Memorial University study says police lack basic interviewing skills

Two chairs.

One table.

The pursuit of truth.

When suspects are seated across the table, it’s in the best interest of police to properly and fairly conduct interviews, says the president of the Defence Counsel Association of Ottawa.

“The interview is one of the cornerstones of the criminal justice system,” said James Foord.

“I mean, it’s the most dramatic thing next to the trial, right? The confrontation of officer and accused; it’s pretty big stuff.”

Getting it right leads “to reliable, truthful results,” said Foord.

Canadian cops’ interviewing skills are lacklustre, according to a study led by psychologist Dr. Brent Snook from Memorial University of Newfoundland.

The study looked at 80 interview transcripts from a Canadian police service and found cops constantly interrupted suspects and had satisfactory listening skills.

“The things that he identified are problems that go directly to the heart of the reliability of any interview,” said Foord.

Frequently interjecting means “you’re giving the information, you’re not letting them think, you’re exhausting them and tiring them out,” said Foord.

“And eventually, the concern is that their will is overcome and they’re not going to get out of (the interview) which is oppressive, unless they adopt what is being said to them, and that’s the fear.”

But a false confession is the last thing cops want, said Ottawa police training unit Sgt. Brenda McGillvray.

“The interview is designed to illicit as much information as we can that we can either then verify or prove to be inaccurate,” said McGillvray.

“Sometimes it’s not at all what you think may have happened, and so you need to be open to the idea that you’re there to just gather information.”

The framework of interviewing suspects, witnesses, or victims centres around asking open-ended questions, said McGillvray.

“You don’t want to ask leading questions,” she said.

“Then it’s unclear as to whether I put the idea in that person’s head.”

Making a suspect feel comfortable is key, she said.

McGillvray agrees breaking someone’s train of thought can “shut down the subject. They may feel like they’re not being respected,” she said.

As far as initial training goes, recruits take a five-day course at the Ontario Police College, while those attending the Canadian Police College learn interviewing and interrogation techniques over 10 days, said McGillvray.

Children are very vulnerable to suggestion, so not just any police officer can interview a child, she said.

Officers entering investigative units such as fraud, sex assault, child abuse, and elder abuse receive in-depth, structured interview training.

“Have I looked at interviews Ottawa police have conducted that have been oppressive and unfair? Sure, but I’ve also seen good, skillful, fair interviews,” said Foord.

Nonetheless, “the information should come from the suspect, from the interviewee,” said Foord.

“Listen to what they have to say. Don’t just be contradicting them and interrupting them. Otherwise, you’re going to end up with unreliable information. And that’s been shown to be time and time again.”

Twitter: @ottawasunkroche

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