What to Do If You Witness a Crime?

Crime is a global problem; it can take on many unique flavors and forms depending on where you live. Some crime is perpetuated by culture, as with local gang influence in the Caribbean’s St. Kitts and Nevis; other crimes occur as a byproduct of the environment, such as the case of crime in Luxembourg, whose homicide rates are half of that in Belgium. More crimes still occur due to negligence—this is the case of many crimes committed in Iceland, whose most reported crimes in 2020 were traffic offenses.

In the United States, crime happens at a rate of 6.52 cases per 100,000 people. In 2021, this equated to more than 6.5 million property crimes and more than 2.9 million larceny cases. Although these figures are massive regarding their implied social and statistical impacts, they highlight a problem beyond the crimes themselves: the numbers should be higher.

At both the state and the federal levels, there exists a gap in crime reporting; these gaps indicate a need for follow-through, either by authorities needing more equipment or by limited case evidence. The element that causes criminals to be sought out, caught, and convicted often comes from witness testimonies.

What Is a Witness of a Crime?

witness a crime

In the United States, multiple parties are recognized in a criminal case. First, there are the legal attendants: the Judge, the Defendant’s Attorney, in some cases, there is also an Assistant Defense Attorney, and the Victim-Witness Coordinator. Then, there is the Victim: the party acted against or suffered from emotional, financial, or physical harm after a crime.

There is the Defendant and their Defense team; the person accused of committing a crime, and their legal adviser groups, composed of one or more attorneys and assistants. In some cases, there is a Jury: a group of random individuals who are peers of the Defendant. Lastly, there are the Witnesses; those who are not impacted by but know about the crime.

Specifically, a Witness is not someone who sees a crime committed. Those who do, are called Eyewitnesses, but they are notoriously faulty accounts of true events. Instead, many courts rely upon testimony from Witnesses; who are any people who have information regarding a crime and who provide that knowledge (or evidence) to law enforcement.

What to Do When You Witness a Crime?

  • Immediately call the authorities, especially if someone is injured; this is best to do while witnessing a crime; however, calling later is better than never calling.
  • Take note of what the criminal was wearing and where they went. Telling the responding officers if the criminal went West or North can greatly impact searches.
  • Replay the events in your mind until you can write them down. No one has flawless memory; the best way to keep it fresh is to reply to the events.
  • If there is a victim, call for an ambulance and help until it arrives. Statistically, you’re not a doctor—you don’t have to be one to help. Take charge by directing those around you. Give the victim space, direct traffic, and keep others calm.
  • When the officers arrive, tell them everything and file an FIR; also called a First Information Report. These are created at the first point of contact with an officer. In some cases, they become part of a person’s criminal records.
  • Ensure the officer signs and stamps the FIR before giving you a copy. Depending on the crime, you may require a copy of the FIR; having it signed and stamped with the date are two crucial verification aspects of starting a criminal case.

What to Report?

Those who have witnessed a crime must only report the event in specific circumstances. Civilians are not legally required to report crimes, although morally, they should. Some crimes involving certain professionals from select occupations warrant immediate reporting. For example, school or University staff and medical personnel are required to report child abuse to the authorities.

Heinous or malicious crimes often garner multiple defendants; some get charges for murdering the bank teller; others get larceny charges; another gets charges for driving the Get-Away Car; and still others can be charged for the bank heist. The barista who hands the driver a coffee while they lower their ski mask has obligations too; failing to act on them costs the bank teller their life.

Why Is It Important to Report a Crime?

Reporting a crime can be difficult for many reasons. Some fear testifying at trial, while others suffer from intimidation. The consequences of being a witness can be severe in some cases—this is why the Witness Protection Program exists. Even when the crime has been reported anonymously, the entire process can be nerve-wracking from paranoia.

These intense feelings are part of the reason people do not report crimes. Another reason is that witnesses are less prepared to get involved when they do not know the victim or criminal. Crimes impacting a witness’s family or friends are reported more often than crimes impacting strangers. It is important to report crimes, especially when they happen to others; not only because it helps the victim but because it makes an example of criminals.

Can a witness be charged with a crime? Those who brave the storm and become witnesses are legally bound to complete the process unless released by the courts. In other words, the presiding judge may issue a subpoena (or order) for the witness to appear and testify at trial. If the witness does not appear for the trial, they may be given fines or jail time. Further, the transcript created as a part of the trial will become part of your court records; although they will only be accessible by court staff unless they involve public records, like police blotters.

How to Report Crimes to the Police?

Knowing how to report a crime is essential in increasing the overall chances of reporting. Sometimes calling the Boys in Blue isn’t a realistic answer, and the problem is better solved using another method. One widely-known option is contacting Secret Witness—for anonymous tips to non-law enforcement. For drugs, the DEA offers a quick tip form online. The Department of Homeland Security also offers many solutions for reporting activity. Your local police force should offer more communication availability than a phone call. Many offer services through texting or SMS, email, or private messengers.

Navigating legal hardships is difficult—navigating them with poor information is impossible. Check out your criminal and police records to see the information the opposition will access.