Observation, Description, and Identification

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LEARNING OBJECTIVES: Explain the meaning of observation, and describe the techniques used in observation and description. Explain the importance of accurately evaluating the data provided by witnesses. Describe the techniques that should be used for a lineup.

In police work observation means perception of details pertaining to persons, objects, plans, and events through the use of the five senses. An investigator makes descriptions to convey to others his or her own observations or the observations of witnesses as reported to the investigator. Identification by a witness or victim is the art of establishing the relationship of a person, place, object, or event to an incident or offense.

Further information on methods and techniques used for observation, description, and identification can be found in the Navy Law Enforcement Manual, OPNAVINST 5580.1.


As observation techniques are accomplished through the use of the five senses, sight and hearing are relied upon most often. The senses of taste, smell, and touch may occasionally be used advantageously.

The investigator must be able to observe accurately to recognize infractions of the law, persons, and objects of interest to law enforcement and crime prevention programs. Keen observation is necessary to perceive investigative leads, to evaluate the validity of statements by witnesses, and to make accurate reports. The ability to observe accurately is developed through practice and experience.

It is essential that, as the investigator, you be aware of influences that tend to impede or otherwise affect observation. You need to be able to recognize and compensate for those elements and factors that may detract from your ability or the ability of others to observe accurately.

Events or remarks that are meaningless when seen or overheard by the layman maybe of great significance to the trained and experienced investigator. To assist in remembering observations, you should make extensive use of photographs, sketches, notes, and other recording methods.


Diligently observe individuals either to be able to describe them or to identify them from descriptions made by others.

Deliberate observation should proceed methodically as follows:

First: General characteristics, such as sex, race, color of skin, height, build, weight, and age.

Second: Specific characteristics, such as color of hair and eyes, shape of head and face, distinguishing marks and scars, mannerisms, and habits.

Third: Changeable characteristics, such as clothing worn, use of cosmetics, hair styling, at time of observation.

When attempting to identify a person from a description, the pattern of observation maybe modified or even reversed, particularly if the individual sought has some very noticeable personal characteristic-for example, a man with a limp or a very tall woman.

After first noting such a characteristic, further observation of general characteristics (such as height, weight, and age) and additional specific characteristics may then complete the identification of the individual as the person being sought.


When observing physical objects for later description or to locate a previously described object, follow a pattern proceeding from general characteristics to specific characteristics.

The method of observation proceeds as follows:

1. General type of item, including size and color.

2. Specific distinguishing characteristics, such as a sun roof in an automobile, or a portable-type radio or typewriter.

3. Make and model designation, when applicable.

4. Distinguishing marks indicating damage or alteration, such as a broken headlight, a repainted fender, or a missing handle, or scratch on a piece of luggage.

5. Identifying number(s), marking(s), or label(s), when present.


Detailed observation of specific places is usually made to establish the exact scene of an incident or crime, or to detect relevant evidence. The purpose may be to relate to an incident or crime such information as has been previously obtained from witnesses as the result of their observation of persons, objects, or events.

The basic pattern of observation may vary, depending on whether the place observed is in the open or inside a building or structure.

Outdoors. Most outdoor places observed either will contain or be relatively near natural or manmade landmarks that may be used to pinpoint the general location. Frequently, however, outdoor locales may not have well-defined boundaries or delimiting terrain features, such as roads, fences, streams, buildings, or wood lines. Consequently, you must develop the ability to mentally assign limits to the area to be observed. Such limits should preclude both overextension and illogical limiting of the area observed. A convenient procedure is to observe details such as the following:

1. General location and its proximity to such outstanding terrain features and landmarks as roadways, railways, streams, or shorelines.

2. Exact location in relation to specific fixed or semifixed features such as buildings, bridges, telephone and powerline poles, and pathways.

3. Outstanding objects or features within the scene.

4. Details of the scene and details of items of particular interest.

Indoors. The observation of indoor scenes is simplified by obvious and definite boundaries, such as the walls of a room, the area of a hallway or basement, or the confines of an apartment. On the other hand, indoor areas contain many specific objects, which can complicate the task of complete observation. Because of this latter aspect, it is particularly important in the case of indoor scenes that a methodical pattern of observation be used. Normal procedure is to determine the following, in order:

1. Location of the place to be observed including section of building in which located, such as front or rear, floor level, and so forth. Relationship to building entrances and distances to stairways, elevators, and so forth, should be noted.

2. Room number or other designation.

3. Details of immediate entrance(s) to the specific area of interest.

4. Objects located within the area. Use a clockwise or other methodical progression of observation from a designated initial point.

5. Exact location in relation to other objects of specific interest.


In most instances, you are called to the scene after an incident has occurred or a crime has been committed, but seldom observe the complete event as it is occurring. However, your observation of connected actions after the event may supply major clues as to what has occurred.

Such a small, but often very significant action or circumstance as an inappropriate remark a state of excitement, a sly gesture or glance, an expression of unusual curiosity, or an unlikely profession of lack of knowledge may often provide the trained observer with the necessary lead to develop an important aspect of an investigation.

Similarly, significant information may often be deduced from such details as the way a fire burns, the presence of certain fumes or odors, the pitch of a voice, or the warmth of a body. Such deduction may aid in the reconstruction of an event with respect to its cause or origin and its progression.

The ability to promptly recognize related collateral acts or conditions, and to interpret them correctly in the light of other circumstances to develop informaiton of the main event as it occurred, is an investigative skill you need to develop carefully.

Facts to be determined concerning an event are the time of occurrence, location, sequence of action, objects and persons involved, and resultant factors.

If present when the event occurs, you must be able to observe objectively, accurately, and rapidly all essential factors of time, place, persons, objects, and actions involved, as well as the immediate results of the event. These factors are involved in the essential questions of when, where, who, what, and why.

The ability to accurately observe actions and events through using all five senses is a skill developed only through concentrated training and practice. Complete and accurate observation is the result of conscious, applied, effort rather than mere chance.


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