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Lights, camera, action – start your interview


February 13, 2015
By Gord and Wayne

by Wayne Vanderlaan and Gord MacKinnon

In a world where cameras and digital media are integral parts of mainstream living, it’s not surprising that public expectations about police and how they do their jobs have changed.

People not only want to hear about what happened, they want to see it and judge for themselves who acted reasonably and who didn’t. This has led to calls for more police car cameras, better surveillance video in police stations and, more recently, body cameras for individual officers. The movement towards more accountability through the use of technology shows few signs of slowing down and, if anything, we can expect greater scrutiny of police actions in the future.

This trend is also apparent in police interview rooms, where video of key interviews are released to the media in more and more high profile cases. Granted, cameras have been part of police interview practice for quite some time, but where once it was extremely rare to see an interview on the news, now it is a fairly regular occurrence. We are even seeing analysis and commentary on newscasts and entire investigative journalism programs dedicated to critiquing the techniques and methods employed to obtain the truth from suspects.

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The interviews of Russell Williams, Terri-Lynn McClintic and Michael Rafferty by OPP D/Sgt. Jim Smyth are all available on YouTube, almost in their entirety. The interviews were widely reported, with various pundits and commentators playing and analyzing segments and generally praising Smyth’s ability to elicit the truth. He used a low key, patient approach that was very non-confrontational.

A far different analysis was made in the case of Eric Morgan, who was charged by Peel Regional Police with murder. Officers were judged to have “aggressively” questioned eyewitnesses. The trial judge denounced police conduct, found that “almost all witnesses were inappropriately pressured,” and directed the jury to acquit Morgan.

The CTV News program looked at the Morgan case. A variety of “experts” analyzed and commented on the conduct of officers and a number of interview excerpts were shown where officers appeared to confront witnesses on their stories.

Regardless of whether they are right or wrong, the opinions formed by members of the public, judiciary, media, various activist groups or anyone else who takes an interest, will be greatly influenced by what is presented in a police interview. This is the new reality facing officers. They have to be aware not just of what they are saying, but how they are saying it and how it will look if and when it is shown on the evening news.

Officers need to be trained to interview in a manner that will present well in the media while still allowing the use of certain techniques that should increase the chances for a successful outcome. Confrontational methods of interviewing subjects can be exactly that – confrontational – and at times do not present very well when viewed through the camera lens.

Even though it is not illegal or abusive to confront a suspect unless officers go beyond what is reasonable, they can nevertheless appear to be “brow beating” or becoming aggressive with an interview subject. At times, it just doesn’t present well. This can lead to negative impressions being made when the interview is shown in the media or in court.

It is not surprising then that the trend today in interviewing is towards a more non-confrontational approach. Many courses center on a common mantra such as conversational management or non-confrontational, motivational or non-accusatory interviewing. Each technique has its own set of guidelines, procedures and steps but all have one thing in common: done properly, they present well on video and in court.

When using a non-accusatory approach, an officer will present evidence and facts that let the interview subject draw his or her own conclusions about the incident under investigation. It is this evidence that applies psychological pressure to tell the truth.

The officer remains a neutral observer who, although tasked with seeking the truth, should not allow personal doubts about a subject’s story to contaminate the conversation. Subtle persuasion can be employed, as well as making the subject explain themselves, without crossing the line into coercion. A subject is given the opportunity to tell the truth in a manner that is reasonable, patient and personable.

When you consider that a large part of the non-accusatory approach to interviewing involves building and maintaining rapport with your subject, it is easy to see why it scores well when analyzed by the media and general public The interview is conducted in a manner where the interviewer and their subject assist each other in arriving at the truth.

A good example of this rapport is found in what Russell Williams says when he is on the verge of confessing to the abduction and rape of Jessica Lloyd:

Williams: So how do we fix this?
Smyth: Well, we can start with some honesty.
Williams: (Long pause) Okay.
Smyth: Where is she?
Williams: Got a map?

Williams asks “How do we fix this?,” not “How do I fix this?” This is a subtle difference in language but a very good indication of how Williams was feeling about his relationship with Smyth at that time. The confession that followed likely led to Williams’ guilty plea and was a very successful outcome to a tragic and disturbing case.

We can see that successful interviews can be accomplished without the need to accuse the subject and spark a confrontation. Increased training in the use of non-confrontational and non-accusatory interviewing techniques would go a long way to solving some of the image problems police sometimes face in the media. This will lead to a better public perception of police techniques and may avoid future issues where courts rule statements inadmissible due to their overly oppressive nature.

We will present courses on the Non-Accusatory Interview Technique and the Detection of Deception April 28 and 29 at the Blue Line EXPO. Hope to see you there.


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