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What is Investigative Interviewing?

Investigative interviews with witnesses and respondents to allegations are a key strategy in any investigation. A well-conducted investigative interview offers investigators the best chance of advancing the investigation. Recognising investigative interviewing as a core skill for investigators/intelligence gatherers is paramount for a successful outcome to an investigation. However, the concept of investigative interviewing is poorly understood and its value as an investigative strategy is undervalued, underestimated, and often, poorly applied.

Central to all investigations

The central role of investigative interviewing as a key investigative strategy is predicated on a cardinal principle of our justice system, the “Orality of Evidence” – The idea that the primary form of proof in a trial, hearing or tribunal is the oral testimony of witnesses given before the Judge or examiner of fact. This process, it could be argued, starts in the early stages of an investigation, when interviews are conducted with witnesses and respondents to allegations of wrongdoing. During the interview process, the interviewee rehearses and consolidates their account of knowledge concerning “what happened”. The witness is required to access their memory and draw on their cognitive functions to provide information regarding the matter under investigation. The approach of the interviewer will influence the witness’ account and, ultimately, their testimony. The information garnered from witnesses is the foundation stone for investigative decision-making. The quality of the interviews impacts on the quality and outcome of the investigation. Ineffective or unprofessional interviews can have a serious and long-lasting impact on the well-being, reputation and prospects of individuals, organisations and, even economies.

A conversation with a purpose

An investigative interview can be considered a conversation, albeit a conversation with a purpose, between an investigator and an individual who may have information to offer the investigation. This conversation, aimed at achieving investigative objectives, involves a rapport-led relationship based on mutual respect, where spontaneous disclosure of information is facilitated.  The focus is on information gathering and it places the interviewee – victim, witness or respondent, at the centre of the process. Investigative interviewing promotes professionalism, fairness and impartiality. A well-conducted investigative interview is a mechanism to facilitate maximum disclosure by any interviewee in any investigative context. In this approach, topic generation and effective conversation management replaces formulaic questioning.

This contrasts with the more traditional approaches to interviewing which are often interviewer-led and approached as a question and answer session, where the interviewer poses a prepared set of questions. This approach does not represent a true information-gathering process, which is at the heart of investigative interviewing. Posing a set of prepared questions places the interviewer in control of the information that is revealed and is confirmatory in nature. Being prepared to pose specific questions during an interview with a respondent may be appropriate in some circumstances. For example, while invoking specific regulatory powers to demand information. However, it does not constitute an investigative interview, and generating a pre-prepared set of questions does not represent an interview plan.

Another, less than effective approach to interviewing witnesses or respondents adopted by some investigators involves a technique similar to the process of cross-examination more appropriate to a defence lawyer in a Court of Law or a Tribunal context. The one-way dialogue, or “legal-lay discourse” (Heffer, 2005), that results with such an approach can lead to frustration and bewilderment on the part of the witness who is trying to provide an account of what happened in the way that makes sense to them. The outcome is an interviewee who does not feel listened to and a failure to capture the wealth of detail he/she may possess.

Added Value

When investigative interviews are conducted effectively they add value to an investigation including:

  • Helping to determine the scope of the investigation
  • Providing vital background information to the incident and the people involved
  • Identifying potential evidential footprint
  • Maximising evidence-gathering opportunities
  • Allowing for credibility assessment of individuals
  • Identifying discrepancies in witnesses’ accounts
  • Establishing new lines of enquiry
  • Ensuring accountability
  • Identifying potential defences
  • Providing Foundation Testimony – background information on routines or automatically generated material
  • Identifying solutions and interventions

It takes higher-level interpersonal skills coupled with finely tuned investigative mind-set to conduct investigative interviews that add value to investigations and enquiries. Developing those skills requires quality, targeted training and continuous reflection on practice with feedback.