Interviewing Suspects

Part of a police officer's job includes questioning suspected rapists, child molesters, child pornographers, and others who have committed a wide range of sex crimes. Interviewing such offenders is not an easy task. The officer must be able to ask questions with a certain degree of sensitivity (Burns, 1993). Asking questions of suspects is a critical component of the investigation. Police officers encounter many obstacles in obtaining information from a sex-crime suspect. For example, research has found that police officers are often stressed when they interview child sex offenders (Soukara, Bull, & Vrij, 2002).

Research also shows that officers fail to show empathy towards such offenders until a confession has been obtained (Soukara et al., 2002). Police officers also have mental obstacles to overcome when they are confronted with a suspect to interview. For example, they often minimize the offense allegedly committed (Ward, Hudson, Johnston, & Marshall, 1997). Although cognitive distortions, such as false justifications for sexual abuse, are typically associated with the abuser, police officers can also have cognitive distortions regarding the characteristics and severity of the offense.

Given the severe negative perceptions often associated with sex offenders, police officers will often deny their involvement in the investigation process to close friends and family members (Thomas, 2000). Police officers, like those in the community, typically hold negative attitudes towards sex offenders—sometimes, even more so than towards murderers (Holmberg & Christianson, 2002). Research has, in fact, shown that sex offenders, compared to murderers, were more likely to report negative interviewer behaviors (Holmberg & Christianson, 2002).

The style that police officers adopt during suspect interviews falls into two categories: dominant or humane. Dominant interviews are associated with impatience, hostility, aggressiveness, and condemnation. Humane interviews are associated with friendliness, empathy, cooperation and a personal approach. Police officers are more likely to obtain an admission of guilt if they use a humane approach (Holm- berg & Christianson, 2002; Kebbell, Hurren, & Roberts, 2006). However, in a study that examined the use of empathy alone, no differences were found in the amount of investigation relevant information (IRI) obtained, which refers to information that is helpful in determining information about the crime. Quality interviews, in general, will yield IRI, which includes the following key pieces of information: (1) what happened, (2) how the crime was committed, (3) who was involved, (4) when and where the offense occurred, and (5) any objects used to assist in committing the offense.

Research has found, however, that the amount of IRI obtained is significantly improved when appropriate (or productive) questions are asked by the interviewer as opposed to inappropriate questions. Appropriate questions include open questions (e.g., "Can you describe the room to me?"), probing questions (e.g., "What happened next?"), encouragements/acknowledgements (e.g., "Ok, I see"). Inappropriate questions include echo questions (e.g., Suspect says, "I may have ..."; Interviewer says, "You may have ..."), closed-questions (e.g., "Did you leave your house last night?"), leading questions (e.g., "Then you went to the living room, right?"), forced-choice questions (e.g., "The phone is in your name or your wife's?"), multiple questions (e.g., "Did you leave before nine o'clock? Where did you go?"), and making opinion-based statements (e.g., "You are just trying to protect yourself") (Oxburgh, Ost, & Cherryman, 2012).

Thus, appropriate questions are more useful to the investigation of sex crimes. Research has shown that police officers typically ask, on average, three inappropriate questions for every one appropriate question, showing a need for additional training with regard to interviewing suspects (Oxburgh et al., 2012).

Two methods of interviewing suspects have also been identified. First, the accusatorial method, primarily used in the U.S., is confrontational and assumes guilt. This method typically establishes control, uses psychological manipulation (e.g., custody and isolation, confrontation, followed by offering sympathy and face-saving excuses), uses closed-ended, confirmatory questions, and focuses on anxiety cues to determine deception (based on the suspect's verbal and non-verbal cues). The primary goal is confession (Meissner, Redlich, Bhatt, & Brandon, 2012).

The second method, information-gathering, relies on establishing rapport, using direct, positive confrontation, using open-ended, exploratory questions, and focusing on cognitive clues to deception. The use of cognitive clues is deeply embedded in empirical research that shows individuals will remember an event more accurately after they have been asked to remember the emotions, perceptions and sequence of events in the situation of interest. The primary goal of the information-gathering method is to elicit information. This method is associated with Great Britain. The suspects are given the opportunity to explain the circumstances. Only then are they questioned and asked about any inconsistent or contradictory information. The goal is to establish facts as opposed to obtaining a confession (as in the accusatorial method) (Meissner et al., 2012).

A specific technique, usually associated with the information-gathering method of investigation, is to have the suspect tell the series of events in reverse order. For example, the suspect is asked what happened prior to discovering the crime, and what happened directly before that, and so on. Research has shown that this technique often distinguishes those who are deceptive from truth-tellers (Vrij et al., 2008).

A recent meta-analysis that compared accusatorial and information-gathering interviewing found that the information-gathering style interview is more likely than accusatorial interviews to elicit true confessions and reduce false confessions. These results, however, were based on a small number of studies. More research is needed to determine the outcome of both methods of interviewing a suspect (Meissner et al., 2012).

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