Are the Police Asking the Right Questions?
In highly emotive or highly aroused situations the memory is susceptible to inaccuracies, it is established that witness memory is vulnerable to suggestion, regardless of where the suggestion or interference comes from.
In these situations the police are trained to ask the right type of questions to minimise any impact on the crime scene memory.
Specifically police are trained to use open-ended questions, also known in psychology as cognitive interviewing to best guard against contamination.
Research recently published aimed to examine if officers follow this protocol correctly:
we anticipated that officers’ intuition (personal beliefs) regarding eyewitness memory reliability may take precedence over training
The research team from Georgia State University, Atlanta asked 203 police officers to complete a short questionnaire that posed a hypothetical crime scene and then posed questions about how officers would respond to the situation.
The study was able to identify that not all officers were asking the right type of questions:
The current study demonstrates that not all officers adhere to the tenets of the CI with aroused witnesses
While the officers intentions were good it is likely the would contaminate the eye-witness evidence:
Officers who believe aroused witnesses are accurate were likely to employ a direct questioning style, thus guiding the witness, rather than letting the witness freely recall the information
The study concluded by highlighting the importance of correct questioning in aroused witnesses:
The authors suggest that open-ended questioning is especially important for aroused witnesses, as it should guard against planting of information into memory when it is highly suggestible because of arousal.
However, our study finds that about 1/3 of the officers believed arousal was not harmful to memory and only 1/3 believed that arousal hurt memory; a relatively low portion of officers’ beliefs align with their training.
Overall findings suggest that police officers’ beliefs about the memory accuracy of aroused witnesses influence the type of questioning techniques used.