Area Canvassing: What do Neighbors Know?

I will admit, conducting an area canvass can be tedious and very time-consuming. Sometimes, hundreds of contacts are made without one shred of usable information being unveiled. However, it is that one exhilarating jewel that is occasionally discovered that makes the process so rewarding.

Most criminal investigation courses and books talk little about an area canvass, other than to suggest doing one. There are right and wrong ways to conduct an area canvass that will yield better results for the efforts put out.

Ideally, patrol personnel and plainclothes detectives should perform separate canvasses. Some individuals respond more readily to an authority figure in a uniform, while others prefer the anonymity of the detective’s plain clothes. Since it is impossible to know who will respond more willingly to either approach, both should be employed.  This technique will give the investigator the greatest chance of getting vital information.

Understand the terms “area canvass” and “neighborhood canvass”

First, understand the terms “area canvass” and “neighborhood canvass” may be used interchangeably.  They are interviews conducted in the field, as opposed to statements taken on the scene or in the station. The canvass may be conducted in an area near the crime scene or, conceivably, hundreds of miles away from it. In the aftermath of a bank robbery, for example, the getaway vehicle may be located several counties, or even states, away. Two canvasses should, therefore, be undertaken: one at the original crime scene (the bank) and one at the secondary scene (the vehicle). If a suspect emerges, it may be advisable to perform an additional area canvass in the neighborhood where that person resides to learn about his/her reputation and habits. A complex case may require several area canvasses at various locations.

The goal of a neighborhood canvass

The primary goal of a neighborhood canvass is, of course, to locate a witness to the crime. It is this promise of the elusive witness that motivates the investigator. However, it is not only the “eye” witness you seek. On occasion, it may be just as significant to discover an “ear” witness. An earwitness may be someone who overheard a threatening remark, heard gunshots or even heard how and in which direction the perpetrator fled.

This information can point the case in the right direction. A witness who hears a homicide subject flee in a vehicle with a loud muffler, for example, could be furnishing a valuable lead. Likewise, intimidating or threatening statements the witness may have overheard could refute a subsequent claim of self-defense. In an officer-involved shooting incident, a witness who hears the officer yell “stop, police!” or “drop the gun!” is invaluable to the investigation. Just as important as the eyewitness or the earwitness is the “witness who knows a witness.” Even though this person may not have first-hand knowledge of the crime, he or she can direct investigators to a person who does and is, therefore, of great value.


Rumors, innuendo, and gossip may not have a place in the courtroom, but they are welcome tidbits that help navigate any investigation. The type of approach the investigator uses to cultivate this information can often determine how successful he will be. In certain situations, it may be necessary to coax and cajole the witness. In others, it may be beneficial to appear to confide in the witness and reveal some “inside scoop” about the investigation. This tactic works particularly well with the neighborhood busybody who will derive motivation from being “included” in the case. Also, remember that in certain situations an area canvass may resemble an interrogation rather than a simple interview. Eliciting information from a witness who is not predisposed to furnish it, is the essence of any area canvass.

In high crime, drug-infested neighborhoods retaliation for “snitching” to the police is a real-life possibility that must be appreciated. Witnesses who refuse or are reluctant to cooperate with authorities may have ample reason for their trepidation. That is why each person approached should be provided with a contact number and assurances that they may remain anonymous.

Empathy and Friendliness

When making initial contact with the witness, the investigators should politely introduce themselves and explain why they are there. They should try to convey to the witness how vital their information might be even though, to them, it may seem like no big deal. Every effort should be made to personalize the event by offering such observations as “they could have just as easily broken into your house” or “imagine if your kids were outside when all that shooting took place,” or “they could have robbed your mother.”

If the witness invites the investigator into his/her residence, this invitation should always be accepted. This is vitally important! Every effort should be made to be invited in. The reason for this is twofold. First, the witness may feel more comfortable talking away from the prying eyes of others in the neighborhood. Secondly, it is human nature for a person to be more polite, more accommodating and more gracious to a guest in his/her home.

Similarly, if the witness asks the investigator to sit down, he/she should do so. If the standard reply to this request is, “no thank you, sir, I don’t have time,” this implies to the potential witness that the inquiry must not be that important. It also conveys an indirect disrespect to the homeowner. Make the person being questioned feel as though they have the undivided attention of the questioner. If the witness offers refreshments, (coffee, tea, water), they too, should always be accepted. Accepting the witness’s hospitality reinforces the notion that, as a guest in their home, the questioner should be treated kindly and respectfully.

The bottom line

A skilled interviewer must also be an adept listener. Never cut off a witness who appears to be rambling. That person may be nervous and simply meandering until they can control their apprehensions. Moreover, any stories regarding suspicious vehicles or persons in the neighborhood that occurred days or weeks earlier may be valuable leads when scrutinized. The bottom line is this: never discount any information received during a canvass.