There you are, minding your own business, when it happens. You witness a collision on the roadway in front of you, you get a decent look at the car and driver who caused it, and they are fleeing the scene. There are multiple other cars around and a few are stopping to help. No one seems to be hurt and people are on their phones. The first thing that comes to mind for a lot of people is, “Do I have time to stay here and wait for the police to be a witness? Will I be helpful?” The answer can be complicated. I could tell you it is always “yes”. Maybe it’s not for you. If you do decide to stay, that’s fantastic and much appreciated by the officers who respond, by driver who was hit, and by the insurance companies. So what if you can’t stay? What if being late to your destination is not an option? Can you still offer help?
This scenario can play out in any number of situations, at the shopping center for a shoplifter who flees the scene, at a bank for a robbery, witnessing someone breaking into a car, seeing an assault occur, and so on. Witnesses, in particular those who have no bias or dog in the fight, are absolutely invaluable and can make or break a prosecution. Being a good citizen can be a sacrifice of time for sure, but what if the table was turned and you were victimized? Will you have to testify? It’s always a possibility in the future. Honestly, a majority of cases result in a plea and court never occurs.
Let’s revisit the collision scene. If you cannot afford to be late for your appointment and you need to leave before police arrive, there are easy solutions. If you can safely stop your car without causing an accident, give the driver who was hit your name, address, and phone number so they can hand it to the police. This happened to me on a regular basis on patrol and I was always glad to have a witness to offer their perspective on a crash. If you absolutely can’t take the time to stop, your next step is to call 911 (or the non-emergency number) and tell the call-taker you are a witness to the collision at 123 Street and ABC Boulevard. Ask them to have the responding officer call when they’re able. At the point you’re able to safely do it, jot down what you saw (suspect description from top to bottom, suspect car description, intersection where it happened, the approximate time, etc). Make note of anything that was out of the norm if the suspect fled, such as damage or stickers on their vehicle, unusual clothing or hair styles, or accents. Did you see any tattoos?
Another consideration when witnessing a crime is whether you should try to follow the suspect or confront them. The best answer is to steer clear of trying to insert yourself into any situation. If you are in a position to see where a suspect goes, without confronting them, share this with 911. The priority is always to help the victim in whatever way they need, and in the event of injury, helping to direct medical personal to them when they arrive.
What if I take a video or photos of a crime I see? What you captured, in almost any case, would be considered evidence and a good investigator will want it. Can the police take my phone? In some cases, they could theoretically demand the phone in order to copy the video as evidence. In my line of work, we examine victim, witness, and suspect phones on the daily. If you come across this situation, my advice is to ask questions of the officer. Can you send them the video or the photos you obtained? Is there a way you can provide the media without relinquishing your phone? Can you show them the video so they see it at the scene, then make arrangements to provide it on a thumb drive? This last option allows them to see what occurred while they are there, but also allows you to keep your phone. My advice is to cooperative, respect that what you have is evidence, and work with the officer so both of your needs are met.
My last piece of advice is to only be a witness to what YOU saw, heard, felt, or smelled. There is no need to embellish. Sometimes the smallest details can help the most. Witnesses are important. If you have ever been one, you’re a good human, so thank you.
Be safe out there, my friends, and help where you can! -cb