How To Be A Better Witness (Crime, Not Jehovah’s)

 If you can’t avoid a crime, the next best thing is to help make sure the offender is caught so he can’t victimize someone else.  Whether you are the victim or simply a bystander, you have an opportunity to do just that by providing critical information to facilitate the capture and prosecution of the offender. Being a good witness doesn’t come naturally, especially in the heat of the moment while the crime occurs – it takes some planning and preparation. In this article, we explore how you can help prevent someone else from being victimized by being a better crime witness.

Note:  The author is neither a law enforcement officer nor a trained investigator.  The content of this article is based on the author’s personal experience supported by such credible research as was available at the time this article was written. Readers should consider and evaluate for themselves what actions to take or not take in the event they are a crime victim or witness a crime.

In the Blink of an Eye

Crimes happen fast.  A mugging can be over in less than ten seconds, a carjacking in less than fifteen. As discussed in a previous article about less-than-lethal personal protection devices, a person might require as much as 1.5 seconds before even realizing that something is wrong and prepare to react.  As such, the window of opportunity to gather useful information about the perpetrator of a crime can be miniscule.

Fortunately, human beings are born with built-in cameras and microphones, and a supercomputer to process the input. By planning ahead on where to focus your attention and knowing to record the important details before your short-term memory evaporates, you can capture details that can mean the difference between evasion and capture, and a guilty verdict or release.

Just remember that your safety comes first.  If you are the crime victim, your focus should be on prevailing in the criminal encounter.  You can’t be a good witness if you are injured or dead.

All Details are Important, but Some Details are More Important than Others

There is no way to predict what one little detail is going to be important in the identification, arrest, and prosecution of an offender. However, the more unique an observation and the less changeable it is, the more useful it likely will be. The list below, while not exhaustive, is a good inventory of things to try to notice:

Physical Characteristics

  • Height, weight and eye color are difficult or impossible to change convincingly, especially in a hurry, and so are good things to notice about an offender.
  • Visible scars, tattoos and birthmarks also are great details to try to notice since they are difficult to remove or conceal and often are unique.
  • Race, and physical characteristics associated with race can be helpful in identifying suspects – skin color or tone, facial features such as epicanthic folds, shape and density of the cheekbones, jaw and chin – also can help identify an individual.

Other Personal Identifiers

  • Accents, speech impediments and use of specific phrases can be useful in identifying individuals, especially if they are distinctive. Being able to characterize specific pronunciation of words (“toh-MAH-toh” versus “toh-MAY-toh”), speech characteristics (lisps or stutters) or unusual phrases (“lift” versus “elevator”) may be more useful than  trying to guess the origin of the speech impediment or nationality of the offender.
  • Distinctive piercing and jewelry can be useful identifiers as an offender may not think to abandon or conceal them after the crime.
  • Shoes, more so than other clothing, can also be useful in identifying suspects as they are less likely to be changed immediately following the commission of a crime. Noting distinctive characteristics like color, brand or logo, and damage or wear can help make identification even more likely.
  • Descriptions of weapons, especially firearms, can provide a critical identifiers as weapons often can be linked to suspects via fingerprint evidence or chain of ownership even if they are abandoned following commission of a crime. Providing details of type, size, color and other identifying features may be more helpful than trying to guess at make or caliber.

The diagrams below are an older version of some tools law enforcement uses to facilitate suspect identification. Consider printing these out to keep on hand should you ever need them.

Suspect Identification Form (click to enlarge)

Suspect Identification Form (click to enlarge)

Weapon Identification Form (click to enlarge)

Weapon Identification Form (click to enlarge)


  • Type, number of doors and any distinctive features or damage can help identify a vehicle.  Most people can distinguish between a pickup truck and an SUV or a sedan and a coupe. However, correctly identifying a specific make or model can be very difficult. Distinctive features like custom rims and paintjobs, or damage like dents and broken windows also can make a vehicle easier to identify.
  • Design features such as the number and shape of headlights and taillights, the shape and position of doors and the type and location of door handles all can be used by law enforcement to narrow down a year, make and model and are worth noticing.
  • Sounds like a sputtering engine, squeaking engine belts, squealing breaks or the flapping sound of a flat or near-flat tire also can help identify a specific vehicle.
  • Color also is a useful feature but can be very easy to get wrong as low-light, fluorescent lighting and sodium-arc lighting all can change the way the color is perceived by the human eye.
  • License plate number, or the lack of license plates, also can be helpful in identifying a suspect vehicle. However, as plates can easily be changed or removed, the value of this information diminishes as time passes from the moment the crime was committed.

Freeze Frame

Knowing what to look for is only half of the process of becoming a better witness. The other half is training yourself to observe and recall, even during an after a period of extreme stress. 

  • As soon as you become aware that something is amiss – and you determine your personal safety is not at risk – try to freeze the moment in your mind.  Extreme stress often causes time dilation as adrenaline floods your system, making everything seem like it is happening in slow motion — if this happens, use it.  This is the window you will have to take a mental snapshot of everything going on around you that may yield useful recollections later. Again, any deliberate effort to observe should be secondary to whatever actions are required for you to survive the encounter (if you are the victim) or to summon or render aid (if you are a bystander).
  • As soon as it is safe to do so, take a moment to review that snapshot of the scene and start recording all the details you can remember.  Short-term memory is, as the name implies, short-lived and clarity can be lost in a matter of minutes.  Immediately begin writing down everything you can remember.  If you don’t have paper, write on your hand. If you have nothing to write with, call your home answering machine and leave yourself a message with the details.  Just capture them quickly, before they are gone forever. 
  • Avoid talking to other witnesses or “comparing notes” until you have recorded all the details you can remember. Short-term memory also is corruptible. 

Practice Makes…er… Better 

Unless you are lucky enough to be eidetic (have a photographic memory), your detail perception and degree of recall can be improved significantly with a little practice.  Make a game of noting license plate numbers while driving. After passing someone on the street, wait a moment and then list everything you can recall about them.  These activities will prepare you to be a better witness and may help sharpen your mind in other ways too.

The Bottom Line

The best of all possible circumstances is never to be victim, or even witness, to a crime. However, with crimes being committed every 22 seconds on average in the United States, this is unlikely.  In addition to making every effort to avoid criminal encounters and prepare to prevail if you are victimized, being a better witness is one of the best and most important things you can do to help prevent crime.  Human beings are equipped with better lenses than professional-grade cameras and more efficient processors than supercomputers – but we must be prepared and practiced in using them for them to be effective.

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