Officer Issuing a summons
Policing has taught me that there are very few certainties in life and just because we can do something doesn’t mean we always should. Our actions, even if by-the-book, can have unintentional yet still incredibly damaging consequences to people. Discretion is an intangible, perhaps that is why it is so often under estimated, but it is a powerful tool that when applied judiciously, allows us to make wise, thoughtful decisions that can make a significant, positive difference in people’s lives. Discretion allows us to mindfully go about our business and problem-solve at our best, not just when it is easiest.

Policing 101 teaches us that when it comes to the management of witnesses, it is a best practice to keep them separated until each has had an opportunity to speak with investigators. Sound logic in a lot of cases as it avoids the potential for contamination of their statements, their evidence. In many cases police witnesses do not have to be eye witnesses. In homicide cases, most people who provide information are actually providing evidence of the back story. Witnesses may have information around the last time they saw the victim alive or the circumstances in the victim’s life like problems they may have been having with people or criminality they may have been involved in. With that said, what happens when several of our witnesses are also victims of the crime? Should the rules learned in Policing 101 still hold true?

Several years ago I was involved investigating an extremely sad and brutal murder. A mother of four, and one of her children, were found dead in their family home. The husband and father of the two victims discovered the bodies and immediately called police. Upon arrival to the scene, the husband was brought in by us for questioning and to hear his backstory. The surviving children, who were all in school when the murders occurred, were also brought in for the same purpose. Once at the station, each was to receive the news about their mother and sibling’s passing. It was at this moment that it became the discretion of our officers on how best to do this. Should investigators bring the family members together for the delivery of the news, or should each be told separately? For me and the other investigators in my unit, this was a no brainer. But it does go against the established processes of procedural controls pertaining to witnesses. Does that really matter? I didn’t believe it did then and I don’t believe it does now. The empathetic and compassionate choice was to tell everyone together and then speak with each one separate afterward if that could have been possible, which of course in this case it wasn’t.

How do we know we made the right decision? Imagine the outcome if discretion wasn’t applied or picture the headline in tomorrow’s news. In this same scenario, each child after being told the awful truth was left to deal with it on their own in a room sobbing and wailing with a stranger they had never met before.

Does the use of discretion this way affect the investigation in the short term? It does. But regardless of this fact, in this case and those like it, putting others before ourselves trumps everything and I am blessed to work with a group of people that see it that way too.