Fact Sheet: Police Interrogations

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About the author: This article was written as a guest post by Magdalena Kossowska, MA student at the Catholic University of Lublin (Poland), and Kamila Grochowska, MA student at the University of Wrocław (Poland).

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Police Interrogations

The primary purpose of a Police Interrogation [PI] is to obtain a confession, or other critical information about the crime, from an interviewed suspect (e.g. the names of criminal associates). PIs operate on the basic assumption that suspects are generally unwilling to cooperate because of the shame or fear they reserve for the crime committed. Thus, in pursuing the truth, police officers are guided by manuals based on techniques of social influence and/or persuasion that commonly use pressure, deception and manipulation tactics to ascertain truth. A variety of police manuals utilizing deception strategies will often sanction the following practices:

  1. Concealment of identity (e.g. undercover operations where law enforcement may pose as a fellow inmate to ascertain truth about a crime from other inmates);
  2. Misrepresenting the nature or seriousness of an offence (e.g. implying that the victim is still alive);
  3. Trickery (e.g. presenting a suspect with false evidence of guilt, like faking the veracity of a polygraph test).

Serious ethical concerns have been raised over these law enforcement tactics, sparking considerable discourse regarding their efficacy and consequences.

Interviewing witnesses & victims

Proper execution of an investigation is essential to the investigative process in every country’s legal arena. The interview itself is sometimes perceived as a simple exchange in conversation, but, in fact, demands extensive training and practice. This is mainly to guarantee that an exchange between an interviewer and interviewee will produce the desired ends (e.g. relevant and reliable evidence). Thus, the manner in which the interview is carried out may outline the outcomes of a case.

Interviewing witnesses and victims is as essential to the investigative process as is interviewing the suspect(s); however, the bulk of investigator training is primarily focused on honing interviewing skills towards the latter. Police tend to engage witnesses using an open-style interview – followed by a request for a statement on their eye-witness accounts (usually in written form) – and less often record (audio/visual) the interview itself. Thus, a consequence is the loss of vital details.

What is more, it was once thought that witnesses/victims fitting a profile of vulnerable (e.g. having physical disabilities) lacked the credibility to stand trial. However, recent efforts, both by legal personnel and researchers, have made strides to advocate the incorporation of special communication aids (e.g. live television links). Such matters were undertaken to facilitate more appropriate interviewing conditions for individuals’ special needs (e.g. appropriately matching the difficulty level of questioning). It must be noted that research concerning this type of interviewing is considerably limited and should be widened.

Interviewing suspects

Police interviews targeting a suspect(s) of a crime are primarily concerned with obtaining a confession rather than obtaining facts. However, it has been found that very few suspects change their position from a denial to an admittance of guilt, and the vast majority of this group tend to confess just before the interview. Thus, police tactics – specifically, procedures used to persuade suspects into confessing guilt within an interview, are effective in only few cases. It has been found that in only 23% of interviews a confession is obtained and in 25% a partial admission. In 29% suspects deny involvement, and in 6% suspects remain silent. Current research distinguishes between two styles of interviewing: ‘humanity’ (i.e., interviewers are perceived as empathetic and sympathetic) and ‘dominance’ based approaches (i.e., case-oriented interviews of an aggressive/ impatient nature). The latter style is more often used to dictate the interviewing process and has been most associated with crime denial. On the other hand, the former was found to make suspects feel more respected and comfortable, and thus, more willing to confess.

Ethical considerations

Ultimately, the interrogation techniques used by law enforcement demands various levels of deception, manipulation and/or persuasion to achieve desired ends. As Gudjonsson (2003) noted, investigators often feel justified working on a “lower moral level” with the belief that they serve a “higher purpose”. Available interrogation manuals focus less on ethical guidelines and/or provide a mixed stance (e.g. some manuals may condone the use of some forms of manipulation while other manuals may condemn these same practices). Although some authors of the manuals recommend the use of threats and/or other forms of forcible influence, most advocate not lying to suspects; however, all manuals describe interrogative techniques based on manipulation and deception. Many are beginning to acknowledge the dangerous consequences of using such techniques such as the violation of a suspect’s basic rights, the obtainment of false confessions, and in extreme cases, the use of violent threats or acts by police officers.

Conclusion

Police interviewing is an area of law enforcement primarily driven by instinctive judgment and investigative experience. As such, there is an urgent need for more research on the police interrogation process to determine the efficacy of current methods. Further, more efforts must be made to include ethical considerations into law enforcement training.

Quick summary

  • Main purpose of PI is to get a confession from a suspect
  • It is important to use communication aids and take special needs of victims and witnesses into consideration when interviewing
  • ‘Dominance’ interrogation style is less effective than the one characterized by ‘humanity’
  • Techniques used in PI raise serious ethical concerns

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Bibliography

  1. Bull, R. (2004). Legal psychology in the twenty-first century. Criminal Behaviour & Mental Health, 14(3), 167-181.
  2. Dando, C., Wilcock, R., & Milne, R. (2008). The cognitive interview: Inexperienced police officers' perceptions of their witness/victim interviewing practices. Legal & Criminological Psychology, 13(1).
  3. Gudjonsson, G. (2003). The Psychology of Interrogations, Confessions and Testimony. NY: Wiley and Sons.
  4. Inbau, F. Reid, J. Buckley, J. (1986). Criminal Interrogation and Confessions. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.
  5. Leo, R. (1992). From Coercion to Deception. Crime, Law & Social Change, 18, 35-59
  6. Milne, R., & Bull, R. (2003). Interviewing by the Police. In: D. Carson, & R. Bull (Eds.), Handbook of Psychology in Legal Contexts. England: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

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