Getting Information – Witnesses and Medical Staff

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interviewsWitnesses are people with information, information you want.  These may be witnesses at the scene, a co-worker, employers, a suggested person from another witness, or those contacted during and area canvass.

Keep in mind that you could stumble upon and interview the suspect with out  initially knowing it. Suspects like to be considered a witness, this keeps them “in the know” and the heat off them.

Proper approach and attitude are very important when dealing with witnesses. You have to to be the nice guy. The people you are talking to may want to protect their friend or family member. It is possible as well that they truly have no information about the case. It is also very possible that these people are in fear of telling you what they know.

When you first make contact and after introducing yourself and explaining why you are speaking to them get all contact information – Be sure you can find them later !

  • Full name including nicknames and street names
  • Gang affiliations
  • Address and Phone Number including house and cell (verify cell while there – call it)
  • Email address
  • Employer – name and address
  • Occupation in case they change employers
  • Closest relative name and contact information

After you have gathered all the information you can to find them later, because they might get really hard to find. Get them laid down to a story. Let them tell you their version of events, even if you think or know it’s a lie,  let them tell it their way do not correct them. Get them to make a written statement whenever possible. Remember, witnesses lie, that’s okay. Continue to build your case and the ones you find later have lied are your best re-interviews because you can prove their lie and may be able to overcome their previous statements because you have their statements which will convict them if you chose to charge them with hindering prosecution.

Interviewing Family

An investigators approach to family members must be one of total respect and understanding. Your approach and attitude must be above standards in these types of interviews.  Your attitude and demeanor upon first contact will set the tone for the rest of the conversation. This includes the officers that arrived on the scene first.  If you are having to talk with family or even witnesses, hours or days later, you can be sure the attitude of the officers on the scene that night will be a factor in the cooperation you will get today.

Family of a Deceased

If you are talking with a family member of a deceased; be sympathetic to their situation. Be real, this could be you someday.  When possible have them sit down, kitchen table is best if available, create a relaxed non-threatening environment.  Never use police jargon or talk “police speak” talk to tem like a normal person.

If talking about a deceased family member never refer to the dead as the deceased or body. Call the deceased by their name.  Offer support to the person you are talking to but be careful never to say things like:

  • I know how you feel – (no you don’t)
  • They are in a better place
  • At least they aren’t suffering any longer
  • She’s with the angles now
  • Never make religious are cultural statements in an attempt to conform them

Simply be empathic and show support for the situation. Treat them as you would want an investigator treating your  spouse, child, or parents.

Find your empathetic side.  Keep in mind the information these family members give might send their loved one to prison. You are going to have to gain their trust and who concern and empathy to these people.  But also keep in mind that; Family will lie !

Let me say a short bit about getting information from medical personnel.  These folks can be tough nuts to crack.  It seems that most want to hang everything on HIPPA, even when HIPPA does not apply.  In many cases health care providers, from a fear of being sued or just a general lack of wanting to help, decline saying anything and blame it on HIPPA.  Let me define and explain the HIPPA law.

Getting Information from Medical Staff

HIPAA: Acronym that stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a US law designed to provide privacy standards to protect patients’ medical records and other health information provided to health plans, doctors, hospitals and other health care providers. Developed by the Department of Health and Human Services, these  standards provide patients with access to their medical records and more control over how their personal health information is used and disclosed. They represent a uniform, federal floor of privacy protections for consumers across the country.

The HIPAA Privacy Rule protects the individually identifiable health information about a decedent for 50 years following the date of death of the individual. During the 50-year period of protection, the Privacy Rule generally protects a decedent’s health information to the same extent the Rule protects the health information of living individuals but does include a number of special disclosure provisions relevant to deceased individuals.  These include provisions that permit a covered entity to disclose a decedent’s health information:

 (1) to alert law enforcement to the death of the individual, when there is a suspicion that death resulted from criminal conduct (§ 164.512; (2) to coroners or medical examiners and funeral directors (§164.512; (3) for research that is solely on the protected health information of decedents (§ 164.512; and (4) to organ procurement organizations or other entities engaged in the procurement, banking, or transplantation of cadaveric organs, eyes, or tissue for the purpose of facilitating organ, eye, or tissue donation and transplantation (§ 164.512.

You can get certain information from health care providers and medical records personnel.  One key factor to keep in mind is, as a law enforcement officer you may be required to get a subpoena for records pertaining to both the incident at question and any past records.  However, keep in mind federal law and most (if not all) states excludes coroners and medical examiners from needing a subpoena if requesting records for the purpose of establishing cause and manner of death.   Whereas cause may be obvious, blunt force trauma to the head for example. Manner may need more investigation such as past injuries, history of abuse, or medical conditions and disease.

Manner of death includes

  • Natural
  • Accident
  • Homicide
  • Suicide
  • Undermined

Since the coroner and medial examiner has the same interest you have, that is discovering the truth, they can share information with you as to their determination and how they arrived at that determination.

Building Relationships

With all that said it is still very important that investigators build solid relationships with ER staff at local hospitals.  Remember that injuries which could be suspected as criminal activity is reportable, whether the patient is dead or alive.  Hospitals are mandated reporters in cases of child, domestic, and sexual abuse.

Building relationships with staff will help when you come in with questions. Looking at this from a human condition point of view. We are all more willing to share what we may know to other professionals we deem as our friends.  Not so far as breaking any laws, but relationships may prevent the dreaded HIPPA hang-up.

Medical Release Form

You can also obtain records if you have a quality medical release form signed by the victim or the legal guardian of a victim. In most cases these can be served directly to the custodian of records at the medical facility and you  will receive your records.  Be sure to get this signed as soon as you can, even while at the scene or at first contact whenever possible. These are generally revocable only in writing and when your victim  changes their mind in the morning you can still peruse the case.  Always act in accordance with your agency guidelines. Have a predetermined policy in place with command staff and prosecutor.


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About the Author
Darren is a 30 year veteran of law enforcement and criminal investigations. He currently serves as an investigator for the Crawford County Missouri coroner’s office. He holds credentials as an instructor for the Missouri Sheriff’s Training Academy, has served as president of the Missouri Medical Examiners and Coroners Association, and is certified and credentialed in numerous fields of investigation. He holds the position of lead instructor and facilitator for the Coroner Talk™ community as he speaks and writes in the area of death investigation and scene management.

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