“In the grace of truth, re-examine all that you have been told.”
Lailah Gifty Akita
Private investigators and attorneys often begin their investigation of an incident many months – or even years – after a case has been brought forth. As a result, many believe that investigations are limited to information contained within the discovery. Investigation of a case should never be defined or restricted to information and evidence solely provided during the discovery process.
A neighborhood canvass is a methodical examination of an area associated with an investigation by means of observation and personal interviews with residents, personnel working at local businesses, and other persons found to have a nexus with the location in question. By conducting a neighborhood canvass, new witnesses can be located, informants are developed, evidence is discovered, alternate suspects are identified, additional theories present themselves, and a “buzz” is generated.
In my former role as a criminal investigator with the United States Marshals Service, I led multi-jurisdictional teams in investigations of the murders of police officers and other highly publicized crimes. During these investigations, we routinely employed neighborhood canvassing to solve complex crimes that initially contained few leads, and for good reason: because it works.
Preparing to Canvass
Prior to beginning the neighborhood canvass, a few critical steps should be taken. First and foremost, the individual(s) conducting the canvass should familiarize themselves with the investigation and understand how persons, places, and evidence are related. This creates a proper context for any observations made and questions asked during the canvass.
Next, geographical boundaries for the canvass should be established. Then, take the time to understand your canvass area by preparing maps, reviewing county assessor records, and checking proprietary data bases. Armed with this knowledge, a plan to systematically canvass the area without missing any residences and businesses can be formulated. Of course, as with all stages of an investigation, flexibility is critical. It should almost go without saying that as the case progresses and information is obtained, the boundary limits established for the canvass may change.
Finally, gather and prepare the proper tools and equipment to document what you learn during the canvass. Voice recorders, notepads, maps, camera, voluntary statement forms, business cards, and evidence kits easily come to mind. But remember that preservation of evidence letters should also be readily available during the canvass. Often, individuals conducting a canvass will discover new evidence in a case; this evidence may not be voluntarily turned over, or individuals with specific expertise may be needed to collect the evidence. Being prepared with preservation of evidence letters will help secure and protect this evidence until it can be collected.
Conducting the Canvass
Your canvass will primarily involve creating two “buckets” of information: details gained from people and observations of the terrain.
To begin the canvass, first attempt to match the time of your canvass with the time of day that the incident you are investigating occurred. People are creatures of habit, and can often be found in the same places at the same times doing the same activities that they were doing during the incident in question.
Next, as you systematically move throughout the area in question, identify everyone who lives, works, and visits the area. All relevant persons connected to the area should be interviewed separately and thoroughly, no matter how many follow-up trips are required to accomplish the task. Since some witnesses may be reluctant to speak or be interviewed again later, it’s important to capture key statements the first time.
Take time to follow up with key witnesses discovered during the canvass. Many times, witnesses will remember key details that they couldn’t initially recall, alliances between parties will change, and the “buzz” generated by the canvass may produce new witnesses who initially refused to cooperate.
Undoubtedly some persons connected with the area of interest will be unavailable to speak or won’t be present during the canvass. Document these unsuccessful attempts, as these individuals may later be discovered to be persons of interest. It is important to be “professionally persistent” and follow up with all individuals in person. Avoid conducting telephone interviews, as this method of communication makes it difficult to develop a meaningful rapport and can invite people to be evasive and untruthful.
As the canvass progresses, carefully note information about the geographical area, such as the presence of security cameras, license plate numbers and description of vehicles, and other physical features. It’s always a good idea to take pictures and videos of the canvass area for late use and comparison to what is contained in the discovery file.
Neighborhood canvasses can be time-consuming and resource intensive, but are a necessary step that no proper investigation should leave out. Cases that are energetically pursued have a magical way of yielding critical evidence. Meticulously conducted neighborhood canvasses can produce evidence that is useful in proving one’s case or discrediting the opposition, thereby providing leverage during negotiations and at trial.