Ask A Small Town Cop: Police Procedure

Feb 4, 2012 | 2012 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Detective Will Knight

Welcome to a monthly column where small town, local cop and detective Will Knight answers some of your questions about how things really work in a small town police department. He has worked as a police officer in small California towns for the past ten years. If you’d like to submit a question, simply email Will at with the subject line “Cop Question”.

We here at KRL thought this would be an especially fun column for mystery writers struggling with a small town setting and police work, but also mystery fans and just those who are interested in learning how small town police departments work!


I have a question about police procedure.
In my current WIP, my main character is witnesses to identifying two suspects who may be involved in a shooting. Did I mention he was blind?
Using his keen sense of hearing and smell, he follows the two suspects. The next day, he learns the suspects have been killed. They are “on the slab.” My character then asks the local cops if he can “look at” the suspects’ personal effects, so he can know for sure if it is the same two men he followed.
Would the cops allow him to touch, and handle the items? Or would it be evidence that is protected until the investigation is over and the suspects identified?
My main character is a willing witness and able to identify the suspects from the smell of their clothing, and metal tabs on the bottom of one pair of cowboy boots.
Thanks for your time,
Darlene DeWitte-Bassett

Will’s response:

It sounds like an interesting premise for a novel. The evidence procedure in police work is fairly specific and it is universal amongst agencies. A piece of evidence is booked into evidence by the investigating officer, detective, or crime scene investigator. From that point on we begin what is known as a chain of custody.

The chain of custody documents where that evidence goes for the rest of its existence. For example; a District Attorney might want to take a look at pictures (evidence) in order to better assess the case. This D.A would fill out the chain of custody paperwork which would document this fact (time, date, person, and return time). A piece of evidence that is presented to a court has a chain of custody with it.

The chain of custody is especially important for evidence that could be tainted such as finger prints, DNA, or hair samples.

Since you are writing a fictional novel I will try to help explain the process in which your blind character may be able to do what you are describing.

First, the detectives would not allow their evidence to be handled until it was processed by the lab, so it would not be realistic to have it handled prior to this. Second, the fact that the evidence was being handled by a witness would be thoroughly documented in a report. This report would contain the reason for the procedure and the safety measures taken to ensure the integrity of the evidence. This would include supervision, use of gloves, etc.

Third, your investigators might very well contact the prosecuting District Attorney for this case and explain what they intended to do. This would be important because it will be the DA who will have to further explain, in front of a jury, why the witness handled the evidence. Forth, I would have this process further documented on video/audio and book the disk into evidence. Finally it would be important that your witness was not somehow involved in the incident.

It would cause significant conflict of interest if your witness were an intended victim, relative of the suspect, or relative of the victim. In other words your witness would need to be free of motives suggesting that he would want to tamper with evidence.

Again, if you’d like to submit a question, simply email Will at with the subject line “Cop Question”. Check back next month to see what kind of question Will gets to answer.


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