Research shows police warnings not easily understood
You’ve seen it on countless television programs – a suspect is arrested and read their rights. But just how much do you know about what your rights actually are?
Dr. Brent Snook, an associate professor of psychology, says the answer may be surprising.
“Anyone who is suspected of committing an offence must be read his or her rights before an interview continues – that involves reading the right to legal council,” he explained.
“Most are read the right to legal silence warning as well. That right doesn’t have to be read, because that’s the role of the lawyer, to explain that a suspect doesn’t have to speak to the police, however police usually read both to make sure the person is fully informed.”
Dr. Snook says across the country there is a lot of variations on how these warnings are delivered and, through seven separate studies over a period of five years, his research group has made some interesting findings.
“Officers deliver these warnings at a fairly fast pace,” he said. “They treat it as a formality, something they just have to get through, and they often don’t attempt to verify that they’ve been understood,” added Dr. Snook. “They assume that if they have read the rights, they’ve fulfilled their duty and the suspect understands because they have told the officer they understand.”
However, research has shown that isn’t exactly the case.
“Invariably they say, ‘Sure I understand what my rights are’,” said Dr. Snook. “But do they? No, because we’ve tested it time and time again and they only understand about 30 per cent of the information that’s actually contained in those cautions.”
Dr. Snook says if suspects are given a written copy and asked to read along –assuming they know how to read – the suspect will retain more than if the cautions are just read to them orally.
Understanding the cautions is also complicated by the fact that different police organizations across the country use a variety of wordings for their warnings and some are easier to understand than others.
“For example, there might be an region in Ontario where people have their rights protected extremely well because their cautions are easy to understand, while there might be another place in British Columbia or Quebec where rights are completely violated because warnings are so complex there’s no way a suspect can understand them.”
Dr. Snook says generally across Canada cautions are fairly complicated, filled with legal jargon, complex or infrequently used words and long passages of text.
“The interesting thing is we can fix the problem somewhat if we do certain things” he said. “We took the cautions, removed all the difficult words and made them as simple and as short as we could before presenting them to people, but they still didn’t get it after it was delivered only once.
“The key, we realized, was to improve listenability, as opposed to readability. People are taking it in through an auditory process, not a visual one, so the simplification of the text must be through auditory means, not visual means.”
Instead, researchers found that they could improve retention and understanding of the information if officers used certain techniques when presenting it.
“If an officer tells a suspect to pay attention because they’re going to read them their rights and that this is important, they will pay better attention,” said Dr. Snook.
“As well, if you give them some way of categorization, it leads to better retention. So if the officer says I have four things you need to know, and then as he or she delivers them, they repeat themselves, give people a chance to think about it, rehearse it and say it in a different way, it can improve comprehension up to 70 percent.”
Future studies will test if these findings will continue to work in more realistic or stressful situations. Dr. Snook is also seeking funding to study the cautions provided to youth, which are even more complex.
“The Canadian justice system tried to make it better, to make sure youth are protected, but in their desire to make things better they’ve actually made it worse,” he said. “If an adult caution is 80 words long, a youth caution could be 1,400 words long, just pages and pages that a young person has to know, but their cognitive capacity to understand all this additional information is just not there.”
Dr. Snook says the information his research group has discovered is getting out there and changes are being made.
“Whenever we publish our research in a peer reviewed journal, we always publish it in layman’s terms in police magazines,” he said. “So they are aware of it. I’ve also done quite a bit of training locally, nationally and internationally.
“In this province, almost every officer with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary has been trained, so now it’s just a matter of putting it into practice. The RNC has been incredibly progressive in these areas and they are putting us miles and miles ahead of other provinces.”