Collecting information from criminal suspects
Kai Li Chung discusses suspect interviews and the challenges of implementing best practices in Malaysia
■ interviewing suspects
■ confirmation bias
■ the Reid technique
■ ethical interview techniques
■ cross-cultural issues
■ obedience (power distance index)
The interviewing of suspects, witnesses and victims is a key element in the process of a criminal investigation. The main purpose of investigative interviews is to gain a complete and accurate account of a crime allegedly committed.
Interviewing of suspects
Traditionally, police forces all over the world have treated the questioning of suspects as a confession-seeking ‘interrogation’ exercise. Coercive techniques involving threats, intimidation, isolation and even physical violence were not unheard of. These suspect interview or ‘interrogation’ methods are accusatorial in nature and operate on the presumption of guilt.
Guilt-presumptive judgements are particularly problematic as they can lead to confirmation bias — an investigator who strongly believes in a suspect’s guilt may unintentionally conduct the interview in a way that confirms their belief of how the crime occurred, and even disregard evidence that disconfirms that belief. Such bias often increases the risk of false confessions, where a person admits guilt for a crime they did not commit.
To illustrate the effects of confirmation bias in the context of suspect interviews, Saul Kassin et al. (2003) conducted an experiment in which student suspects either committed a mock theft (stole $100 in a room) or took part in an innocent act (knocked on the door of a room). A separate group of students serving as mock interrogators were asked to interview the suspects, but before that, they were led to believe that either the majority of suspects were guilty or the majority were innocent. The interrogations were audio-recorded and heard by a group of neutral observers.
Findings showed that interrogators with guilty expectations tried much harder to get the suspects to confess, by asking more guilt-presumptive questions and using more techniques (including psychologically manipulative ones) as compared to those with innocent expectations. The observers also viewed the suspects in the guilty expectation condition as more defensive and guilty. In other words, presuming guilt affected the interrogator’s behaviour, which in turn had an effect on the suspect’s behaviour, and subsequently inf luenced how the suspect was perceived by a third party.
Psychologically manipulative techniques
In 1947, John E. Reid and Associates started developing an interrogation method to be used by investigators. The Reid technique, widely used across North America, recommends nine steps of interrogation as illustrated in their manual (Inbau et al. 2013):
1 Initial confrontation. Present a direct statement that the interrogator is absolutely certain that the suspect is guilty. The interrogation is presented as an opportunity for the suspect to tell the truth about the offence.
2 Theme development. Develop a theme, or a ‘moral excuse’ to justify the criminal actions. This may involve shifting the blame away from the suspect or sympathising with the suspect.
3 Handling denials. Discourage denials, especially if the suspect asks for permission to speak at this point.
4 Overcoming objections. When the suspect objects or gives reasons for why they could or would not have committed the crime, acknowledge these objections but turn them around and use them to further develop the theme.
5 Keeping the suspect’s attention. Do not allow the suspect to withdraw psychologically. Ensure that they focus on the investigator’s theme instead of punishment. This might be achieved through moving physically closer to the suspect.
6 Handling the suspect’s passive mood. The suspect will have become quiet and defeated at this point. Continue to display a sympathetic and sincere demeanour to urge the suspect to tell the truth.
7 Presenting the alternative question. Present two incriminating options for what happened, with one being more socially acceptable than the other (for example ‘Did you plan this, or did it happen on the spur of the moment?’).
8 Bringing the suspect into the conversation. Lead the suspect to verbalise the offence details and repeat the admission of guilt.
9 The written confession. Convert the oral confession into a recorded confession, which will be difficult to retract.
The Reid technique became notorious, primarily due to its psychologically manipulative nature. A combination of ‘maximisation’ and ‘minimisation’ tactics are recommended, often involving deceit and trickery.
Maximisation refers to a scare tactic designed to make suspects feel hopeless and to believe that denial is pointless. Interrogators may cite false evidence (currently illegal in some Western European countries), exaggerate the severity of the crime or threaten harsh consequences for not confessing.
On the other hand, minimisation is a ‘soft-sell’ tactic in which the interrogator downplays the seriousness of the crime. For instance, while advocates of the Reid technique maintain that investigators must not make direct promises of leniency, critics have pointed out that minimisation can lead suspects to develop a false sense of security and expect more lenient sentences, and therefore confess.
Additionally, alternative questions (see step 7) are problematic for two reasons: first, questions that are leading and closed-ended are unproductive for obtaining information, and second, they offer a rationalisation for the behaviour, which is a form of minimisation. This tactic appeals to the suspect’s conscience, potentially coercing them into confessing.
Interrogators are also encouraged to interview suspects in a small, bare, windowless room for an extended period of time, with the aim of creating a physical environment that promotes feelings of isolation, sensory deprivation and helplessness.
Finally, the Reid technique is problematic as, while it aims to elicit confessions from guilty suspects, it is also known to increase the risk of self-incrimination by innocent suspects. This is especially true for young persons and individuals with reduced intellectual capacity — the Reid technique was not designed to safeguard the welfare of vulnerable groups.
Moving away from manipulative approaches
In the 1990s, several high-profile miscarriages of justice in the UK (for example, the Guildford Four) prompted a change in investigative culture. As a result, the PEACE model of investigative interviewing was devised, setting out ethically acceptable principles in questioning criminal suspects. PEACE is an acronym that outlines the interview structure: preparation and planning, engage and explain, account, closure and evaluation.
This model emphasises a dialogue- or rapport-based process, based on scientific research that has found non-coercive methods to work best for gathering accurate information and reducing risks of false confessions. Over the years, many countries such as Sweden, Norway and Japan have followed suit and started adopting more standardised, evidence-based and ethical interviewing methods.
Nevertheless, many parts of the world have not had the opportunity to move forward in terms of their investigative interviewing practices. In Malaysia, we conducted a survey with a sample of the police force about the investigative interviewing techniques they use with suspects, witnesses and victims (Chung et al. 2021). We noted that officers did not base their practices on a systematic investigative interviewing framework.
Many officers in our sample have not had the opportunity to receive formal training or ‘refresher’ courses, even though almost all conduct interviews with adult and/or children suspects and witnesses. About half of our sample reported using maximisation tactics and suggestive questioning in their interviews — and thought these were effective techniques.
Why do such practices continue?
Despite the body of research that highlights the importance of evidence-based best practice guidelines, why are inappropriate interviewing practices still prevalent? This points towards a knowledge transfer problem — it seems that in Malaysia, policymakers and law enforcement agencies are not yet ready to invest in adequate and appropriate training that allows officers to align with best practice recommendations. There are a few reasons for this.
One main reason why best practice is not followed is related to reputation. For the police force to accept that ‘they could do better’ implies that they have not been achieving high standards to date. As psychologists, we try to help various organisations to improve their practice. Ideally, we would have electronic records of police interviews/interrogations and then, by reviewing recordings, we can identify areas of improvement in a systematic way.
However, unlike in the UK, recording of suspect interviews is not currently mandatory in Malaysia, and hence we have very limited information on how interviews are conducted. Interestingly, in our study, approximately half the sample favoured the videotaping of suspect interviews. This is perhaps because police officers acknowledge that electronic recording of interviews can protect them against false accusation of illtreatment of suspects and works as a reliable piece of evidence.
Another reason is financial. Delivering quality training requires appropriate expertise, facilities, time and effort from both trainers and trainees. Officers would need to be away from their regular duties to fully engage in an extensive training programme, and their skills can only be improved through practice, follow-up sessions and routine supervision.
Like other developing countries that are experiencing rapid social change, Malaysia still faces a knowledge shortage in the forensic psychology discipline. Ideally, interviewers should have a broad understanding of basic psychological knowledge, including how memory works or how certain biases can influence interviewer and interview behaviour.
We recently assessed police officers’ beliefs about memory functions and child investigative interviewing, and found that many had pre-existing pseudoscientific beliefs about what works in an investigative interview (Chung et al. 2022).
The practice of many professionals working in the criminal justice system is not always scientifically based. A way to remedy this disconnect is to engage in ongoing training beyond the classroom and to have opportunities to consolidate learning through practice and feedback.
This issue is also financial. Part of our role as psychologists is to convince government authorities that investing in developing skilled interviewers may, in addition to boosting the police’s reputation, very well save the government money in the long run, and hence foresight is needed.
Willingness to change
It is also important for investigators to have a mind-set that is open to learning new, more effective techniques. There tends to be a common belief that police interviewing is an inherent skill that officers have, or a skill that can be picked up ‘on-the-job’ from those who are more experienced.
So, there is a view that there is little need for training. The encouraging news is that a fair number of police officers in our study reported that they were keen to develop new techniques that work — as they discovered when conducting their own research and participating in role-playing interviews with colleagues.
Finally, while investigators around the world often interview suspects or witnesses from diverse cultural backgrounds, there is limited insight into how cultural norms play a role in reporting information during an investigative interview. For example, it is observed that high power distance societies like Malaysia tend to pay less attention to rapport-building, which is central in the current recommendation guidelines. [Note that ‘power distance’ refers to the relationship between authority and subordinate people in any society — in a high power distance society the authorities have greater power and are highly respected and likely to be obeyed.]
There needs to be more effort in psychological science to study investigative interviewing in samples that are not WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic), and an acknowledgement that practices in these societies will differ substantially from the ‘original’ countries (i.e. the countries where the concepts of evidencebased investigative interviewing were first developed).
Chung, K., Ng, M. and Ding, I. (2021) ‘Investigative interviews with suspects and witnesses: a survey of perceptions and interview practices among Malaysian police’, Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, Vol. 37, pp. 248–57.
Chung, K., Ding, I. and Sumampouw, N. E. J. (2022) ‘Police’s and victim care officers’ beliefs about memory and investigative interviewing with children: survey findings from Malaysia’, Applied Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 6, No. 3, pp. 573–80.
Inbau, F., Reid, J., Buckley, J. and Jayne, B. (2013) Criminal Interrogation and Confessions (5th edn), Jones and Bartlett Learning.
Kassin, S. M., Goldstein, C. C. and Savitsky, K. (2003) ‘Behavioural confirmation in the interrogation room: on the dangers of presuming guilt’, Law and Human Behaviour, Vol. 27, pp. 187–203.
Go to www.hoddereducation.co.uk/psychologyreviewextras for a quiz to check your understanding of this article.