Interviewing suspects or a witness to crime is a key skill for police officers. Knowing how to extract information – the practices, principles and techniques that work best to get people to provide detailed information – is vital.
Dr. Brent Snook, an associate professor of psychology has made a career out of improving the administration of justice and policing.
He has recently released a paper with two of his students, Kirk Luther and Heather Quinlan, and a colleague in the United Kingdom, Becky Milne, outlining findings from a review of 80 transcripts of police interviews with individuals who have been accused or suspected to have committed a crime – everything from theft to homicide.
“Interviewing is one of the core skills, if not the core skill of an investigator,” said Dr. Snook. “There is a science behind interviewing and a lot of experimental research being done to on strategies and persuasion, but what we were mainly interested in were questioning practices. Are the police even using good practices to allow people to talk?”
Dr. Snook said officers sometimes say ‘Bad guys don’t talk to us.’ But in reality, he feels that by thinking that way, officers may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“You might assume they’re not going to talk to you, but do you use practices that help them talk to you? Are you using open-ended questions? This doesn’t mean who, what, when, where, why and how.
“An open-ended question is ‘Tell me about this,’ or ‘Explain this to me,’ or even ‘Describe this.’ That taps into free recall where the person has to think about the issue and draw upon free recall memory to provide an answer.”
Dr. Snook also looked at how often officers talked during an interview – with the transcripts showing if they just sat there quietly and listened or if they interrupted with questions.
“Interrupting someone who is talking can break their train of thought and prevent good information from coming out,” said Dr. Snook. “We looked at those transcripts and what we found was that investigators not trained on best interviewing practices are not giving suspects and accused persons a fair shake.
“They weren’t asking open-ended questions and they interrupted suspects if they do talk. They also talk more than they allow the other person to talk, so they were not listening actively. You may feel that a suspect is not going to talk to you, but provide the right atmosphere first, because you might be the reason they aren’t talking.”
This finding isn’t unique to Canada, says Dr. Snook and the solution comes back to training.
“Interviewing is a very difficult skill and getting feedback is very important,” he said. “These studies become information we can bring into training sessions to show officers what they should and shouldn’t do.
“The police might think they aren’t doing this, but we can show them evidence that similar officers in their position are doing it, and since they haven’t been trained otherwise, they are probably making the same mistakes.”
Dr. Snook feels these errors aren’t malicious in nature, but primarily a lack of training, feedback and practice.
“People call it interrogation and it isn’t really. It’s an investigative interview with a purpose of trying to solve a crime. Most intelligent police officers will say that anything I find in my research is useful to them. They can use my research to fix what they are doing.
“The key is not beating them up. There’s no point in that. Interviewing is a complex skill and they won’t do better unless they’ve had training properly. So this research is giving us some insight into what’s going on inside of Canadian interrogation rooms with the goal of improving what they are doing.”
Previously, Dr. Snook has researched witness interviewing and is hoping to move into child interviewing practices soon.
“If similar problems exist with child interviews, we may need to devise programs to alter problems we see there. In that case you have different issues as you may be dealing with more vulnerable people with different levels of comprehension. So certainly interviewing styles and strategies have to change. Assessing the type of individual that is providing information and taking that into account is hard.”