Observation For Professional Investigators

By R. L. Lesnick
Gamma Investigative Research, Inc.

On September 4, 1985, a police officer went to the local post office to speak with the clerk who had waited on a grand larceny suspect the day before.  Two factors made the officer optimistic that the clerk would remember the encounter: the suspect was a physical giant, and he had paid for special handling of a package.  Did any of the clerks remember such an individual? Each one responded, "I didn't notice."

Those three words cause the greatest frustration for any investigator,  people see only a fraction of what is right before their eyes.  The problem is vexing enough in minor matters, but when a witness to a major crime didn't notice the direction of the escape car, the result can be disastrous.  To a forensic artist assisting in an investigation, a victim's failure to notice an attacker's facial features is especially frustrating.

On October 6, 1984, a woman saw her fiancée stabbed to death.  When asked to describe the assailant's face she said, "I didn't notice."  Although she was standing less than three feet away, she could not give any details about the attacker.

On July 17, 1984, an armed robber held up a bank.  Two tellers saw him.  A month later the same man robbed another bank a few blocks away and one teller saw him clearly.  But the three sketches made from the witnesses' descriptions appeared to be of different men.  One teller saw a moustache; two did not.  One saw a chin dimple; the others did not.  One saw a redhead; the other two a blonde.  One saw long hair; the other two didn't.  To one teller, the man looked thirty-five; to the second, twenty-seven; to the third, twenty-one.  To at least half the questions, the tellers answered, "I didn't notice."

I have interviewed dozens of victims of violent crime who couldn't tell with any certainty the height, weight, approximate age, or in some cases even the race of the offender.  I once asked a middle-aged male holdup, victim if the robber wore a beard or was clean-shaven.  "I didn't notice," he said.

The trouble is not noticing something can cost you your life.  You don't notice a red light and the next thing you see, if anything, is the inside of a hospital.  Why didn't you notice something as obvious as a red light?  You didn't notice perhaps because you were in a hurry, you were thinking about something else, or you didn't expect any traffic at that hour.  These answers, however, describe the symptoms, not the disease, that impaired your ability to notice.

What then is that disease?  Let's call it perceptual atrophy.  Your ability to perceive the things around you has grown weak and flabby like any unused muscle or any unpracticed skills.  Paderewski, the great pianist, once said, "If I don't practice for a day I noticed it; for two days, my friends notice it; for three days, the audience notices it."  The same holds true with observation.

Several factors have led to a gradual breakdown of our observational skills.  The first factor is technology.  Want to remember what something looks like?  Take a picture with your camera.  Want a record of a conversation or a song?  Use a tape recorder.  Want instant recall of budget figures, department reports, or technical' articles?  Punch a few buttons on your minicomputer and there they are.

Consider the weather.  Who notices the signs used in the past to foretell weather conditions?  We depend on televised newscasts with sophisticated weather maps and commentaries featuring satellite pictures of the world.  We don't need to notice red sunrises, circles around the moon, or soot falling in the chimney.  We don't need to observe or remember any more because technology does it for us.

The second factor is the breakdown of our observation skills centers on educational philosophies that stress the overview as opposed to techniques that stress mastery of detail.  Since the 1920s, our schools have produced graduates who have gradually been lead to believe details don't matter.

A third culprit is the general breakdown of good manners.  In the past, you looked at the person you were talking to because it was considered rude not to.  But today most bank tellers, store clerks, office workers, receptionists, and other employees who deal with the public don't look at you.  Little wonder after a robbery they say, "I didn't notice his face."  They didn't notice because they were out of the habit.

Despite advances in technology, poor teaching techniques, and bad manners, many people are observant when what they are seeing is of special interest to them.  A shoe salesperson notices everyone's shoes.  A car salesperson notices every vehicle in a parking lot.  A dentist notices your teeth when you smile.  An English teacher notices your sentence structure.  In brief, people do notice things that relate to the way they make a living.

For example, one of the greatest natural detectives I ever knew. was a man I used to hunt and fish with.  Illiterate, he could not read a billboard or even dial a telephone, but his ability to read the woods or surface of a stream would leave Sherlock Holmes breathless.  Hunting and fishing were serious occupations to him, not pastimes; he depended on them for food.  Keen observation was essential and my friend was motivated.

An artist, too, js motivated.  Some say artists see differently, but really they just see more.  They not only see more things but they also see how things work together in a design and are conscious of a wide range of colors, hues, and light.  Artists must also be perceptive to earn a living.

Like the woodsman and the artist, the investigator relies on observation.  The keen investigator would see more while driving around three blocks than would a teacher or an accountant.  The investigator is motivated to see more because his or her job depends on it and because he or she has been trained to know what to look for.

It would be nice if everyone were that motivated, especially employees in occupations that could make them witnesses to a crime, such as bank tellers, convenience store clerks, and security officers.  The challenge is to create the motivation for being observant and to develop the observation skills of all employees.

Consider this scenario: You are in charge of security for a chain of department stores.  You have installed convex mirrors at strategic locations, have placed plainclothes security officers on patrol in the stores, and have installed CCTV.  Yet losses continue and problems persist.  The officers can't watch all the customers and the convex mirrors at the same time.  The efficiency of the CCTV system depends on communication between persons monitoring the system and floor security.  The result is an unacceptable shrinkage problem.

But another resource remains untapped—-the store's salespeople, supervisors, and custodial help.  Every one of them can be an extension of your security system.  But they must be motivated to do the job and they must be trained in observation.

To enhance motivation, common sense and experience suggest human beings enjoy being praised and rewarded.  A company might, for example, use its newsletter to announce the recipient of a crime watcher of the month reward not open to security personnel.  This approach encourages salesclerks and others to keep their eyes open for shoplifters.  This reward could be a letter of appreciation, a store gift certificate, or even cash.

One objection to such a plan might be that it encourages informing on fellow employees creating an atmosphere of mistrust and undermining morale.  However, if the company is losing profits through the deeds of a dishonest employee, that employee's departure provides an economic gain from those who remain and are honest.  Also, some employees who are tempted to steal might find it less attractive if they know others are watching.

Another objection might be voiced to the suggestion, an overly enthusiastic crime watcher might pass the limits of his or her authority and try to detain a shoplifter, with unfortunate legal consequences.  To counter this criticism, the company's legal counsel should inform all employees what they can and cannot do.  In all cases, the safest course for the employee is to report only, leaving detention or arrest to the appropriate security personnel.

Recruiting non-security personnel as security observers can be expanded to include a neighborhood watch, with awards and announcements as appropriate.  The company could- also develop a system of rewards for employees who observe and report situations that are clearly wrong or dangerous, from a fast wall clock to a potential fire hazard.  Reward employees and they will usually reward you, in this case, with increased observational skills.

Clearly, motivation without skills is at best aimless and at worst dangerous.  As with most other skills, developing the skills of observation is largely a matter of practice.  To sharpen your skills, try the following exercises. 

Take a pad and pencil with you on a ten-minute walk around your neighborhood.  Divide each sheet into two columns.  In the left column, write down everything you normally notice: your neighbor's auto, the paperboy's dog, the silver maple across the street.  In the right hand column opposite each entry, write down everything you saw this time that you never noticed before. The neighbor's auto has a tourist sticker, a license number, a make, and a model.  The dog has a red collar, a flop ear, and a limp.  The maple has a dead limb, a ball of mistletoe, and a squirrel that lives in a hole about thirty feet up.  Do this exercise every day for a week.

Now practice you observation skills on people.  On your next walk around your neighborhood, write down as many characteristics of the people you see as possible, physical description, voice, clothing and mannerisms.  Next, pick out a single individual and study him or her carefully.  You will start to notice details that escaped you before.  Take you time and write everything down.

Now try a timed exercise.  For sixty seconds, look at a complicated scene, such as a garden or the face of a person.  Then look away and write down what you remember.  Repeat this exercise with different scenes and people, in each instance reducing the time frame until you can write down a full description after a mere glance.  When you witness a crime, a glance may be all the time you have to form an impression.

Next, leave familiar surroundings and go to a busy street corner.  Turn and face either left or right for five seconds, then look away and write down whatever you remember.  Then look again to see what you missed.  Repeat the exercise several times, each time at a different location.

A similar exercise involves looking out a window at a passerby for a brief moment.  Then ask yourself questions: age, weight, height, race, build, style, color, condition, and quality of attire?  Style, length, and color of hair, beard, physical condition (tired, energetic, healthy), direction of travel, rate of travel, alone or with other, gait (normal, limp, jogging, purposeful).  Develop a questionnaire to keep on hand so you can perform this exercise any time.

Finally, take a course in observation.  If one is not available, sign up for any course involving the fine arts or photography.  Visit the nearest art museum and scrutinize every painting, drawing, and statue.  Study what the masters have done.  They became famous because they noticed what most people don't, a point of light, a sudden shadow, a daring color, a flowing line that turns what could be a drab illustration into a masterpiece.  If you don’t have a museum nearby, go to the library and study art books.

The immediate reward for increasing observation skills will be heightened security awareness.  Investigators, security personnel and employees will see things they never saw before.  But more important, the quality of life will be improved.  And that is what security is all about.

R. L. Lesnick
Gamma Investigative Research, Inc.
P.O. Box 10981, Fairfield, NJ 07004
Licensed NJ GMT (Hrs Zulu) -5
(973) 227-1415 (800) 878-9393 Fax: (973) 882-0960
Domain: http://www.priveye.com http://www.priveye.net
E-Mail: / gamma@priveye.net / rll@priveye.net

Copyright: 2005, R. L. Lesnick, Gamma Investigative Research, Inc.
Used By NAIS with permissions.