The Significance of Identifying Precipitators during a Criminal Investigation

Written By: Reid
Jan 01, 2006

The first step of any criminal investigation is factual analysis. This describes the process of collecting and analyzing information and evidence surrounding a crime. One of the goals of factual analysis is to develop a list of possible suspects based on opportunity, access, motive or propensity. In many investigations factual analysis and interrogation are enhanced by identifying precipitators that led up to the crime.

Thankfully for investigators, crimes are not a random event. Before a person decides to commit a crime he goes through a specific thought process designed to accomplish particular goals. There are many possible goals to consider when committing a crime. Examples include: how can the offender gain access to the victim or property; how can the offender avoid being caught; how can the offender reap the most financial reward or psychological gain from the crime; will the assistance of others be required to commit this crime and, what will be a plausible cover-story to explain away possible evidence.

Even the simplest of criminal behaviors involve underlying decisions by the offender. Consider a 14-year-old girl who shoplifts a $15.00 CD from a music store. This girl made the conscious decision to steal that particular CD from that particular store at that particular time and on that particular date. Events or circumstances that contribute to these underlying decisions are referred to as precipitators of the crime. To help identify precipitators an investigator should attempt to answer these three questions about the crime under investigation:

(1) Why was this person or property selected to be the victim of this crime?

(2) Why was the crime committed on this date, time and location?

(3) Why was the crime committed in this manner?

In the shoplifting example, the girl met two friends at a shopping mall and they went to a music store. While inside the store the girl was looking at a particular CD with the intention of buying it because she liked the artist. She noticed that the store was very busy and that there were only two clerks present. The girl knew that she had only $20 in her purse which would not leave her with enough money to buy the CD and purchase lunch with her friends. This information answers the first two questions. As for the final question, the girl took the easiest route to accomplish her goal of obtaining the CD without paying for it. Robbing the store or burglarizing the store to obtain the CD were eliminated as being far too risky options. Each of these circumstances and events represent precipitators to her crime. As this case illustrates, identifying precipitators of a crime is a key aspect of factual analysis. This is especially true when multiple possible suspects are developed during the course of an investigation. By objectively listing the presence or absence of known precipitators, suspects can often be ranked from least to most likely involved in a criminal offense.

Identifying precipitators of a crime is also beneficial during the interrogation of the guilty suspect. In the previous shoplifting case, consider that the desired CD was not available in the store, that the girl had $50 in her wallet, and that the store had an obvious security system. If any of these conditions existed the girl probably would not have shoplifted the CD. This concept can be incorporated within an interrogation theme and used to deflect blame away from the suspect. For example, the investigator could explain to the shoplifter, "If your mom would have given you more money that day, and if that store had a proper security system in place you never would have been tempted to do this and I wouldn't even be talking to you right now."

In an effort to organize this material, precipitators will be presented by addressing the earlier mentioned three investigative questions. The suggested precipitators are merely examples of possible circumstances or events and are hardly exhaustive. An investigator should rely on experience and imagination to develop possible precipitators for a given crime or suspect. A very useful source of information in this regard is to specifically question suspects who have confessed to committing a crime. By asking the suspect, "Why did you decide to steal that particular car at that time and on that date?" the investigator will gain tremendous insight to the criminal mind.

Why this victim?

At the outset of an investigation, one of the first questions an investigator should ask himself is why was this person or property selected by the criminal. After all, the criminal could have burglarized any of a hundred other homes, stolen any of hundreds of other cars or robbed any of a hundred other people but did not. It is extremely rare to encounter a random victim. Almost always there is something unique that caused a particular person or property to be targeted for a crime, i.e., the thief consciously selected a particular deposit to steal, the pedophile consciously selected a particular child to molest, a particular man was selected to be shot. The following are possible precipitators to consider:

Deposit - unusually large amount; deposit left unattended; safe left open; person with immediate access to deposit has pressing financial need

Burglary - home unlocked; no security system; occupants obviously not home; located in a remote area.

Robbery - victim displaying money or wealth; victim being vulnerable (alone, intoxicated, elderly, physically disabled)

Auto theft - keys left in the car; no security system; car parked in an unsecured area; valuable car in bad neighborhood

Rape - victim wearing provocative clothing; engaging in friendly or intimate contact with suspect; allowing the suspect some intimate contact; being vulnerable (alone, lost)

Child molestation - child seeks attention; being alone with child; child instigates questions about sex; innocent exposure or contact that led to fondling (stepping out of a shower)

Why this date, time and location?

Consider that a fire is set in a warehouse at 10:00 PM on November 2nd. Because this arson was an intentional act the location, time and date were all consciously selected by the arsonist. The warehouse may have been selected so that the owner could file an insurance claim on merchandise that he claimed was burned, but was actually moved to another location. The time of 10:00 PM may have been selected to make certain that noone was injured and to avoid any witnesses. Finally, November 2nd may have been selected because the last of the merchandise was moved out of the warehouse that afternoon.

When answering this question a broad distinction can be made between premeditated crimes (such as the previously mentioned arson) and spontaneous crimes (the suspect striking his girlfriend during an argument). As a general guideline, in a premeditated crime the offender gives much more conscious thought about where and when to commit his crime. In a spontaneous crime, the events immediately preceding the time in which the crime was committed become the most important consideration.

Precipitators for premeditated crimes

arson - failing business; new regulations that would require expensive updates; threats of unionization

homicide - discovery that spouse was having an affair; wife not granting a desired divorce; financial need (recently increasing death benefit on life insurance policy)

Embezzlement - gambling addiction; unusual medical expenses; pay tuition for son or daughter's education

Robbery - loss of a job; support drug addiction; unusual financial expense

Precipitators for Spontaneous Crimes

Emotional Precipitators

homicide/Assault - anger, humiliation, embarrassment

Theft/ burglary - greed, excitement

Arson (vandalism) - thrill, excitement

Sexual arousal - seeing the victim partially clothed; inadvertent physical contact with the victim

Unusual opportunity caused by negligence - leaving a safe unlocked, writing the combination to the safe down in plain view; not turning on a security system; leaving keys in car

Stress: Loss of income; recently diagnosed medical illness; divorce, death or illness of loved one; legal proceedings (up-coming trial)

Judgement Precipitators


Illegal drug use


Peer pressure

Financial Precipitators

Legal actions - threat of eviction, re-possession of car, mortgage foreclosure; bankruptcy proceedings; divorce papers

Unusual expenses - car repair; bail a friend out of jail; pay tuition; medical bill

Threats - threats of harm if gambling debt is not paid; threat of garnished wages; threat of public exposure

Date Factors

One of my first investigations involved the theft of an even million dollars from a bank. The money was purposefully stolen on the Friday before Columbus day because the thieves knew that the bank would be closed on Monday and the discovery of theft would be delayed by an extra day. In many cases the significance of the date of a crime only becomes apparent after the guilty suspect confesses. Nonetheless, it is important to look for precipitators in the suspect's life that may have caused the crime to be committed on that particular date. Some precipitators to consider in this area are:

Last day of work

Birthday or other celebration (alcohol consumption; peer pressure)

Change in job assignment, hours, position

Loss of access (no longer having high security clearance, alarm code)

Loss of opportunity (explosives being moved next week to a more secure area)

Wife leaving town (providing time alone with victim)

Time Factors

Statistics that track criminal behavior demonstrate various date and time correlations. Most of these follow common sense. More outdoor rapes occur during warm months (when people are outdoors), retail theft increases in November and December (holiday shopping) and alcohol related crimes are more common on nights and weekends when people are more likely to drink. The following are examples of possible precipitators centered around the time in which a crime was committed:

Unusually busy or slow (retail theft, drug use during work hours)

Change in shift (confusion to open range of possible suspects)

Public transportation schedules (as a means to get to or from the crime scene)

Lack of supervision (temptation, opportunity)

Late at night - affected judgment from fatigue, alcohol or drug use

Victim's schedule (going to bank with cash deposit at 6:00 each Friday)

Why was the crime committed in this manner?

With respect to the method selected to commit a crime, an initial distinction can be made between crimes that are readily detected ($5000 deposit missing from a manager's safe) and crimes that involve an effort to prevent discovery (embezzlement, medicare fraud, dumping a homicide victim's body in a lake). When a person not only commits a crime but also takes the time and effort to make the detection of the crime difficult, that behavior alone strongly points to the individual with the best opportunity and motive to commit the crime. Consequently, when a crime is discovered inadvertently (hunters discovering a body in a shallow grave, a surprise audit revealing a shortage in a teller's drawer) or there is an effort to make the crime appear accidental or an act of nature, the obvious suspect is usually the person guilty of the crime.

Many crimes are readily detected and are committed in such a way as to conceal the identity of the offender. For example, robbers usually make an effort to conceal their identity and select a store where they are not well known; burglaries are committed when the home is vacant and an arsonist is careful not to be seen lighting his fire. When there is no effort to disguise the crime or make the crime difficult to discover, the following precipitators may help answer the question, "Why was the crime committed in this manner?":

Unusual access (discovering safe unlocked, keys left out, security system turned off, security guard sleeping)

Unusual opportunity (returning to work to pick up a check and discovering a deposit in manager's office, coming home from work early and discovering wife with lover).

Previous success using that particular MO: entering unlocked windows of a home, pretending to have a gun in a coat pocket during a robbery, distraction techniques (calling in false fire reports on other side of town)

Because of their value during an investigation, precipitators should always be sought during the course of an investigation. This starts with focused observation of the crime scene where the investigator actively looks for answers to the questions: Why was this victim selected?; Why was the crime committed on this date, time and location? and, Why was the crime committed in this manner? Answers to these questions should also be pursued by thoroughly questioning a victim or witness. Precipitators should always be pursued during the interviews of possible suspects. Innocent suspects will be comfortably speculating and theorizing about such things as why a particular child was selected to be molested or why a home was burglarized at 10:00 in the morning or how the thief was able to get product out of the warehouse without getting caught. After all, the suspect is talking about someone else's crime. Guilty suspects are not comfortable talking about the crime they committed and certainly do not want to reveal the precipitators that led up to their crime. Consequently, during the interview of any person suspected of an act of wrong-doing, the investigator should ask questions addressing precipitators. For example:

"Why do you think that store was selected to be robbed?

"Why do you think the fire was started at night?

"Why do you think no knife was found at the scene of the killing?

During an interview speculative questions are perceived significantly differently from a guilty or innocent suspect, which results in completely different behavior symptoms. An innocent suspect who is asked the question, "Why do you think this particular car was stolen?" perceives the question as a hypothetical one and will predictably ponder the question before answering it. Their response is often reflective and qualified, e.g., "Gosh I don't know. Maybe because it was not in a garage or maybe because it was expensive, I'm not sure." A guilty suspect, of course, knows exactly why he selected that particular car to steal. To him, the question is not hypothetical, but rather quite threatening. Typically guilty suspects respond to speculative questions during an interview too quickly and exhibit a reluctance to offer an expansive answer, e.g., "How would I know?"

Occasionally guilty suspects will offer very detailed answers to speculative questions because of a psychological phenomenon called introspection. Under this circumstance the guilty suspect is revealing truthful information about their crime but does not consider the information incriminating because it is merely "speculation.", e.g., "Why do you think the driver of that car left the scene of the accident?" "Well, I think the guy was drinking and already had a couple dui arrests and left because he was afraid that he might go to jail."

In conclusion, identifying precipitators that led to the commission of a crime serves several important purposes. First, it will assist during factual analysis to help identify possible suspects and also rank order the suspects to help focus on the one most likely guilty of the crime. Second, pursuing precipitators during an interview may reveal behavior symptoms of a suspect's guilt or innocence. Because precipitators are so closely linked to the commission of the crime itself, they become valuable persuasive material to use during an interrogation. Finally, once a suspect has confessed to committing a particular crime, the investigator should actively elicit precipitors that led to the commission of the crime. This information will not only help corroborate the confession, but will also provide insight to criminal behavior which will be helpful in future investigations.

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