Criminal Investigative Failures: Avoiding the Pitfalls

By Rossmo, D. Kim | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Criminal Investigative Failures: Avoiding the Pitfalls


Rossmo, D. Kim, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


As one of the most commonly depicted characters in novels, films, and television shows, the police detective solves complex criminal investigations through deductive skills, high-tech forensics, specialized computer programs, hard work, and luck. In these fictional accounts, good wins, evil loses, and justice triumphs. But, in the real world, investigations do not always turn out that way. Sometimes, the case stays open, the criminal remains at large, and justice is denied.

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Failures in the criminal investigative process can have serious consequences. Unsolved crimes, unsuccessful prosecutions, unpunished offenders, and wrongful convictions bring the criminal justice system into disrepute. In addition, with the cost of some major investigations climbing into the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars, wasted efforts can prove extremely expensive.

Most investigators, however, are competent, dedicated professionals who want to solve their cases and arrest the right people. So, what causes a major crime investigation to fail or a criminal prosecution to focus on an innocent person? The answer lies primarily in the subtle hazards or traps that can make the process go awry. Some of the brightest scientists, judges, and detectives have fallen victim to these pitfalls. No one is immune. Researchers in the fields of cognitive psychology, forensic statistics, intelligence analysis, law, and the philosophy of science, however, have suggested some possible explanations, often grouping them into the three areas of cognitive biases, probability errors, and organizational traps. Like cascading failures in airplane crashes, an unsuccessful investigation often has more than one contributing cause.

To fully examine these pitfalls, the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin presents this article in two parts. The first covers cognitive biases that can lead to criminal investigative failures and some strategies that can combat their occurrence.

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COGNITIVE BIASES

Perception and Memory Limitations

People do not objectively survey their worlds. Rather, their experiences and expectations influence the decoding of sensory input (imperfect at best (1)). Individuals view the world through different lenses, a filtering process that creates mind-sets. (2) Quick to form but resistant to change, mind-sets, while neither good nor bad, serve a purpose that under certain conditions can become problematic. Because perception is based on both awareness and understanding, humans often perceive what they expect to, thereby making premature conclusions dangerous. Communication becomes doubly subjective as it involves two people. What the speaker means, what that person says, what the listener hears, and how that individual interprets the communication may not be the same. Subjective words, such as tall, young, likely, and dangerous, have various meanings depending on the situation and the experiences of the speaker and the listener.

What individuals remember depends upon what they believe. (3) The brain does not objectively record data. Instead, memories are subjective interpretations, rarely reinterpreted even when circumstances change. New information becomes assimilated with old, which has more influence on the new than vice versa. Because people tend to remember positives and forget negatives, investigators may become ensnared in belief perseverance wherein they place more weight on evidence that supports their hypothesis than on clues that weaken it. (4) Remaining impartial and open-minded is the best way to accurately assess new information.

Research has shown that people can hold only five to nine items in their conscious memories at one time. (5) Information stored in long-term memory can be difficult to recall, and investigators may easily forget details irrelevant to their investigative theory, particularly in a complex case. …

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