CRIME INVESTIGATION Tutorial— How the FBI does it.

Regrettably, a high profile FBI crime investigation seems to be opened on a regular basis these days. Mass killings like the recent one at a synagogue  in Pittsburg are part of the reason. Counting the Thousand Oaks bar shooting this week, there have been 307 mass shootings so far in 2018. That’s almost one a day in the U.S. according to the Gun Violence Archive.**


Candles at memorial vigil. Why a Crime investigation is needed into Borderline Bar shooting.

                 Why a Crime investigation is needed into Borderline Bar shooting.

Crime Investigation and the FBI.

So, the FBI is heck-a-busy doing crime investigation and other things  on top of its usual mandate. And what is that mandate you ask? Well, as the investigative arm of the Department of Justice, the Bureau’s mission changes and evolves with the time. Currently, its focus is on

  • stopping terrorism, corruption, organized crime, and cyber crime,
  • looking into civil rights violations,
  • investigating serious crimes such as major thefts or murders (wherein
    the FBI assists other law enforcement agencies when needed), and
  • handling crimes in which criminals cross state lines, violations of
    federal controlled substance laws, and other violations of federal laws.

Whew! FBI agents have their hands full. But this means they know enough about investigations that we amateurs—writers of true crime books, budding criminologists, journalists—should listen up.

Iconic yellow plastic markers used in criminal investigation

                                       Criminal investigation

The 5 W’s in Crime Investigation.

You news journalists out there will find my 5 W’s explanation of FBI agents’  (and other investigators’) approach  familiar. As I write I’m using notes from an “Into to NewsWriting” class I took while in Los Angeles learning to produce TV documentaries. That’s where I learned once again (my journalist dad taught me how to solve everyday problems using the 5 W’s) to find out the Who, What, Where, When, and Why.

The 5 W’s are the backbone of good investigations, and they’re required for effective prosecutions (even defenses) of crimes in court. Thoroughness—besides persuasiveness—wins cases.

But why you ask, do we need to investigate situations where there’s really no suspect, like at the Borderline Bar this week? As in many other cases,  people at the Borderline Bar saw the suspect  killing others before killing himself.   Simple answer:

  • Officials need to know the Who. Were others involved in planning or execution? If so, apprehension of them may be necessary.
  • And officials need to know the Why. Will the motive  allow us to understand the tragedy. And in so doing, help prevent similar ones in the future.

A huge hint for authors creating a storyline:
Use the 5 W’s to map out the crimes, characters, settings, and such for your novel or non-fiction book. It focuses your thinking and makes creating a book outline easier.

The first ‘Criminology Research’ tutorial.

This Crime Investigation tutorial, by the way, makes sense as the first installment of the Criminology Research series. That’s because it orients you readers to the big picture and guarantees you won’t overlook any of the sub-parts of a good investigation. Future posts will cover examples of these sub-parts like autopsies, cracking codes, and the many forensic pieces such as fingerprinting, DNA analyses, and blood-splatter analysis.

Crime Investigation and the Who, What, Where, When, Why … and How.

The information generated from crime investigations ends up in reports that, ideally, present it completely, accurately, and objectively. Thus, conducting a proper investigation often means agents (or officers) must take copious field notes about the facts that are obtainable.


  • Who is the victim?
  • Who is the offender?
  • Who is the witness?
  • Who has jurisdiction in the case?  If not federal authorities, then local (police), county (sheriff), or  state?
Required tool: Yellow Crime Investigation tape around blodd footprints on white floor.

Required tool: Yellow Crime Investigation tape.


You  need to find out all actions involved in a case (to be answer the question WHAT?), such as

  • what offense occurred, was discovered, and   reported
  • what evidence was obtained
  • what action was taken by officer/s


You need to determine the places (the “setting” for you crime writers)

  • where the offense was committed and discovered
  • where the victim, the perpetrator, and the witness  were found
  • where evidence was found and stored
  • where witnesses were interviewed


You must also specify the time that key events occurred, such as

  • when the call or complaint was received,
  • when an officer arrived at the scene,
  • when evidence was obtained,
  • when witness was interviewed
  • when other authorities were notified
  • when the offense was discovered, reported, committed.


And, finally, when answers to such questions can be obtained), you need to explain:

  • why the offense was committed
  • why the particular weapons or tools were used
  • why the means of entry was used
  • why a witness was cooperative or uncooperative.


As an irritating add-on to the 5 W’s (aren’t investigators busy enough), there’s the important issue of How which overlaps a bit with Why.

You must describe the manner in which actions occurred. The first action is is the M.O. the such as

  • how the offense was committed
  • how it was discovered, reported
  • how the tools or weapons were obtained
  • how evidence was obtained and marked
  • how the subject was apprehended, or
  • how he escaped the scene.

Some people have asserted that crime investigations have become needlessly complex. Are you part of that camp? (If you want to write ’40’s noir genre books, or even a ’70’s memoir,*** select only 5 W info above that’s relevant.)

Or do you believe that with technological developments, enough measurements and data must be collected so that, say, five years down the road when a suspect is found, the FBI and other authorities will be able to do a 3-D re-enactment of the event in court?

Thanks for weighing in.


Defined by GVA as “4 or more shot or killed, not including the shooter.

Memoirist Terri Jentz writes in Strange Piece of Paradise that victim Rights advocate Bob Kouns said about her case, “We know what a police report looks like. And this is the worst damn police report I’ve ever seen. We’ve got just a few pages here [including 3 pages from a psychic in Boston].” Author Jentz claims police procedures in her case were “from the dark ages of the ’70s.”

To learn about CLEFT HEART: Chasing Normal, click the Amazon or Barnes & Noble buttons in the margins. Or click the image of the book cover. My coming-of-age memoir has intertwining love stories, mystery, tragedy, and triumph.


  1. James Danly says:

    David Broder once said, “If someone tells you your mother loves you, check his sources.” Confirmation bias is an ever present danger, so if hard facts (e.g. DNA) can be replaced soft facts (e.g., eyewitness testimony), that’s all to the good.

    • Great point, Jim! I’m as guilty as the next guy in my tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of my existing beliefs or theories. I must’ve been sleeping
      in my philosophy class when the prof covered cognitive bias and systematic error in inductive reasoning. Course was short on “logic.”

  2. Hi ! This is very informative & interesting article.Nice to read your blog post first time ever. I really appreciate this post. Thanks for sharing this awesome post .

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