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The Dangers in Interpreting Facts During an Investigation

Editor's note: This article was written by an industry professional and guest contributor. The views and opinions in this article are of the author and do not reflect the views of PInow. If you are interested in becoming a guest contributor, send an email to [email protected].

I read a private investigator's tweet, “Going out tonight to prove my client’s case!” (paraphrased to protect the investigator).I am sure the investigator was well-intentioned. Unfortunately, it brings to mind the ethical dilemma that many private investigators face and the slippery slope they can easily fall into—of proving the case the way the client wants it to be proven.

Professional investigators gather facts and report only facts. The television character, Sergeant Joe Friday said it best, “All we want are the facts ma’am.”the-dangers-in-interpreting-facts-in-an-investigation Sounds simple. Investigators, even the most experienced, can be influenced by their client—whether a distraught spouse or an attorney looking for a position of advantage for their client. What's worse is an investigator who wants to prove a client’s allegation because they believe it is what they are paid to do. Either approach can result in career ending consequences. As an investigator approach each investigation with a neutral mindset, report only the facts you gathered and avoid interpreting the results of your investigation.

Approach each investigation with a neutral mindset. Setting out to prove your client’s assertion will result in just that—proving their assertion. You may overlook and ignore facts that point to a contrary point of view. Of course, as a business professional you want to give your client the information they want in a fashion that helps them. Give them the truth by maintaining your neutrality during the investigation. Begin by looking for facts that will prove and disprove the allegations. Avoid becoming emotionally involved and drawing assumptions about the guilt or innocence of an individual no matter how convincing your client may be. Your client may be upset you did not find the proof they wanted, but to do otherwise is a disservice to your client, placing them in a dangerous position.

Interpretation Defined

To explain the meaning of. To conceive the significance of; construe. Offer an explanation.

You are evaluated by your client and others by your report. When writing your report remember there is no substitute for facts. When you proof read, each sentence must be supported by evidence. I observed Mr. Doe kissing a women when he left work—supporting evidence—video or still photo plus your surveillance log. Years of experience and observation of similar individuals in similar circumstances does not prove a case unless there is solid, fact-supporting evidence. Avoid statements based on your instincts like, Mr. Doe had a sexual relationship with a female on Friday night while he was in her house from 8-10pm. Although we should trust our instincts, your instincts are not always correct and don’t substitute well for facts. Without supporting facts your instincts are only a guess.

Consider this story often used to train police and private investigators:

You hear a gun-shot. You run around the corner of a building and see a man on the ground with a gun-shot wound to the head. Two individuals are standing over him. One is holding a handgun and smoke is dissipating in the air around them. Did the one holding the gun shoot the individual? Was it a suicide? Did the other individual shoot the victim? Did someone else shoot the victim and flee the scene before you arrived? The answer to all these questions is simple, “I don’t know.” Your report should reflect what you observed. If asked, “Who do you think shot the victim?” Your answer is, “I don’t know.”

Interpretation is defined as to explain the meaning of. To conceive the significance of; construe. Offer an explanation. Investigators are not interpreters. I suggest that interpretation of facts is an assumption. Avoid interpreting the facts for your client. I observed an investigator make this mistake when she was asked by a victim what she thought after interviewing a suspect. She replied, “I think they did it, but I just don’t have any proof.” All the person heard was, “. . . they did it.” Interpretations are just opinions without supporting facts. Your job is to report facts without any interpretation to protect your client and innocent parties. Remember that your interpretations may be considered as factual by others and if you are pressed to prove your interpretation you may be in trouble without supporting evidence.

Report only the facts and never give an interpretation. Doing anything less will damage your reputation.

Avoid the ethical dilemma created by setting out to prove your client’s allegations, or approaching the investigation with a pre-conceived idea as to what the results will be. Rather, set-out to gather the facts your client will need to make an informed decision about future actions. Remain neutral in your approach, avoid making judgements, report only the facts and never give an interpretation. Doing anything less will damage your reputation, the reputation of your client, damage the reputation of your colleagues in the industry, or worse, result in criminal charges. And, be careful when you tweet about your investigation.

Bruce HolmesAbout the Author

Bruce Holmes is an experienced law enforcement officer with over 24 years law enforcement experience. Bruce is the owner of Holmes-Tech LLC, a company experienced in providing technology solutions for attorneys, private investigators, security professionals as well as a founding partner of ProPiAcademy, a Top Private Investigator Training Program that provides online education for private investigators. 

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This article was written by an industry guest contributor. If you are interested in submitting a guest post or have an article suggestion, send an email to [email protected].

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