I recently finished reading Philip Becnel’s Principles of Investigative Documentation(affiliate link), which goes through an in-depth look at documenting a private-sector investigation.
The book dives into the process of documenting the investigation from start to finish, including tips on taking notes, privilege and confidentiality issues, creating a “running resume” (like a journal), document retention and taking statements. Becnel provides some excellent tips (e.g., assume the reader does not know anything about the case) and debunks misconceptions (such as it’s better not to document something adverse) and myths (email is a sufficient means of documenting an investigation).
The most important point of the book is that an investigative report is the primary tangible product for every investigator and getting it right is critical to being successful in this business.
Here are some of the takeaways that I got from the book.
Becnel nails it when he says that “investigative work is only as good as the way it can be communicated to a client.” Investigators are paid to uncover information and put that information in a cohesive report. Communicating the investigation to the client is not only critical to a successful case but also to a successful career in this business.
Document, Document, Document
Becnel makes the case for documenting everything that you do in a case; that means every database, every inquiry, every question, every response, every observation — as if you may have to testify about it at a later date. While this is easier said than done, Becnel offers an interesting perspective and some tips on how to do this with the help of TrackOps, which is investigative management software. I don’t have any experience with this particular program, but he makes a good argument why every firm should have an investigative management software.
I found the chapter on report writing to be the most applicable to my line of work, and it has advice that nearly every investigator can use. This chapter goes into detail about using a style guide for report writing and how best to name reports for easy finding later. It also provides some excellent practical advice about assuming that the reader does not know anything about the case, sticking with facts, not drawing conclusions or making assumptions, and making it a practice to cite sources.
At the conclusion of the book, there are some nice sample reports, a style guide, and sample statements and declarations.
Becnel makes it clear that this is not necessarily the best way of doing things, but it is the way his firm does things. His advice will not work for everybody, but I do think this book has some excellent advice for any investigator.
It’s a short book (less than 150 pages) and a quick read. In my opinion, it’s well worth reading and certainly a book that I will use as a reference for years to come.