U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Criminal Investigation Failures: Avoiding the Pitfalls

NCJ Number
FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin Volume: 75 Issue: 9 Dated: September 2006 Pages: 1-8
D. Kim Rossmo Ph.D.
Date Published
September 2006
8 pages
This first of a two-part article on pitfalls in criminal investigations discusses cognitive biases that can undermine the effectiveness of an investigation; strategies for preventing such biases are proposed.
Investigators may develop flawed conclusions and theories about a case due to the subjectiveness of human perceptions and the limitations of human memory. Recognizing these limitations, investigators must refrain from forming perceptions of a case based on only the facts/evidence their memories can retain. An accurate record of all facts and evidence related to a case must be recorded and considered after an exhaustive investigation before developing any hypothesis about what occurred and who was involved in the events being investigated. Also, investigators must guard against relying on their intuition, which involves the emergence of views of a case based on the investigator's own personality characteristics, past experiences, and subjective reactions to people and circumstances. Intuition is not based on a rational analysis of facts and evidence collected through effective investigative techniques. Consequently, it should be suppressed. Investigators must also guard against settling on a single scenario for explaining facts and evidence in a case. A number of alternative explanations may be developed for the facts at hand. Settling upon one explanation when others are equally reasonable can exclude the real explanation. Overall, the greatest cognitive pitfall is failure to keep options open when assessing the status of an investigation. Keeping an open mind until all avenues of an investigation have been explored and all scenarios for the evidence have been thoroughly assessed by the investigative team is critical. 32 footnotes