Visiting a scene and collecting evidence
Graphic: An investigator places a numbered card at a crime scene
- NHRI investigators should visit scenes whenever possible to further their investigations.
- Investigators should identify whether there may be more than one scene to visit.
- Investigators should consider what documentary evidence and digital evidence may exist to support their investigation.
A scene should be thought of in the broadest sense possible. It is any environment where something relevant to the investigation takes – or took – place.
Thinking about potential scenes is very important when the NHRI is undertaking an investigation into a systemic issue. For example, scene visits could involve visits to an immigration detention centre, a garment factory employing child labour or, if the NHRI is investigating sexual harassment in the military, an army base.
It is important to keep in mind that there may be more than one scene that should be visited as part of the investigation.
WHY ARE SCENES WORTH VISITING?
In many cases, the NHRI will not be the lead investigative agency responsible for processing a scene, particularly where criminal offences are alleged or apparent. However, it is useful for investigators to go to where something they are investigating happened, or is happening, if at all possible, because it:
- Helps put the event or issue in context
- Allows investigators to assess possible important physical factors, such as sight lines, lighting and so on
- May provide an opportunity to locate possible witnesses
- May make possible witnesses aware of the investigation, especially if the investigators work with local stakeholders, including the media, to publicise the visit
- Provides an opportunity to interview witnesses at the location where they were when the event took place and, if appropriate, allows them to provide a re-enactment
- Enables the investigator to assess whether all physical and digital evidence at the scene has been identified, secured and seized for possible forensic examination
- May reveal new sources of evidence that were previously overlooked or ignored
- May help assess the reliability of witnesses; for example, if the witness says they saw or heard something from a certain location the investigator may be able to determine if that was, in fact, possible.
It is usually worthwhile visiting the scene, even if the event being investigated happened a long time ago or another agency is responsible for any initial investigation. The investigator will get a sense of what happened that it is difficult to replicate from scene photographs or video.
The investigator should try to visit the scene at the same time and day of the week that the event happened, particularly if they are canvassing for witnesses. People often have routines that put them in the same place, at the same time.
Graphic: Investigators discuss an issue at a crime scene
OTHER CONSIDERATIONS WHEN VISITING A SCENE
Investigator and witness safety is paramount and should be the top priority when deciding whether or not to visit a scene.
Take photographs and video of the scene at the time the event occurred. You can compare these with other photographs of the scene, if they exist.
Investigators should look and listen very carefully when they are at a scene. They should consider how what they see and hear relates to what they know so far.
Investigators should be prepared to deal with any new evidence they find or are given, particularly physical evidence. It should be secured and processed, just like any other physical evidence.
Finally, investigators should make good notes and take video and photographs, as appropriate.
COLLECTING PHYSICAL EVIDENCE
Physical evidence is anything tangible – that is, anything that can be touched or held – that may have some relevance to the investigation. is very important to certain human rights investigations, particularly when they intersect with criminal investigations.
More detailed information on collecting physical evidence available in the fact sheet in this series.
Graphic: Blurred computer screen
COLLECTING DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE
Documents provide the backbone of virtually all types of investigation, including human rights investigations. This includes both physical documents and electronic documents, such as emails and other electronic files.
There are seven steps involved in obtaining and reviewing documents. Investigators should:
- Determine what documents exist or should exist
- Obtain those documents
- Review them
- Assess their authenticity
- Understand them
- Assess what weight to give them
- Look for any gaps.
COLLECTING DIGITAL EVIDENCE
The Internet is a hugely valuable resource for investigators. It can help uncover evidence – such as documents, photos, tweets and even potential witnesses – and let people know about an investigation.
Online searches should be included in an investigation plan. Investigators should follow some key principles when searching online, including social media:
- Be smart and focused when you search.
- Search for information ethically.
- Do not accept everything found on the Internet at face value.
Be aware of new tools and new ways to search for information online.
FIND OUT MORE
Chapters 21-24, Undertaking Effective Investigations: A Guide for National Human Rights Institutions (APF, revised 2018)
- An investigator places a numbered card at a crime scene - EUPOL Afghanistan Media, Flickr CC
- Investigators discuss an issue at a crime scene - EUPOL Afghanistan Media, Flickr CC
- Blurred computer screen - Matthias Oberholzer, Unsplash