Home Society & Culture Engaged or Disengaged: What Factors Influence the Effectiveness of Police Interviews with Convicted Terrorists?

Engaged or Disengaged: What Factors Influence the Effectiveness of Police Interviews with Convicted Terrorists?

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After the coordinated terrorist attacks on 11th September 2001, a worldwide ‘war on terror’ was declared, during which hundreds of suspected terrorists were subjected to harsh interrogation methods in an attempt to retrieve information derived from confessions.

However, these harsh methods of interrogation – such as the use of coercive strategies – have been widely criticised as constituting torture. In addition, research demonstrates how these methods can be ineffective, generating inaccurate and unreliable information; as well as leading to disengagement from the detainee.

For example, in one experimental study, researchers set up a fake interrogation scenario and found that rather than offering ‘secret’ information, people offered intentionally false information when increasing levels of pain were inflicted on them.

The transition to information-gathering approaches

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984) standardised the way that interviews are conducted in the UK: all interviews are recorded and are geared towards an information-gathering approach as opposed to an accusatory confession-driven approach. In other words, there was a shift from an interrogative procedure with the aim of securing a confession, to an interviewing procedure informed by research with the aim of gathering accurate and reliable information.

Rapport is defined as a relationship where there is a high level of shared understanding, expectation, and empathy. The establishment of rapport between an interviewer and detainee is key for an information-gathering approach – which has been shown to produce more accurate information than an accusatorial approach

Development of a novel framework to analyse police interviews

In order to measure rapport, the Observing Rapport-Based Interpersonal Techniques (ORBIT) coding framework was developed in 2012 and has since been used in research to analyse video-taped police interviews.

The ORBIT uses principles from motivational interviewing (MI) – a form of therapy that is collaborative rather than confrontational, empathetic rather than judgemental, and helps a person to both explore and resolve any mixed feelings that they have about their behaviours and their future goals. Some examples of MI skills are: reflective listening (clarifying that ideas have been correctly understood), showing respect (communicating respect for and acceptance of a person and their feelings), and autonomy (understanding that it is solely the decision of the person to change).

MI is often used as a treatment for addiction, but there is an interesting connection to interviewing a detainee: just as a person with addiction (for examle, a smoker) can make the decision to abstain from smoking, a detainee can make the decision to abstain from talking during an interview.

By applying the ORBIT to police interviews, three outcomes can be measured:

  • Interviewer MI skills (such as rapport-building skills)
  • The level of engagement of the detainee
  • Useful information gain from the interview (also referred to as ‘yield’). 

Findings from a recent study

A study, which is the largest of its kind, used the ORBIT manual to analyse 804 recorded police interviews from a total of 75 convicted terrorists in the UK. The aim of the study was to examine the relationship between interviewers’ use of MI-consistent skills, level of engagement from the detainee, and useful information extracted from the interview.

The key finding is that detainee engagement was impacted by interviewer behaviour. In particular, interviewers MI skills (such as reflective listening, empathy, and avoiding argumentation) were found to increase the level of detainee engagement, which in turn increased the information gain from the interview.

Interestingly, the reverse was also found: interviewers who showed MI-inconsistent skills (such as accusation, assumption and confrontation) resulted in a decrease in the level of detainee engagement, which in turn, decreased information gain from the interview.

A potential explanation for the negative effects of MI-inconsistent skills on detainee engagement and information gain may be through the formation of ‘reactance’, something that occurs when a person feels a loss of freedom. By overly pressurising detainees to talk (e.g., ‘I’m giving you one last chance to tell me.’), this may further enhance their motivation to resist as they attempt to regain some element of control.

This study was conducted by the Centre for Critical and Major Incident Psychology at the University of Liverpool. You can read the full paper here

Concluding points

In line with other research, MI consistent behaviours increase the effectiveness of police interviews by promoting engagement from the detainee, which increases the likelihood that they will talk and provide useful information.

However, behaviours that are not in line with MI promote detainee disengagement which reduces the likelihood that they will talk, potentially as an attempt for the detainee to reclaim some control over the situation. Therefore, these behaviours have a negative impact on the effectiveness of police interviews, and it is important that interviewer training programmes emphasise this.

Amber Copeland is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield.

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