10 Tips And More For Effective Cognitive Interviewing Of OIS Survivors And Other Cooperative Witnesses

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In one word, name a critical–and unfortunately common–mistake investigators make when interviewing police officers who have been involved in shootings.

The answer, according to UCLA psychology professor, Dr. Ed Geiselman, is interrupt.

“I’ve seen police officers–as well as other presumably cooperative witnesses–bursting at the seams to tell their account of an incident only to be repeatedly stopped in their tracks by misguided investigators who obstruct their thought flow, either because it doesn’t fit the investigator’s pre-determined sequencing of information gathering or because they decide they’re more interested in another segment of the event, one they may deem more important, so they guide the witness in a different direction,” he said.

“Investigators don’t realize how destructive this can be to the goal of conducting an accurate, thorough interview. This interruption not only short-circuits a natural human thought process that can yield priceless memorial information but it makes overall recall much more difficult.”

Geiselman, a member of the instructional staff for Force Science’s popular Certification Courses, conducted a series of two-day classes earlier this month for the Calgary Police Service at the invitation of Staff Sergeant Chris Butler, who serves as the agency’s Use of Force Review Officer, and Staff Sergeant Darren Leggatt, who oversees the CPS Training Section. Both are Certified Force Science Analysts.

The classes, one of which Force Science News attended, taught CPS investigators the key components of what’s called the Cognitive Interview Process, a technique Geiselman and his colleague Dr. Ron Fisher designed and one that’s spotlighted during Force Science Certification Courses.

“After first learning about the Cognitive Interview during Dr. Geiselman’s block of instruction in the Certification Course, both Darren and I knew that we had to takes steps to bring this information to the Calgary Police Service,” Butler told FS News. “With recent significant legal issues arising in Canada from other interviewing techniques, we felt it was important to steer clear of techniques that tend to be inconsistent, confrontational and increasingly controversial, and to begin to following a science-based methodology that better lends itself to thoroughly ‘mining’ a cooperative witness’s memory.”

One tip Geiselman shared with investigators during his course is to actually practice not interrupting. “This is harder than it seems,” he said. “Staying quiet and listening, particularly in a situation where you have a certain amount of understanding of the issue being discussed and you’re on a mission to get a specific amount and type of information, is a learned skill. It’s not easy to do.”

“When you’re practicing,” he continued, “keep in mind that verbal intervening isn’t the only way to interrupt. Your body language can interrupt as well. If your lips are starting to quiver, your hands are coming up and you absolutely look like you’ve got something to say and can barely contain yourself from blurting something out, you’ve interrupted without saying a word.”

Here are a number of additional tips related to the Cognitive Method for interviewing cooperative witnesses Dr. Geiselman shared:

1. Don’t let a printed form dictate how you conduct your interview.

“Sequential interview forms can be destructive if used as the guiding force for an interview,” said Geiselman. “I’ve watched investigators get so wrapped up in the idea of filling out a form in order that they’ll literally put their hand up to stop a witness from giving them what turns out to be very valuable information. They’ll say, ‘OK, that’s great. But hold off on that thought for a while. We’ll get back to it. First, let’s get a description of the suspect. What color was his hair?’

“When a witness’s memories are flowing, let them flow. You can use the interview form as a checklist at the end to make sure you’ve covered everything.”

2. Be general at first and create a running strategy for getting more information later.

Instead of initially asking specific questions, which can limit the scope and depth of the witness’s response and inhibit recall, consider being more generic in your approach. If you’re asking for a person’s description for example, use a phrase like, “Tell me about him,” instead of, “What color was his hair?” This broad approach allows the witness to recall details at their own pace and in the sequence that’s best for them. Maybe hair color didn’t have a big impact on them, but a birthmark did. If they’re allowed to approach the description from their own “angle” their recall can be considerably enhanced.

This is especially true when asking for an overall recollection of the event. A key component of a successful Cognitive Interview is the investigator’s approach to getting this information. The CI is based on a “narrative” approach; a witness’s self-directed recalling of the details associated with an event in the depth and sequence that comes naturally to them. This approach, which is discussed in detail in Force Science Certification Courses, is conducive to more thorough recall and is less apt to slide into guided questions or a type or sequencing of questions that limits the scope and depth of the witness’s responses.

In virtually every instance, more information will need to be gathered at the completion of the narrative. To avoid interrupting the witness’s thought flow which, as mentioned earlier, can crush a good interview, it’s important for investigators to be versed at creating a strategy for gathering that information later. A few thoughts on that:

  • Get used to jotting down key words that will help remind you to ask more detailed questions about a certain part of the narrative later. The better you are at taking quick notes in a “code” that effectively reminds you of questions you want to ask later, the better. The ideal situation is to have your witness moving freely through the narrative. If you’re not able to keep up, you’ll be forced to intervene long enough for you to catch up with your notes, which isn’t good. One student in the class commented, “My mind can move at 100 mph, my mouth can move at 90 mph but my pen can only move at 50 mph.” Practice quick and effective note taking.
  • Sequence your follow-up questions by order of importance. If a witness’s narrative goes on for quite some time, they’ll likely be tired when they’re done. Make sure you get the most important questions asked first to maximize the functional time you have left with the witness. If you leave the more important questions until later, you might find yourself coming up short because of witness fatigue.

3. Think creatively, don’t misinterpret what’s being said and don’t make assumptions.

Geiselman used a couple of effective examples of this. One came from an old Andy Griffith show during which Barney Fife “interviewed” 8-year-old Opie about a mysterious new friend he claimed to have met named Mr. McBeevee.

As Barney walked the boy through a description of the man, he explained that Mr. McBeevee climbed poles, wore a bright silver hat, could blow smoke out of his ears and wore a belt with “12 hands” hanging from it. Barney, applying his own logic, decided that this description was ridiculous and made an assumption that the man was simply the creation of a child’s imagination.

In fact Mr. McBeevee did exist and Opie was giving an accurate and honest description. It turns out he worked on power lines. When Opie met him, he was wearing a bright silver safety helmet while he climbed poles to get to the lines. The 12 “hands” he referred to were tools he hung from his utility belt and his ability to “blow smoke out of his ears” was simply a parlor trick the man showed Opie to make him laugh. He blew a puff of cigarette smoke into a cupped hand, moved the hand up to his ear and burst it open such that the cloud appeared to come straight out of his ear.

Had there been a serious need to get information on Mr. McBeevee, Barney’s misinterpretation of the information he was receiving and his dangerous assumptions would certainly have been damaging to the case.

A real-world example Geiselman shared involved an abuse victim who claimed she had been violated with a baseball bat during an attack. The investigator saw absolutely no forensic evidence that would support such a claim. To his thinking, the use of a bat in this crime would have left telltale signs, so he disregarded the claim as being completely baseless and the by-product of the victim’s extreme stress and emotional trauma.

However, when all the details of the incident were revealed using the CI, it was found that the criminal had in fact used a bat during his assault, just as the victim claimed. It turned out to be a small souvenir-sized bat, not the full-sized league bat the investigator assumed the victim was describing.

4. Remember there’s tremendous value in a pre-interview discussion.

“Witnesses who are about to be interviewed are usually anxious,” Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, told Force Science News. “They’re about to go through a process they most likely know nothing about and have never experienced before. They’re facing the unknown, which can make anyone nervous. This anxiety can be a serious detriment to a successful interview.”

“One of the best ways to relax a witness and more quickly and effectively remove emotional barriers to a free-flowing discussion is to let them know exactly what they can expect,” said Geiselman. “This is both comforting and empowering, which ultimately leads to better interview results.”

Here are a few ground rules you should cover during your pre-interview discussion with a cooperative witness:

  • You’ve got plenty of time. There’s no hurry and there’s no pressure. You simply want them to do their best to recall as much as they can as accurately as they can. Whatever it takes for them to do that is fair game. They can close their eyes, walk around, stare at the floor, whatever.

One woman Geiselman worked with claimed that the only thing that could relax her enough to get the interview rolling was a McDonalds Filet-O-Fish sandwich, believe it or not. “She wasn’t kidding,” he said. “For some reason, the taste and smell of that sandwich really relaxed her, so barring any good reason not to go grab one, we drove down the street, picked up a Filet-O-Fish and we were off to the races.”

  • You know this isn’t easy. It’s going to involve hard work and dedication and you appreciate that effort.
  • Nothing is trivial. Be sure they understand that you want them to tell you anything and everything, even if they think it’s a completely meaningless point. “This serves two purposes,” said Geiselman. “First, it helps avoid having the witnesses decide what information is useful to your investigation and what isn’t. You don’t want that to happen. That’s your job.

“Second, the recollection of seemingly trivial things, like a wall color or a fleeting sound in the background, can serve as memory triggers for the witness that can facilitate deeper recall. Let them know that nothing they remember is useless.”

  • You want to be interrupted and corrected. If you happen to be talking and a thought surfaces in the witness’s mind, tell them that stopping you is not only OK, it’s very strongly encouraged.

Along those lines, if they hear you saying anything that’s inaccurate or incomplete, they should absolutely correct you…immediately. Make it clear to them that this is crucial. Remind them that there are no “manners” here and there’s no need for them to look to you for permission to speak, interrupt or otherwise intervene. They should feel that they’re in control of the discussion (in fact, you’re in control, of course, but they should not feel guided or inhibited) and it should be made clear that you understand that they were there, not you, and that they play the key role in getting to the information that’s needed to solve this case, not you.

  • Remind them that you only want the truth. If they don’t remember something, let them know that it’s OK and crucial for them to admit that. You want them to work hard at remembering things, but you DON’T want them to make anything up. If they don’t know, they don’t know. Period.

“It’s also important to build rapport during this pre-inteview period,” Geiselman explained. “I’ve seen investigators approach a witness, ask for their name and jump right into questioning. This kind of abrupt start is not conducive to a free-flow of information. Instead, it sets the tone for a quick, ‘just the facts, let’s get down to business’ experience that can be intimidating.”

Geiselman’s strategy is to come to an interview armed with a set of broad questions that inevitably spark some kind of non-event related discussion. “I’ll ask them where they went to school, what their hobbies are, whether they have any pets, that kind of thing. Without fail, I’ll find something we’ll have in common or something we can talk about in a relaxed fashion and the process of building a non-threatening, friendly relationship begins. This is crucial. You want that witness to like you and to feel comfortable with you.”

Geiselman reminded the class that sustaining rapport is just as important as building it. “One way to sustain a high level of rapport,” he suggests, “is to demonstrate the fact that you’re actually listening to everything they’re saying and that you’re sincerely interested in what they have to say. A great way to prove this is to make note of unique terms or phrases they use and mirror them yourself when asking additional questions about the incident.”

Something to avoid when interviewing victims, Geiselman cautioned, is saying, “I know how you feel,” unless you have discussed being in a similar situation yourself. “This will chip away, if not completely destroy your rapport and credibility,” he says. “Victims have experienced something that they feel is unique and anyone who claims to know what they’re going through but hasn’t actually experienced their trauma, is not only trivializing their suffering but lying to them.”

5. Thank witnesses for their hard work, but never thank them for their answer.

“To reward someone for their ability to recall a certain detail by saying something like, ‘That’s great that you remembered that!’ sets you up for getting answers when they may not really exist. It’s the witness’s hard work and effort during the interview that should be rewarded and acknowledged, not the amount of information they can provide to you. This is particularly important to remember when dealing with children or people with low IQs who might fall into the trap of giving you made up answers just for the praise.”

6. If someone can’t recall something, don’t say, “It doesn’t matter…”

Instead, say “That’s OK. We’ll get back to that.” Don’t place value on certain pieces of information and completely disregard others. This will undercut your efforts to convince the witness that no piece of information is trivial.”

7. A tip for understanding recall difficulties.

Want to know how difficult it can be to recall something? Try stopping what you’re doing right now and, without looking, accurately draw a penny.

“You’ve seen pennies countless times throughout your life, but how often have you actually paid close attention to the details?” Geiselman asked the class. “Imagine being interviewed about a penny’s appearance and after having a difficult time thoroughly and accurately sharing that information, you’re challenged by an investigator who says he finds it hard to believe that you can’t give him all the information he wants given the fact that you’ve seen a penny so many times in your life.

“To his thinking, you should be a penny expert! In reality, you’re experiencing the same type of difficulty in recall witnesses can experience. It’s important for investigators to keep that in mind.”

8. Pause after answers.

Geiselman recommends a four-second pause, which is long enough to allow the witness to inject more information after the answer is supposedly complete, but not so long that it’s uncomfortable (which, incidentally, is an effective technique to use when interviewing suspects who claim not to have answers to your questions). In addition to potentially eliciting more details, this strategically timed pause sets a slower pace of questioning, which helps avoid having a witness fall into a rhythm of short, quick answers.

9. End the interview well.

A poll found that the number one complaint cooperative witnesses, particularly victims, had after being interviewed was that the investigator didn’t really seem to care about them. “The unfortunate impression these interview subjects were left with was that they were seen not as a human beings with feelings, but nameless, faceless sources of information,” said Geiselman. “I’ve actually watched investigators get up and abruptly exit the interview room immediately after they were done with their questioning without saying a word to the witness, who’s literally left sitting there unsure of what to do, where to go or what’s next.”

Geiselman explained that there are two key reasons why investigators should be sure to end an interview politely. “First, it’s good for the witness, particularly a victim. It’s likely they’ve experienced a traumatic event and they’ve obviously just had to relive it with you. This is tough but, if handled correctly, can be therapeutic. If you can make them feel good about what they’ve just done and you can end on a grateful, positive note, you’re helping with that witness’s recovery process. There’s no reason not to do that if you can.”

“Second, a well ended interview leaves the door open to future contact. You want that witness to feel completely comfortable reaching out to you if they remember anything else about the incident after they leave. If you end things on a sour note, you can be pretty sure that witness is just going to be glad they don’t have to deal with you again.”

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