Police Witness Interview Training, Supervision, and Feedback: A Survey of Canadian Police Officers

Article excerpt

Two recent field studies on how Canadian police officers interview witnesses suggest that most interviewers are not employing best practices (Snook and Keating 2010; Wright and Alison 2004). Possible reasons for such a finding pertain to the fact that training being provided to officers on evidence-based practices is limited and there is a lack of sustained supervision and feedback for interviewers who are trained (see Clarke and Milne 2001; Lamb, Hershkowitz, Orbach, and Esplin 2008; Snook, Eastwood, Stinson, Tedeschini, and House 2010). However, these explanations for the observed inadequacies in interviewing practices remain speculative, as no research has explored the training or the supervision and feedback afforded Canadian officers. The purpose of the current study was to learn more about adult-witness interviewing practices in Canada by surveying Canadian police officers.

As mentioned, the results from two field studies of Canadian police officers suggest that empirically based interviewing practices are rarely being followed. Specifically, Wright and Alison's (2004) analysis of 19 adult witness interviews showed that interviewers often violated the recommended 80-20 talking rule (i.e., they spoke, on average, 30% of the time) and interrupted witnesses frequently. They also found that interviewers asked much fewer open-ended than closed-end questions. Similarly, Snook and Keating's (2010) analysis of 90 adult witness interviews found that interviewers rarely asked appropriate types of question (e.g., 6% of all questions were classified as open-ended) and tended to use inappropriate types of question (e.g., 35% of all question were classified as closed-ended). Also of concern is the finding that officers violated the 80-20 talking rule in almost 90% of interviews by talking on average 36% of the time. In addition to empirical data, formal inquiries into miscarriages of justice in Canada have also identified the inappropriate interviewing of witnesses as a major concern (see Lamer 2006 for concerns about the effect of inadequate interviewing on criminal investigative failures). It should be noted that problems with witness interviewing are not unique to Canada, as substandard interviewing practices have been observed in other countries (e.g., Fisher and Geiselman 1992; Milne and Bull 1999; Williamson, Milne, and Savage 2009).

The poor interviewing practices are possibly due to a lack of training, supervision, and feedback for police interviewers. Research shows that police organizations must implement comprehensive training on fundamental interviewing best practices if they wish to develop effective interviewers. Just as importantly, supervision and feedback from trained supervisors is required if new interviewing skills are to be maintained (Broad 1997; Lamb Stemberg, Orbach, Hershkowitz, Horowitz, and Esplin 2000). For example, a study by Clarke and Milne (2001) showed that police organizations that had a supervision policy and provided regular supervision were more likely to have their officers' exhibit proper interviewing skills long after training sessions had ended. However, the best indication we have, which is unfortunately based on anecdotal evidence (i.e., personal communications with police officers), is that interview training for most Canadian police officers is cursory and non-systematic (Snook, Eastwood, Stinson et al. 2010a). Furthermore, systematic evaluation and feedback regarding post-training interviews does not appear to be regular practice within most Canadian police organizations (Snook, Eastwood, Stinson et al. 2010a).

The purpose of the current study was to learn more about police interviewing practices in Canada by surveying officers about their witness interview training, supervision, and feedback experiences; the first attempt of its kind in Canada. The results of the survey will help map the current state of police witness interviewing training and supervision in Canada and identify areas for improvement. …