Three leading investigative interviewing experts debate the
complexities of remote
interviews in the current pandemic
To remotely interview or not - that is the question: Considering the safety, health and well-being of witnesses, victims and interviewers by Professor Becky Milne, Centre of Forensic Interviewing, University of Portsmouth; Professor Coral Dando, Criminal, Investigative & Forensic Research Group, University of Westminster and Dr Kevin Smith, National Crime Agency.
The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown is forcing everyone to seek novel and often virtual or remote solutions for dealing with day-to-day interactions that would normally be face-to-face. Social distancing rules are particularly challenging for police and the criminal justice system in general, where face-to-face interactions are a daily occurrence. The COVID-19 lockdown has been ferocious and quick.
As a consequence, national best practice guidance on how best to replace traditional face-to-face interactions, such as in
interviews with witnesses and victims of crime, has had to be drawn up quickly, but with reference to the relevant research
evidence base. In the meantime, police have little choice but to continue to investigate crime, which necessarily includes
gathering information from vulnerable individuals. Even when lockdown begins to lift, it appears that social distancing will be
part of everyday life for some considerable time and so these challenges will not disappear.
One potential solution that has arisen is the Remote Interviewing (RI) of witnesses and victims. It has been widely reported that
some types of crime have increased during the lockdown such as domestic abuse, assaults, and child abuse, all of which require
immediate action. Hence, the obvious question that arises in a locked down society is whether the RI of the witnesses and
victims of crimes such as these is a good idea, or indeed, whether RI is ever appropriate for witnesses and victims.
In deciding whether to conduct RIs, there are a series of challenges that must be considered, include the following. First, many
victims and witnesses of crime such as domestic and child abuse, for example, are likely to have had a traumatic experience and
in addition are all too often some of the most vulnerable in society. Second, it is also the case that witnesses and victims whose
experiences might not seem to be traumatic nor anything other than straightforward, can invoke a trauma response during an interview. Third, is there an evidence-base for conducting RIs. That is, does there exist a literature to support police to best understand how to conduct RIs, and in what circumstances RIs might be more or less appropriate, and whether the benefits outweigh the potential risks.
Traumatised and vulnerable witnesses and victims are very likely to need additional support during the interview itself, and because encoding of traumatic events is typically impoverished, may need to be interviewed on more than one occasion. For example, they might dissociate during an interview. Some may have (undiagnosed) poor mental health and as a result may unexpectedly behave erratically and unpredictably.
Children typically need to be encouraged to focus on the task at hand. Witnesses and victims with learning disabilities and autism might struggle to manage the social context, which in turn can impact upon their memory performance. Not all disabilities or vulnerabilities are immediately visible or diagnosed, and many choose not to reveal non-obvious disabilities. Providing remote support in any or all of these circumstances is likely to be extremely challenging for interviewers, witnesses and victims, alike.
By their very nature, RIs will automatically exclude many of the most vulnerable witnesses and victims. For example, people who do
not have access to the relevant technology or do not feel confident in using technology. Witnesses and victims who do not have the
luxury of being able to move to an unoccupied room will also be excluded, likewise where there are co-witnesses in small premises
a RI is unsuitable. Co-witnesses can ‘infect’ each other’s memory and collaborative recall can have a detrimental effect because this
can bring about memory conformity (Jack et al., 2014; Nash & Ost, 2016; Zawadzka et al., 2016), all factors which may be seized
upon during a criminal trial.
The psychological evidence-base and the current National Best Practice guidelines are clear (NPCC, 2020) regarding i) the timing of
an interview and ii) the interview process itself. Both can have a significant impact, not only on witness memory performance but also
on the psychological well-being of witnesses/victims, both during and after the interview (Smith & Milne, 2018). Concerning the timing
of an interview, it is certainly important that an account be taken from a witness as soon as possible.
But it is equally as important that this account be of high quality, using open-ended questions. A significant body of research
(e.g. Dando et al., 2020; Gabbert et al., 2012) indicates that a good quality initial account helps to preserve a memory trace and
helps to inoculate from post-event contamination from external sources. Conversely, at best, a poor-quality initial account is unlikely
to have a beneficial effect on the amount of information obtained; at worst poor questioning can contaminate memory and can
potentially negatively impact upon the health and well-being of the witness/victim (e.g. Masden & Holmberg, 2015; Langballe & Schultz,
Nevertheless, the memorial benefits of immediacy have to be balanced with the effects of the process of a RI on a witness’s immediate and long-term health and well-being and the impact on the interviewer where a trauma response occurs, for example. Developing and maintaining rapport is well documented as being crucial to a successful investigative interview (e.g., Abbe & Brandon, 2014; Alison, et al., 2013; Dando et al., 2019; Nahouli et al., 2020; Walsh & Bull, 2010). Irrespective of age, circumstances, type of crime experience, or delay in being interviewed, formal questioning can be stressful and sometimes traumatic.
Psychological research (e.g. Risan et al, 2016, 2017, 2020) suggests that one of the best ways of managing trauma is through rapport and there is currently little understanding of whether remotely, rapport can be built effectively and maintained adequately.
There could be grave ramifications for RI someone who is recounting a traumatic experience in a place that they
would usually regard as a safe haven (e.g., their home). The literature suggests that those who get upset and
distressed while recounting a traumatic experience can come to associate the trauma with the place in which it
was recalled (see Brewin, 2016; Nursey, & Phelps, 2016). If that happens to be a room in their home (e.g. living
room, bedroom) they may no longer feel safe at home, which could have profound and long-term consequences
for psychological wellbeing at home.
This is not to say that RI should never be done. A RI seems feasible in certain cases, just as long as a full risk
assessment prior to a RI is conducted. Such an assessment should consider (not an exclusive list):
(i) trauma levels, (ii) any additional support required within the interview, (iii) situational factors
(e.g. interviewee location), and (iii) support networks.
That said, even where a risk assessment has taken place it can be impossible to predict who may unexpectedly
experience trauma and stress during questioning even when recalling a seemingly minor event. If interviews
proceed in the absence of a clear understanding of the needs of witnesses and victims then memory may be
impoverished or error prone whereas with appropriate support this might be avoided. Any on-line interactions
should be visually/audio recorded, to ensure that there is a record of the legitimacy and integrity of the process.
The main aim of this article is to highlight the many complexities of remote interviewing. The risks of a blanket policy or ad hoc introduction of RI that does not consider individual and situational need may significantly outweigh any potential benefits. For further practical information, please see the National II Steering Group Policy (2020) - Interviews with Victims and Witnesses During the Covid-19 Pandemic.
Abbe, A., & Brandon, S. E. (2014). Building and maintaining rapport in investigative interviews. Police Practice and Research, 15, 207-220.
Alison, L. J., Alison, E., Noone, G., Elntib, S., & Christiansen, P. (2013). Why tough tactics fail and rapport gets results: Observing Rapport-Based Interpersonal Techniques (ORBIT) to generate useful information from terrorists. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 19, 411-431.
Brewin, C. R. (2018). Memory and forgetting. Current psychiatry reports, 20(10), 87.
Dando, C. J., Gabbert, F., & Hope, L. (2020). Supporting older eyewitnesses’ episodic memory: The Self-Administered Interview and Sketch Reinstatement of Context. Memory. 10.1080/09658211.2020.1757718
Dando, C. J., Taylor, D., & Smyth, N. (2019). Actions speak louder than words: Rapport building, stress and episodic memory in forensic interviews. Paper presented at the European Association of Psychology and Law, July 17-20th. Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Gabbert, F., Hope, L., Fisher, R.P., & Jamieson, K. (2012). Protecting against misleading post-event information with a Self-Administered Interview, Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26, 568-575.
Jack, F., Zydervelt, S., and Zajac, R. (2013). Are co-witnesses special? Comparing the influence of co-witness and interviewer misinformation on eyewitness reports. Memory, 22, 243-255.
Langballe, Å., & Schultz, J.-H. (2017). ‘I couldn’t tell such things to others’: trauma-exposed youth and the investigative interview. Police Practice and Research, 18(1), 62-74. doi:10.1080/15614263.2016.1229185
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Nahouli, Z., Mackenzie, J., Aresti, A., & Dando, C. J., (2020). Actions ‘Speak’ Louder Than Words: Effects of Rapport-Building Techniques During Witness Interviews. Paper submitted for publication.
Nash, R. A., and Ost, J. (2016). False and distorted memories. Psychology Press.
Nursey, J., & Phelps, A. J. (2016). Stress, Trauma, and Memory in PTSD. In Stress: Concepts, Cognition, Emotion, and Behavior (pp. 169-176). Academic Press.
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Risan, P., Binder, P.-E., & Milne, R. (2017). Establishing and maintaining rapport in investigative interviews of traumatized victims: A qualitative study. Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, 12(2), 372-387.
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Walsh, D., & Bull, R. (2010). What really is effective in interviews with suspects? A study comparing interviewing skills against interviewing outcomes. Legal and criminological psychology, 15(2), 305-321.
Zawadzka, K., Krogulska, A., Button, R., Higham, P. A., & Hanczakowski, M. (2016). Memory, metamemory, and social cues: Between conformity and resistance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145, 181–199.
Prof Rebecca Milne
Becky Milne is a Professor of Forensic Psychology at the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies at the University of Portsmouth. The focus of her work over the past twenty years concerns the examination of police interviewing and investigation. She is the founder and Director of the Centre of Forensic Interviewing, which is an internationally recognised centre of excellence for investigative interviewing which brings together research, teaching, and innovation activities. She also sits on the National Strategic Steering Group for Investigative Interviewing.
Prof. Coral Dando
Coral is a Professor of Forensic Psychology at the University of Westminster, and Chair of the Westminster Criminal Investigative and Forensic Research Group. Her research is centred on long term memory in investigative interviews, and how context and the presence of other people can impact on memory performance and interview outcomes. She is Chair of the British Psychological Society Memory and Law Task Group.
Dr. Kevin Smith
Kevin retired from the Metropolitan Police Service in London after 30 years’ service in June 2008. He currently works in Major Crime Investigative Support at the National Crime Agency as the National Vulnerable Witness Adviser and is regularly deployed operationally throughout the UK to develop victim and witness interview strategies and plans for complex investigations. He also sits on the National Strategic Steering Group for Investigative Interviewing.
Dr Kev Smith
Prof. Coral Dando
Prof. Rebecca Milne