New Position Paper Links Cognitive Interviewing To “Fair, Objective” OIS Investigations

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An unusual collaboration between a former police psychologist, a senior deputy city attorney, and an internationally known researcher has resulted in a new position paper that strongly encourages agencies to use the special techniques of “cognitive interviewing” when taking statements from officers who survive shootings.

Interrogating officers in the same traditional manner as criminal suspects “is counterproductive” and does not accurately reflect the officers’ unique status, the report warns. Instead, “specialized procedures” are justified in post-shooting interviews to ensure that officers are “provided with fair, neutral, and objective investigations.”

Investigators “must be skilled in effectively mining the memory” of involved officers “in such a way as to maximize the ‘take’ ” from interviews in order to reconstruct a complete and accurate picture of a deadly encounter, the paper states.

Unfortunately however, the authors note, interview protocols in some jurisdictions “are less than ideal” for achieving this critical goal, even though the techniques for enhanced memory retrieval have been known to law enforcement for nearly 30 years.

“The position paper is short but emphatic in describing the need and benefits of cognitive interviewing,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute. “The authors’ statements are clear and strong, and they address issues that are seldom talked about, particularly the adversarial atmosphere that so often—and so unnecessarily—contaminates officer interviews and impedes the recovery of complete and accurate information.”

The paper, “A Good-Practice Approach to Officer-Involved Shooting Investigations,” can be accessed in full through CLICKING HERE.


The document was written by James Wilson, police legal advisor and senior deputy city attorney for Modesto, CA; Dr. Edward Geiselman, a psychology professor at UCLA; and Dr. Alexis Artwohl, formerly a clinical and police psychologist in the Pacific Northwest.

The 3 began discussing the benefits of cognitive interviewing at a recent certification class in Force Science Analysis where Wilson was a student and Geiselman and Artwohl were on the faculty. During a series of email communications afterward, they decided that a position paper that would combine their respective perspectives—Wilson as a litigator who handles the defense of police misconduct claims, Artwohl as a clinician, trainer, and frequent debriefer of critical incidents, and Geiselman as a memory researcher who pioneered the art of cognitive interviewing—might be uniquely persuasive to agencies that have not yet embraced these questioning techniques in OIS investigations.


Geiselman and a fellow behavioral scientist, Dr. Ron Fisher, developed cognitive interviewing techniques beginning in the mid-1980s and have since seen them accepted by a variety of progressive agencies, particularly for dealing with crime victims and civilian witnesses.

In contrast to the high-pressure, accusatory approach often taken with criminal suspects, investigators trained in cognitive interviewing rely heavily on rapport building and memory stimulation in a relaxed, collaborative atmosphere. They encourage free-flowing narratives by the interviewee, favor open-ended questions, minimize interruptions, and employ a variety of proven methods for tapping hard-to-surface memories.

As the position paper explains, this “systematic approach based on scientifically derived principles of memory and communication theory” has been found in a wealth of research studies “to produce significantly more information than standard police questioning.” And it is “legally acceptable to the courts.”

The problem, Geiselman recently told Force Science News, is that in conducting OIS investigations, agencies often approach surviving officers as if they are suspects. “Investigators often are adversarial,” he says, “assuming that the involved officer has something to hide until proven otherwise, focusing on finding evidence of negligence or wrongdoing, and shutting down responses that don’t fit their hypothesis of what happened.”

In the language of the position paper, involved officers commonly “approach OIS investigations with a degree of trepidation,” which is reinforced by this “toxic atmosphere.”


Rather than automatically receiving the suspect treatment, the paper argues, officers who survive shootings should be accorded some “specialized procedures” because their status is complex and unique in the criminal justice system. Simultaneously they are:

  1. Subjects who “could potentially face criminal indictment” if their actions are found not to be objectively reasonable, given the totality of circumstances;
  2. Employees who were “just doing their jobs” but now are involved in “internal investigations that can put their jobs on the line”;
  3. “Witnesses to crimes committed by suspects” who attempted to harm them and/or civilians;
  4. Victims of violent crimes or life-threatening actions; and
  5. At risk for “becoming embroiled in political controversy, …no matter how justified the use of force.”

It is “crucially important that use-of-force investigators be trained to recognize that officers who have been involved” in an OIS are “professionals who have been trained, equipped, and sent out onto the street to deal with ‘critical incidents’ on society’s behalf, and who have just witnessed and experienced such an incident” in discharging their duty, the authors emphasize.


The “good-practice” goal of any OIS investigation is to collect “all available data on exactly what constituted the ‘totality of the circumstances confronting the officer’ at the time the decision to use deadly force was made,” the position paper states. That includes obtaining “as complete and accurate an understanding of the involved officer’s perception of those circumstances as is possible.”

With cognitive interviewing skills, investigators are armed with “a toolbox of specific techniques” that will help them elicit information “as truly objective fact-gatherers,” the authors say.

Their paper itemizes key elements of the cognitive interviewing “template” that contrast with “standard police questioning routines.” Specifically:

  • Cognitive interviewing features a “rapport-development phase” before the involved officer offers his statement. At this time, everyone’s role is explained, the officer is encouraged to expend effort to remember events in as much detail as possible, and an atmosphere is established in which the officer is relaxed and reassured, committed to working with the interviewer as a team to elicit as much information as possible.
  • Solicitation of information is interviewee-centered rather than interviewer-centered. The involved officer does most of the talking, recounting in narrative form what he can remember without frequent interruptions, leading questions, or demands for short answers to narrowly limited questions. (Besides producing more complete and accurate data, the cognitive interviewing approach generally offers some “therapeutic” benefit to the officer because he feels “heard and understood,” Geiseilman told Force Science News.)
  • The interviewer employs “reliable memory-enhancement techniques” for maximum mining of the officer’s memory. After the officer presents as complete a narrative as he believes possible, for example, he may be asked to repeat his chronology in reverse, a device that almost always surfaces “forgotten” information.
  • Follow-up questions are carefully positioned so as not to be interruptive and in general favor open-ended phrasing; for example, “Tell me more about….”

In addition to establishing the facts of the shooting, it’s critical to use cognitive interviewing techniques to clarify the involved officer’s “state of mind” regarding threat assessment and force options as the incident evolved, the paper points out. Recreating the officer’s emotional status during the event can be a key element of the “totality of circumstances” that led to the deadly force decision.

The paper advises that not only should investigators be trained in cognitive interviewing but an agency’s officers should be thoroughly familiarized with the process and its techniques as well, including instruction in how to “provide a complete, accurate, and cogent account” explaining their force decisions.

Involved officers and their agencies “are forced to live with” statements provided to OIS investigators, the report reminds. Filling in the blanks later with additions and clarifications “can be problematic” and “viewed with suspicion” and may become “a major issue in civil litigation” arising from a shooting.

Consequently, it’s “best to maximize the information obtained in the initial, and perhaps only, interview that the involved officer may provide, and to accurately and completely memorialize it in the investigative report”—a job made infinitely easier with skillfully employed cognitive techniques.

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