witness

Proper Procedures for Interviewing Witnesses

by Tanya Chapman:
incident sceneIt’s 8:00pm on a Saturday evening, you have just sat down in your most comfortable chair after a long day of grueling yard work anticipating a quiet night to relax, you find yourself starting to doze off a bit. Suddenly, you are jolted awake by the sounds of a cell phone ringing, a pager going off or some other form of notification that you are urgently needed to respond to a report of a car in the water with a child still inside.

You rush to gather your necessary equipment, your mind racing on what equipment is needed and available, the safest and most expeditious route to the scene, who needs to be notified, what your actions will be upon your arrival, how you will manage the scene, your manpower, your resources. You arrive and begin to gather the facts of what occurred, where the vehicle entered the water, where it is currently located. You assess the water’s temperature, depth, clarity and current so that the personnel you have enter it are appropriately protected from visible and invisible hazards.

Time is of the essence as your emotions demand you to recover the vehicle as quickly as possible in hopes that your team may save a life, even while the more logical side tells you that with each passing minute that chance is reduced. Your team enters the water exactly where you were told the vehicle would be and after what feels like an eternity, determines there is no vehicle present. As the adrenaline subsides you are trying to sort out the facts, are you in the wrong location, who reported the call, are the divers missing underwater clues to the vehicle’s location?

And then you are reminded of something someone said when you arrived at the scene, there is a witness standing on the bank. Your attention turns and now you are focused on this person, someone who may hold the answers which you desperately seek. You speak to him and determine that he is the owner of the vehicle and yes, it went into the water and is now submerged but the location of it is not where you were told or are searching and that no one was in the vehicle when it entered the water. The reported trapped child was actually his daughter’s baby doll which had been left in the car. As relief comes over you, you realize your focus can now change to a vehicle recovery instead of a potential rescue.

In the aftermath of this call you begin to evaluate your team’s actions and try to seek ways to improve your response. As an ERDI Dive Team Supervisor, you realize a possible improvement step would be to interview all potential witnesses at each scene prior to allowing any divers to enter the water. While you have many other additional responsibilities to complete at a dive site, the realization occurs that you are in the most appropriate position to complete this task.

Being tasked with identifying and speaking to (interviewing) anyone who may have specific knowledge to what has occurred and what you are searching for may be a difficult, daunting and time consuming task. Frequently, in your role as Dive Team Supervisor, there are other issues that you are addressing concurrently while interviewing witnesses and bystanders that compete for your attention. Your experience as a diver is beneficial to you as it allows you to understand and comprehend how to apply the knowledge learned from your interviews to the dive environment, but it is not a necessity.

In this role you are essentially responsible for gathering as much intelligence from the scene as possible. This may include precipitating events leading to the submersion. You should be the only team member tasked with gathering information for the team as it can create confusion and misinformation if more than one person is assigned this task. The goal should be to compile a comprehensive, accurate and objective summation as expeditiously as possible. The fundamental questions of who, what, when, where, and how should be answered if possible. A paramount task in this assignment is the understanding that each witness interviewed is likely to provide a different response to each of these questions. This does not automatically indicate that the witness is being deceptive but may be a result of each individual’s perception of the event being different.

It is your duty to consolidate these in a manner which provides some consistency when passing the information along to the Dive Safety Officer. The Dive Safety Officer should be briefed on any relevant information which may affect the safety of the divers or the security of the scene. It is also imperative your original notes taken from witness and/or bystander interviews be maintained in their initial state, unchanged by anyone present at the scene as these notes may become part of the evidentiary chain of custody.

Your dedicating the time to gather relevant information to be analyzed and evaluated for usefulness allows other team members to focus on completing their assigned tasks without the additional burden of questioning the details or trying to assimilate information from multiple witnesses. It additionally provides witnesses or bystanders with a known person to contact directly in the event they remember or recall information which may be vital to the recovery effort.

Dive Team Supervisors should be articulate, able to multitask effectively and have the authority to make decisions based on the information received for the agency in which they represent. Persons in this role are not required to have completed interview and interrogation training as their mission is more one of fact gathering. However, they should be cognizant that an active public safety dive site is not the time to transition an interview into an interrogation.

In the hectic time surrounding the arrival at the scene, a concerted effort should be made to locate and interview witnesses prior to any dives commencing if the situation allows. Often times this component may not be viewed by some as necessary to a dive team’s operation however it is vitally important. The ability to effectively and efficiently obtain information from witnesses and bystanders prior to divers submerging is an invaluable skill which when applied to a public safety dive team will lessen the risk to all those involved.


– Tanya Chapman – Training Manager – North Carolina Justice Academy
– Instructor – Air Hogs Scuba, Garner, NC

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