Critical Incident Interviews: Is the 48-Hour Delay Still Good Advice?

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Following a high-intensity event, should officers be allowed to recover before being interviewed?

In 2014, Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, sat down with Force Science News1 to explain why he recommends a 48-hour minimum recovery period: “This is the general conclusion from some 20 years of scientific research on sleep and memory consolidation. And it is the position supported by the Police Psychological Services Section of the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police, ….”2

But is the 48-hour minimum recovery still good advice?

Critics argue that delayed interviews are unnecessary, and that transparency and police accountability demand immediate interviews of those involved.

Dr. Lewinski disagrees: “A robust body of literature and the clinical experience of psychological and criminal justice professionals informs us that survivors of traumatic events can have difficulty recounting many of the elements of the incident.” 

Dr. Lewinski explains: “Survivors of traumatic events aren’t just witnessing the event; they are experiencing it, and this experience can significantly affect brain function and memory.”

“Although every shooting is unique, confronting someone you believe is trying to kill you can be a significant emotional event. During these events, survivors may not consciously choose what to pay attention to. Instead, they tend to focus on the elements of the incident that were most important to their survival rather than the elements that may be important for investigation and prosecution.”

Dr. Lewinski continues: “The best investigators recognize the relationship between emotions, attention, and perception. They understand how these processes can affect encoding, consolidation, and, ultimately, memory. Even subtle factors can significantly influence memory storage. For example, the order in which we ask questions can inadvertently attach significance to that information. When someone has been involved in an emotional event, the first questions asked may be perceived as more significant, which impacts how that information is encoded and stored.” 

Dr. Lewinski is impressed by advances in law enforcement investigative practices: “Law Enforcement has developed some sophisticated and clinically relevant procedures for mining the memory of someone involved in an emotionally distressing incident. As part of these protocols, delayed interviews do more than just take advantage of the consolidated memory that occurs during sleep, these delays provide temporal distance from the traumatic event and an opportunity for emotional decompression.”

Dr. Lewinski explains: “Beyond the exertion and adrenaline surge that may have occurred during an event, law enforcement is a chronically sleep deprived profession.  These factors can interfere with memory consolidation and the accuracy of recall and response. Delay permits physical recovery and rest. It allows officers to return to the interview with increased cognitive clarity—resulting in a clearer understanding of the questions posed and the most complete and accurate responses.”

Dr. Lewinski warns that rushing interviews can jeopardize more than just the investigation: “Interviewing someone who has been traumatized before they’ve had a chance to decompress not only affects the quality of memories but can actually create psychological injury and significantly increase the chance of a long-term traumatic disorder.”3

Despite the advances in science, there are those who continue to ignore the effect of stress and trauma on memory formation. Dr. Lewinski laments: “Some of the researchers on memory who are attempting to influence investigations, and even some administrators and investigators, treat an officer after a traumatic event as if they calmly memorized a grocery list. This approach presumes the officer merely witnessed the traumatic event and ignores the psychological and emotional effects of experiencing trauma. This is an overly simplistic and naïve approach to sleep, stress, and human memory.”

Dr. Lewinski and the Force Science Institute continue to advance and advocate for scientifically backed investigative practices. For insight into stress, sleep, and memory, they have turned to the research of Dr. Jessica Payne. Having earned a Ph.D. in Psychology/Cognitive Neuroscience from the University of Arizona, Dr. Payne now holds appointments at Harvard Medical School and the University of Notre Dame. She is an Associate Professor of Psychology and the Director of the Sleep, Stress, and Memory (SAM) Lab at Notre Dame. Dr. Payne teaches courses in Psychology and Neurobiology and has conducted extensive research on how sleep and stress influence memory, emotion, and performance. Dr. Lewinski and the Force Science Institute are excited to announce that Dr. Payne will be a featured speaker at the August 2020 Annual Force Science Conference.

Jessica Payne, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Psychology
Cognition, Brain, and Behavior Program; Clinical Program

Dr. Lewinski: “If the goal of police interviews is a search for the truth, we want our policies and practices to be backed by good science. The decision to interview an officer immediately after a critical incident or to allow a period of recovery should be based on whichever practice will result in the most accurate and complete information for that officer.” Dr. Lewinski continued: “If sleep and recovery will not only improve memory, but improve the health and performance of officers, we should be looking at that. Dr. Payne’s cutting-edge research focuses on what’s going on in our heads while we sleep and how this impacts our memory, health, and performance.”

Dr. Lewinski was quick to point out: “This may be the first-time law enforcement hears directly from one of the leading researchers on the consolidation and storage of emotional memory. Dr. Payne will share the results of her research into how sleep affects the brain—especially those parts involved in learning, processing information, and emotion. She will describe the powerful impact that stress and emotion have on our memory and performance and provide practical advice on how to effectively manage stress and sleep. This is exactly the kind of research criminal justice professionals need as they develop investigative protocols for critical incidents.”

To hear the latest research from Dr. Jessica Payne and other top researchers, reserve your seat now at the 2020 Annual Force Science Conference, August 25-27, Radisson Blu Mall of America, Bloomington, MN.

  1. Chuck Remsberg. “Force Science Institute Details Reasons For Delaying Interviews With OIS Survivors.” Force Science News, May 3, 2014, https://www.forcescience.org/2014/05/force-science-institute-details-reasons-for-delaying-interviews-with-ois-survivors/. Accessed 22 May 2020. []
  2. The IACP continues to recommend a 48-72-hour pre-interview delay. See, International Association of Chiefs of Police. 2016. Officer-Involved Shootings: A Guide for Law Enforcement Leaders. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. []
  3. See Hope, L., Blocksidge, D., Gabbert, F., Sauer, J. D., Lewinski, W., Mirashi, A., & Atuk, E. (2016). Memory and the operational witness: Police officer recall of firearms encounters as a function of active response role. Law and Human Behavior, 40(1), 23–35. https://doi.org/10.1037/lhb0000159, (detailing how officers who were interviewed immediately after a stressful simulation doubled their pulse when asked about the threatening elements of their incident during a follow up cognitive interview) (copies of the study can be obtained here); see also Chuck Remsberg. “New Findings About Simulation Training and The Stress of Post-Shooting Interviews.” Force Science News, December 15, 2006, https://www.forcescience.org/2006/12/new-findings-about-simulation-training-and-the-stress-of-post-shooting-interviews/. Accessed 26 May 2020. []
13 Responses
  1. Thank you for your continued efforts in educating the public and especially educating our top police administrators in the benefits of putting the brakes on during these investigations. After 36 years as a police officer, it sometimes seems like we’re turning a very large ship. Years ago, post-shooting interviews were so much more adversarial.
    Officers involved in deadly force encounters that are thrust into the dual role of victim and suspect will only benefit from your much needed work. Thank you for backing it up with science and being so thorough.

  2. Det. Jim Lenderts

    Great article and in Colorado we have used delayed interviews very successfully. We provide the officer and attorney with options and find some choose to delay while others don’t. One question we have been asked, and don’t have a good answer for, is “Why do you give officers sleep cycles when you don’t do that to civilian victims and witnesses who have just experienced a similar, or even the same, traumatic event?”

    1. Von Kliem

      Some agencies do provide the option for delayed interviews of victims and witnesses. Where an agency is concerned that a person may lose interest, incentive, or motivation to cooperate after a delay, they might decide to conduct the interview sooner – while the person is present and willing to cooperate.

  3. Ricci Coulter

    While I agree with what you say it would be hard to justify it in the UK. The fact that they do not apply this to homeowners involved in violent or fatal encounters with intruders. In a fatal case when someone breaks into their home and in the encounter with the homeowner is fatally injured. The home owner is arrested and if at night placed in a cell. He is then interviewed first thing in the morning. If you are correct should they also be allowed to decompress before speaking.
    Justify why a homeowner and a police officer should be treated differently

    1. Von Kliem

      A person’s status as a victim, witness, or suspect does not change the potential benefits of sleep and rest.

      However, if an agency is concerned that any person may lose interest, incentive, or motivation to cooperate after a delay, they might decide to conduct the interview sooner – while the person is present and willing to cooperate.

  4. Sgt Richard M. Aztlan (Retired) Chicago P.D.

    I have attended two courses with Dr. Lewinski, he is a great scientist and pioneer in helping to analyze events involving police and the Use of Force. However, we live in a time where the well-being of the Officer, is second to the political repercussions that a traumatic incident may produce. Earlier this week, we saw an example with the Floyd incident. Within 24 hours all 4 officers were fired! No Toxicology Report, or Autopsy. Rioting is now in progress. Yet, was the Officer trained to put pressure on the neck? Was pressure on the neck the cause of death? Several years ago a Black Somali Police Officer from that area shot a White woman to death, without provocation. Whites did not riot. So, ultimately concern for the well being of the Officer, is secondary to the concerns for politics and Race. That is the sad reality of American Policing today.


    1. Von Kliem

      Those are important conversations and I notice that police experts are being careful to distinguish tactics and judgment from the larger social justice issues that you’ve identified. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  5. matthew

    Maybe provide a link for that “robust body of literature”. I am not sure there is a great deal of evidence in the scientific community about the very logical statements that are being claimed here. Simply because something is rational and believable.. doesn’t make it based on evidenced-based research. Given the importance of Lewinski and sheer magnitude that the forcescience has on determining police force protocols (in contracts and training) there should be references upon references to trials and studies PROVING what is said here. A great deal of reference to basic surveys and anecdotal data is not science.

    This needs to be updated Now. Also — arguing that one thing is valued for the officer and another is valued for the civilian… Don’t forget the enormous amount of responsibility You — the Force Science think tanks — have on the deaths of a great many people. Also.. How has this “science center” not implored 18,000 precincts in the united states to start collecting data and collaborating on how to to make the safest environments possible – for both the police and the civilian population? There is a lot that needs to be explained.

  6. Thomas Siebenmark

    Great points. After my shooting, my Rep would not allow an interview until the following day, after I had had some sleep. I felt better equipped mentally the next day.

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