Interviewing Those Suspected Of Crime

Criticisms of police interviewing of suspects have been well versed (see Milne and Bull, 1999, for a review), especially suspects who may be vulnerable (see Gudjonsson, 2002). One major concern has been interviewing to gain a confession rather than interviewing to gain the facts. In 1997 Plimmer, a senior police officer in England, reported his research demonstrating a belief among police officers that the main aim of an interview with a suspect was still to obtain a confession. Leo and Ofshe (1998) and Ofshe and Leo (1997) provide arresting accounts of several real-life confessions in the USA. (See also Shuy, 1998.)

The effect of an interview containing a confession/admission has been demonstrated (Bull and Cherryman, 1995). As part of a research project for the Home Office a number of forensic psychologists with expertise on the topic of investigative interviewing were asked to listen to a relatively large sample of police audio-taped interviews with suspects (Bull and Cherryman, 1995). These psychologists independently agreed with each other on which interviews were the more skilled overall and on the level of 28 particular interviewing skills demonstrated in the interviews. However, it was found that the evaluations of a sample of these tapes by police officers, who regularly conduct interviews with suspects, did not agree with the forensic psychologists. Instead, their skill evaluations were strongly influenced by whether or not a confession occurred (Cherryman, Bull and Vrij, 1998a). Evaluation of the same interviews by more experienced police officers, who supervised and/or trained interviewers, were not affected by whether a confession occurred. However, these officers' evaluations did not concur with each other (Cherryman, Bull and Vrij, 1998b).

After the introduction of legislation in England and Wales, mandating (since 1986) that all police interviews with suspects in England and Wales be audio-taped, Baldwin (1992) examined 400 interviews of suspects and concluded that 'interviewing was a hit and miss affair' (p. 14). PEACE was designed to rectify this in Britain. Does PEACE result in better interviewing of suspects? In Clarke and Milne's (2001) evaluation, 177 interviews, with suspects were examined, two-thirds being conducted by PEACE trained officers and a third untrained officers. Although these interviews with suspects of crime were deemed better than when officers interviewed witnesses and victims, there was still little difference between trained and untrained officers, and some major skills gaps were found. Nevertheless there was some evidence of the transference of PEACE interviewing skills into these interviews. However, this happened more in areas that concerned the legal requirements, rather than the communication aspects, of the interview or the structured development of the interviewee's account. Interviewers are therefore learning from the course, but are being rigid in the manner in which they interview. A more flexible approach is now required.

It must be borne in mind that those classed as 'untrained' in this sample were not completely naive to the nature of PEACE and, due to frequent practice of interviewing in pairs, were not completely ignorant as to how to conduct PEACE interviews (i.e. could have learned through observation or through osmosis). Perhaps a better comparison is to compare practices to those interviews conducted prior to the introduction of PEACE training (i.e. compare skills to those found in research conducted prior to the advent of PEACE; e.g. Baldwin, 1992). In this light there has been a clear improvement in the ethos and ethical approach to interviewing since the inception of PEACE. This is important. As noted before, a necessary first step to changing behaviour is changing mind sets. It seems that perhaps, at last, in the UK (at least) we may now be more than half way there.

Clarke and Milne (2001) found that in only 17% of interviews with suspects was a comprehensive account given by an interviewee, in 23% a confession was obtained, in 25% a partial admission was elicited, in 29% the suspect denied involvement, and in only 6% the suspect merely said 'no comment'. Research therefore needs to start examining ways to help interviewers to gain truthful accounts from uncooperative suspects (e.g. using 'tactics'). The word 'tactics' seems to have a negative connotation attached to it. This has been fuelled by research which has tended to focus upon psychological tactics which can result in negative outcomes (e.g. false confessions) as opposed to seeing which tactics can be used in an ethical and effective manner (i.e. encouraging the guilty to give a comprehensive account). For example, Pearse and Gudjonsson (1999) report on 18 cases in which the suspects initially denied the allegations against them but, in the police interview, changed their mind and made a confession. The courts subsequently ruled one-third of these audio-taped interviews inadmissible largely in relation to the nature of the interviewers' tactics.

Gudjonsson (2002) is one of the few researchers who has successfully contended, in court cases, that interviewees have been adversely affected by tactics. However, almost no research has gathered information about this from suspects themselves. Holmberg and Christianson (in press) recently conducted a pioneering study involving a questionnaire completed by men who were in prison for murder or for serious sexual offences. This postal questionnaire involved the prisoners rating, on seven-point scales, their judgements/perceptions of the behaviour/manner/attitudes of the police officers who had interviewed them during the (relevant) investigation. The questionnaire also asked the prisoners to rate their emotional reactions to the interviewers' behaviour. The data revealed that only a few 'perceived their interviewers as having shown a great personal interest and having tried to create a personal conversation' or 'perceived their interviewers as highly sympathetic and empathetic' (p. 10). Thus, 'In both groups, few experienced their interviewers as having shown a very positive attitude towards them as human beings' (p. 11). However, 'few participants saw their interviewers as aggressive and explicitly confrontational' (p. 11). With regard to the self-ratings, the sexual offenders rated themselves as experiencing a higher degree of anxiety and as becoming more confrontational during the interviews than did the murderers.

Most of the respondents indicated that they experienced the police interviewers to display impatience, condemning attitudes, and a lack of empathy. 'Half of the sexual offenders and nearly one third of the murderers felt insulted as human beings' (p. 17). Two main interviewing styles emerged from the questionnaire data: one characterised by 'dominance' and one by 'humanity'. The dominating style involved 'a superficial case-oriented approach, characterised by impatience, aggression, a brusque and obstinate condemning approach, presumably aiming to extort a confession' (p. 19). This is what was typically found in research of interviews in the UK pre-PEACE (e.g. Moston, Stephenson and Williamson, 1992). One very interesting aspect of the data concerns the relationships between admission or denial and the suspects' ratings of the police behaviour. It was found that 'participants who perceive humanitarian attitudes from their interviewers were more likely to admit crime' (p. 15). Similarly, for those whose ratings indicated that they felt respected 'the odds of admission are 5.92 times greater' (p. 16) than those who did not feel respected. Holmburg and Christianson noted that their findings suggest that confrontational interviews result in negative outcomes. The dominating interviewer style was associated with suspects denying the crime. Although suspects' denials may cause police interviewers to become dominating, this simple explanation does not seem to account for the data.

One understandable weakness in Holmberg and Christianson's important study is that what people recall months or years later about an event (e.g. an interview with the police) may not be accurate. Analysis of the actual interviews (e.g. if they are recorded and access to the tapes is granted) would greatly increase our knowledge of behaviour, including admission or denial. Since research suggests (at least in England; Baldwin 1992, 1993; Moston et al., 1992) that few suspects change from initially denying the offence to later admitting it during a police interview, a large sample of such recorded interviews would seem necessary. Gaining access to such tapes has been rare for those outside the police service and for those not conducting a government-funded research project. Fortunately one of our doctoral students has been granted access, by a large UK police force, to a substantial sample of such tapes. She is currently analysing for the effect of interviewer style on suspects changing from denial to admission. She has also gathered information, from investigative interviewers in the same force, statements regarding what they see as the main aims of interviews with suspects. It was found (Soukara, Bull and Vrij, in press) that they report the main aims of interviews with suspects to be the gathering of information from the suspect and the disclosing of evidence to the suspect. These experienced officers reported that since the 1986 introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) regarding audio-taping interviews with suspects, police interviews have become better planned, more structured, and the use of trickery and deceit has all but vanished. Interestingly 40% of the officers commented that PACE has reduced the pressure on the police to obtain confessions. Preliminary analysis of the interviews recently provided to us by this police force found little sign of the use of 'negative' tactics. Rather, where the interviewers could be criticised this seems to be for a general lack of skill, as found by Clarke and Milne (2001).

It is not only 'outsiders' (i.e. non-police officers) who have outlined the weaknesses and strengths of police interviewing. Cherryman and Bull (2001) analysed information provided by a large sample of police officers experienced in investigative interviewing. This was done to determine which skills they believed to be important in investigative interviews and which were present or absent in police interviews and in themselves as interviewers. They considered 'listening' to be the most important skill, followed by 'preparation' and 'questioning'. Generally the officers indicted that many skill levels could be improved and believed that the skills most often missing in other officers, but not in themselves, were 'preparation', 'open-mindedness' and 'flexibility'. While there was consensus on most issues, officers who were assigned to child protection units ranked 'questioning' higher in importance than did other investigative interviewers who, in turn, ranked 'flexibility' as more important than did child protection officers.

Baldwin (1992) noted that skilled interviewers seemed to demonstrate more compassion but they also sometimes failed to challenge interviewees when they said things that did not 'square' with the available evidence. Bull and Cherryman (1995) also found compassion/empathy to be one of the factors judged to be significantly more present in skilled compared to less-skilled interviews of suspects. However, in a pioneering study Sear and Stephenson (1997) found very little relationship between officers' personality and their interviewing behaviour. Cherryman (2000) investigated whether some personality aspects of officers highly experienced with supervising and/or training investigative interviewing would affect their evaluations of audio-taped interviews with suspects conducted by other officers. In particular she examined the relationship between (i) empathy, (ii) authoritarianism and (iii) the evaluations. While little evidence was found of an effect of authoritarianism, empathy was found to affect some of the skill evaluations. For example, officers with higher empathy scores evaluated interviews as containing more 'undue use of pressure' and more 'inappropriate interruptions' than did officers with lower empathy scores evaluating the same interviews. Such novel findings as this have, of course, many implications, including some for supervision and training.

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