OIS Survivors Gain Unexpected “Therapeutic” Rewards From Skilled Investigative Interviews

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Researchers are beginning to realize that there’s an unexpected benefit when investigators conduct skillful interviews of officers who’ve survived shootings and other life-threatening encounters.

In addition to eliciting more and better information, good questioning techniques tend to ease the emotional after-burn that many officers experience in the wake of traumatic events and leave survivors with enhanced feelings of well-being, according to 2 behavioral scientists considered leading authorities on police interviewing.

In an article published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, psychology professors Dr. Ronald Fisher of Florida International University and Dr. Edward Geiselman of UCLA describe how civilian crime victims and witnesses can experience significant “therapeutic” results when questioned by investigators who understand the true workings of human memory.

Likewise, a similar approach in taking statements from LEOs who have been involved in major force events can promote officers’ “psychological health” and “aid in their emotional recovery,” while soliciting a maximum amount of investigative information, Geiselman told Force Science News.

Among other things, interviews that follow scientifically based guidelines can, as a welcome side benefit, potentially “reduce officers’ anxiety levels, help restore their sense of control, improve their assessment of their performance in explaining their actions, and promote a general sense of self-worth and well-being,” says Geiselman, a faculty member of the Force Science Institute’s week-long certification course in Force Science Analysis.

He and Fisher are the pioneers of “cognitive interviewing,” a method for mining the memories of cooperative subjects that has proven far more effective than the traditional police-questioning approach. It is described in detail in their International Journal article, available in full, free of charge. Click here to read it.

In interviewing OIS survivors, as well as crime victims and cooperative witnesses, investigators too often embrace the questioning style commonly used to interrogate criminal suspects, Geiselman laments. As the Journal article explains, this involves the interviewer doing “most of the talking (in the form of asking questions)”; favoring very specific, short-answer inquiries; discouraging the interviewee “from providing information unrelated” to the narrow questions; “often adhering to a pre-determined written checklist of questions”; frequently interrupting “to ask follow-up questions,” and so on.

This is an “unsalutary” and “dysfunctional” strategy for questioning cooperative non-suspects that actually reduces the amount of information gathered and increases inaccurate responses, Fisher and Geiselman write. In addition, this approach may exacerbate psychological wounds left by the incident itself by making subjects feel depersonalized, frustrated, inadequate, defensive, subservient, and unfulfilled in terms of fully recounting their critical experience.

In contrast to that standard “poor” interviewing protocol, current “best practices” for interviews that require detailed memory retrieval call for an approach that encourages the subject to do most of the talking in a broad, narrative style, supported by careful rapport building, open questions, few interruptions, the full revisiting of emotions and sensory perceptions, and limited use of specific inquiries to fill in gaps. [The Journal report describes each of these key elements in greater detail. Also see FSN Transmission #169, sent 2/28/11, “New position paper links cognitive interviewing to ‘fair, objective’ OIS investigations.”]

Field experience and laboratory tests have confirmed that this approach on average produces over one-third more information than conventional interviewing and increases the accuracy rate by 25% to 40%, Fisher and Geiselman claim.

And, the researchers note, a growing—and unexpected—body of anecdotal evidence suggests that the use of more productive interviewing techniques leaves subjects psychologically strengthened rather than further damaged by their encounters with investigators.

Here are some of the reasons why, according to the Fisher-Geiselman article and a supplementary conversation with Geiselman. All these factors help to counter the feelings of loss of control, inadequacy, and outrage often associated with the critical incident under investigation, as well as the anxiety generated by the investigative process itself.

  • Cognizant that subjects are commonly anxious about what is expected of them and how the process will progress, skilled investigators take time to build “meaningful, personal rapport,” to develop a “sense of teamwork” for the memory mining ahead, to “preview” the structure and ground rules of the interview, and to encourage subjects to ask questions about what will take place. This “foreshadowing” helps reduce anxiety because it reduces uncertainty, Fisher and Geiselman observe. It also gives the subject the sense that “they have an ally in what they have gone through.”
  • Officers, like civilian crime victims, often report that in conventional investigative interviews “they feel like suspects when they are asked a string of very specific, closed questions at the outset of the interview,” the researchers report. But when they are encouraged to give an open-ended narration, “they feel as if the interviewer trusts them.” That contributes to the subject’s personal “perception of dignity and respect.”
  • “Anyone who has been targeted by a predator is almost obsessively concerned with getting their story understood,” Geiselman says. The opportunity to speak without interruption and without having to conform to an imposed structure from the interviewer contributes mightily to a feeling of “being heard.” This is “an important component of maintaining or restoring self-esteem and self-worth.”
  • “By allowing [them] to talk more, and especially in the form of a narration,” open-ended questioning conveys to involved subjects more of a sense of control over the interview and over the telling of their story, Fisher and Geiselman write. By relating what happened at their own pace and in the sequence in which they’re able to access their memories, at least during the initial phases of the interview, interviewees feel “less manipulated and less coerced.”
  • Interviewees “can almost always provide some information in response to open-ended questions,” Fisher and Geiselman write, “so they experience some degree of success,” compared to experiencing “memory failure frequently” by being unable to answer some specific questions in a conventional interview. Having “greater success and less failure” tends to increase a personal sense of effectiveness.
  • The overall greater recall that generally results from cognitive interviewing contributes to “better psychological functioning,” the researchers say. “[E]xtensive recall in itself is a sign” that an interviewee has mastered the event, because recalling a traumatic experience in depth allows subjects “to conclude that they can control the event rather than being controlled by the event.”
  • Because of the way subjects are invited to access memories during a cognitive interview (closing their eyes, revisiting the indicent with all their senses, recalling emotions, etc.), they tend to concentrate more intensely than they would in a conventional Q & A exchange. This heightened attentional focus results in their feeling “more relaxed” and “confers a greater sense of control and mastery when thinking about the critical event.”

In summary, an interview that’s done well not only is likely to promote better recollection but will also contribute to the interviewee’s psychological health, Fisher and Geiselman maintain.

“Cognitive interviewing was not developed for therapeutic purposes,” Geiselman says. “The core intent has always been to aid investigators by enhancing memory in order to elicit extensive, accurate information. But if psychological benefits ensue for the subject involved without compromising the investigative function, that only strengthens the argument in favor of this approach.”

Because researchers have “only recently” thought of skilled interviewing as a means to “promote psychological well-being,” more research is necessary to document the exact benefits and to identify which aspects of interviewing they are specifically linked to, Geiselman says.

He and Fisher recommend that future work should begin with laboratory tests, followed by field investigations, to measure both short- and long-term indicators of psychological well-being, as well as “attitudes toward the interview process and the interviewer.” Findings would be helpful in further refining interview best practices, they predict.

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