that can make or break a case.
We have discussed this topic before but it is important enough to repeat and update.
Frequent questions are; "What do I take notes about?" and "How to take notes?". The best question is "Why do I take notes?" Let's start with last question first:
Why does a private investigator need to take notes? This question generally is referring to content more than the need to take notes, but here are a few reasons why you should: 1. Writing things down helps you remember them. The best way to learn is repetition. 2. Record of work performed. Let's face it, you really enjoy being a private investigator, but getting paid is important too. You can quickly and easily complete your work history for billable hours by referring to your notes. 3. When working on multiple investigations it is easy to confuse facts. Referring back to your notes will increase your accuracy and you will not forget important details. One investigator said, "My notes have led to the capture of many a suspect as I have found the clues I needed in them."
How to take notes? This question centers on two aspects of taking notes. First, what is the best method for taking notes? A tablet or pen and paper. We opt for the pen and paper method. It's easier, allows you draw sketches, scratch through information, and go back to earlier details you have noted. Second, what is an efficient way to take notes? Learning shorthand can be time consuming and costly. We suggest using shortcuts common to texting. For example; "V could c S put items dwn front of pants." You can probably figure this one out, "Victim could see the suspect put the stolen items down the front of his pants." Using common abbreviations such as "V" for victim, "S" for suspect, and "W" for witness will help you quickly take notes. If there are more than one, then assign a number for each. Later you can transcribe your notes for the report in to complete sentences.
What do I take notes about? This question centers on the idea that people tend to talk quickly and a lot of the information they provide is not relevant to the investigation. Trying to write down everything that is said is almost impossible and can be distracting to the individual you are interviewing. The key items to capture are: names, phone numbers, addresses, locations, descriptions of people & property, times/dates, and facts that support or disprove the allegations. Following is an example that you can use as a template for taking notes consistently:
"Monday, September 2, 2016 - 1600-1630hrs @ Jones Office Bldg Suite 123.
V - Brenda Jones, 231 345 5454, office manager
V could c S put items dwn front of pants in waiting room. S left by front door, in late model Honda 4 door. S drove north on Williams St.
S - w/m, slender, about 5'10"-5'11", blue jeans, white t-shirt and tennis shoes.
Items: small clock radio and V's purse. Purse brn leather, "Coach", contained $20 and several cc's."
You can see in the example that "PI shorthand" was used. You can easily transpose the information into complete sentences later when completing the report. Here are few tips:
1. Don't let note taking interfere with the interview.
2. Always review your notes with the person being interviewed to make sure your information is accurate. It will also prompt them to add additional details.
3. Leave spaces as you take notes so you can go back add important details as needed.
4. Transcribe your notes as soon as possible while they are fresh in your memory.
5. Always take notes. Develop a habit of taking notes even if you think you don't need to.
6. Keep all of your notes together in a notebook. This will allow you keep a journal of your work.
Always take good notes to improve your investigation!
There is a lot of focus on writing the investigative report and there should be since it is the primary deliverable a private investigator provides to their client. For private investigators there is not always the luxury of using a pre-formatted form for every investigation as police often do. Uniqueness of the investigation and varying types of evidence often create the need for a well written private investigative report devoid of a commonly used form.
The tried and true method is the development of case file. Case files include all information pertinent to the case investigated. It is important to remember that the case file is for use "by others", not just the investigator.
Listen to this podcast on the "Basics of Case File Construction". A transcript is also provided.
When you graduated high school you probably thought taking notes was a thing of the past!!! Professionals in every field find note taking to be a critical skill. Although technology provides several note taking tools, pen and paper (notebook) are still the best for taking notes. Whether you are novice or a skilled professional honing your note taking skills will provide allow you to accurately record information, verify you have the information you need and reduce the time you need to complete your investigative report.
Pen/pencil and paper is the best note taking tool! - Although technology provides many benefits and without smartphones, computers, tablets, audio and video recorders you would not be able to complete your tasks as a professional private investigator, pencil and paper is still the be. Just like a car mechanic, you need to pick the right tool for the right task.
Using technology to take notes during an interview is distracting and takes more time than a notebook and pencil. Audio/video recorders are great tools for recording action as it happens but in an interview they are a hindrance for the person being interviewed to freely share information. Later, when you are trying to write your report, it is difficult to find a specific fact-- rewinding and fast-forwarding is frustrating when you are in a hurry.
SAFETY FIRST! When using technology it is easy for you to get distracted scrolling, highlighting, saving, etc. With paper and pencil you maintain awareness of your situation.
Five steps to improve your note taking abilities:
1. Focus on the information you NEED! When interviewed, people provide a lot of information that is not relevant to the investigation. Write down the important items. For example; you are interviewing a witness about a crime they observed. The interviewee may respond to your question, “What did you see?” with,
“I had just got my coffee from the store around the corner and was walking back to the office. When I walked in to the office I saw a lot of people standing in front of Tom’s office. Tom has been the manager for a couple of years and doesn’t talk to a lot of people. There was a man wearing a red shirt and dark pants yelling at Tom. The man in the red shirt then threw a notebook at Tom. Tom is really a nice guy so I thought it was odd that someone was so mad at him.”
Notes: Entered office and saw man, red shirt dark pants yelling at Tom. Several people standing near office. Man threw notebook at Tom.
2. Draw diagrams when appropriate. Not only will it help the interviewee recall facts, they can show you what happened. In the previous example, having the interviewee show where everyone was standing in relation to their position will help you verify they could actually see the man throwing the notebook and will assist in identifying additional witnesses.
3. Don’t try to catch every word they are saying. Much of the english language is filled with additional words. Don’t worry about using complete sentences in your notes. You can fill in blanks later when you have time.
4. Review your notes with the person being interviewed for accuracy. At the end of the interview review your notes with the interviewee. You verify your notes and it provides the interviewee the opportunity to recall additional information they may have left out.
“You saw a man in a red shirt with dark pants throw a notebook at Tom.”
“Yes. Did I mention that he had a cowboy hat on too? I believe he might have been wearing cowboy boots and was wearing a large belt buckle like a rodeo rider.”
5. Edit your notes as soon as possible. Scribbling a few key words during the interview makes a lot of sense to you at the time. If you wait too long after the interview your notes they may not make sense.
Getting in the habit of following these five simple steps will improve your overall investigation.
Experienced private investigators realize the importance of professional investigative reports. Reports you provide your client 'live' a long time and are read by several people weeks, months or years after you completed the investigation. Professional private investigators view the finished report as product that advertises their firm. People that are impressed with your work may contract with you in the future.
First step in creating professional reports is to avoid common mistakes that create a bad impression of your work:
Report writing is easy with the word processors. Using grammar and spell check helps us proof-read a report. Unfortunately, capitalization is still tricky at best when writing a report with all the tools we have available.
Proper rules for capitalization are in the English language, (or is that english), are very tricky.
Listen to this podcast by Grammar Girl to learn more about when or when not to capitalize proper nouns. You can get a transcript or look for more grammar techniques by visiting Grammar Girl.
Pro PI staff
Experienced professionals and trainers.