WHO did WHAT? And WHY? – Police Interview Strategies
At some point when I, Yurana, was 17 years old I was sitting in a police station, giving my statement about an attack I had witnessed to a police officer. While I was telling my story the officer kept interrupting me, asking more and more questions. Then he would write all the information down in a document. Maybe I was still in shock, but all I kept thinking was: The way he writes that down… I would never say it like that! Although the facts were right, the text did not sound at all like what I had just witnessed. Now that I am studying Applied Linguistics, which means that my thoughts are constantly occupied with language and how it works, I understand a bit more about why this witness statement could never be ‘my’ text.
In this post the two of us, Yurana and Rosaly Jacqueline, will show you how the final statement can be influenced by the kind of questions the officer asks and how difficult it can be to capture what the witness actually said in written form.
Police interview practices
Forensic Linguistics is a cover term for all things language in the law, including police-work and courtroom proceedings. One of these areas in which linguistics plays a role is how police interviews are conducted. A police interview has to follow very strict rules, which were in England standardized under the PACE Act in 1984. If the officer does not follow these rules either the complete interview, or at least parts of it, will not be allowed in court. The problem is that
[a]lthough there is a wealth of literature on interviewing techniques, […] there is a lack of standardized, evidence-based interview training, and officers receive ‘remarkably little training in techniques of questioning’.1
This means that not all officers are trained equally well in how to best conduct interviews.
In a police interview there is always a person who asks questions (the officer) and one who has to answer these questions (the witness or the suspect). Maybe you have noticed that we wrote “has to answer”. Yes, the questions by the officer have to be answered truthfully. Although there are laws which say that you have the right to remain silent (ever watched Law & Order? They say it in every episode when they arrest someone…), there are certain rules you have to follow when you are being questioned by the police or when you speak in court. This shows that there is a power distance between the interviewer and the interviewee. This means that the police officer in an interview has a lot more power and control over what is said. This can be dangerous, especially when the officer is not properly trained.
It is very important to think about what kind of questions are being asked in a police interview. In linguistics, we make a very general difference between open and closed questions. Open questions are those that leave the witness (or suspect) the opportunity to explain and describe. These are all WH-questions (which start with: where, who, what, when, and how). An example would be: What did you do that day? Closed questions are those that give the witness only a limited choice of answers. For example: Did you see your friend that day? (Yes/No-question) You saw your friend that day, didn’t you! (Tag-question)… and so on. Generally it is agreed that open questions are more useful in police interviews. One reason is that it gives the witness the chance to tell their own story in their own words without the interviewer leading the story… which is a very important point to make!
In police interviews it is crucial to not ask leading questions, which means that the officer has to be careful to actually get the truth from the witness or suspect and not to imply things that didn’t actually happen. This is even more problematic when it comes to special cases, for example when interviewing a child or a person who does not speak the interviewer’s language. If a person who does not speak English as a native language is being questioned in the USA, for example, it might be the case that this person does not completely understand what the officer is asking. In this case it is crucial to provide this person with an interpreter in order to make sure that he understands everything and is able to answer properly.
Written police statements
But even when an officer is properly trained in how to ask questions and how to handle cases that are special, this does not guarantee that the written statement is always correct. Things like hesitation, false starts or incomplete sentences (which actually happen quite often in normal speech, even though Hollywood, where every blooper has an intended meaning, wants to tell us otherwise) are deleted when a written record replaces the spoken one. This might not seem very important at first, but it can become important in the courtroom. In any case, converting spoken to written language, which you can also call creating a transcript, is always tricky.
A very interesting case is that of Robert Burton, who, in 2002, tried to steal some trailers filled with whisky bottles. What he didn’t know: his companions were all undercover cops! When he was arrested, Burton said that his companions actually forced him to do it. As evidence for the case against him, notes from telephone conversations, which the police officer claimed he wrote down from memory, were submitted. Burton, however, said that the records were too accurate to be noted down from memory. Instead, he said, they must have been based on audio-recordings. Because this audio-recording was obtained without the consent of Mr. Burton it was illegal and therefore not allowed as evidence. This is the record of the telephone conversation between Mr. Robert Burton (“Bob”) and one of the undercover police officers (“I”):
I said, ‘You gonna take something heavy, do you know what I mean, to make things easier in there.’
Bob said, ‘No, fuck off, like that’s too much, I’ll just have a blade, that’ll do.’
I said, ‘Yeah okay.’
Bob said, ‘I’m just a bit jittery like as its getting close like.’
I said, ‘Yeah, okay but keep in touch.’
Bob said, ‘Yeah, sorry about that Charlie, there’s no problems honest, I’ll chase that bloke up and find out what’s happening whether there’s 2, 3 or 4 there.’
I said, ‘Okay, we may have to do it on two to get it done by Christmas.’
Bob said, ‘Yeah okay.’
I said, ‘Alright, see you later Bob.’
Bob said, ‘Yeah later Charlie mate.’2
Let’s try to get ourselves in the mind of a forensic linguist, who is analyzing this text, wondering whether Burton has a point when he says that the record is too accurate to be jotted down from memory. What is the first thing you would do? You would try to find out whether a short text, like this telephone conversation, can be noted down from memory. And this is exactly what was done in this case… Burton and his lawyer took 10 people, sat them down in a room, and told them to note down a short conversation from memory which would be acted out for them. The subjects were allowed to take notes even during the conversation. This is what was actually said during that short sequence:
M: where were the meetings
B: there was a meeting at Kings Cross
B: and there was a meeting at Chesterfield
M: were these night meetings or day
B: no they was during the day3
And this was what one of the subjects wrote down:
M: where were the meetings
M: were these night meetings
B: mainly at night, yeah4
As you can see, in the transcript, some facts were simply left out and some were written down wrong. This is understandable… have you ever tried writing down something someone said to you, while they kept on talking?
In this video, Stan Walters, a “certified speaking professional” who is training investigators in interrogation and interviewing techniques, explains that in the process of note taking not only the transcript suffers, but that it can also interfere with conducting a good interview.
But apart from these obvious facts, there are other, not so obvious things that are normally left out when noted down, but that are still in the conversation records of the telephone conversation. One of these features is called discourse markers. These are for example the words “well”, “right”, and “so”. Others are fillers, such as “like”, and “you know what I mean”. These features have no factual content and are therefore often not remembered later. If you look at the telephone conversation from the Burton case you can see that this could not have been noted down from memory.
As the two of us tried to show you, doing police interviews and taking accurate notes on it is not as easy as one might think. In my police interview when I was 17 I did not know about all these problems when producing a written statement from an interview. In any case, I think for that interview it didn’t matter that much. Have you ever been in such a situation? I hope not, but if you were, or maybe if you are in the future, you can now analyse the interview from a completely different point of view: that of a forensic linguist!
(NOTE: If the authors have indicated their real names at the beginning or end of the post, please substitute the pseudonyms accordingly.)
Coulthard, M. & Johnson, A. 2007. An Introduction to Forensic Linguistics. USA & Canada: Routledge.
Carter, E. 2011. Analysing Police Interviews. UK: Bloomsbury Academic.
Moston, S. & Engelberg, T. 1993. “Police Questioning Techniques in Tape Recorded Interviews with Criminal Suspects.” In: Policing and Society. 3(3). Pages: 223-237.
Rock, F. 2011. “Forensic Linguistics.” In: The Routledge Handbook of Applied Linguistics. James Simpson (ed.). Abington & New York: Routledge.
Stan Walters: Interviewing and Interrogation 101 Tips | Tip # 4 | The Burden of Notetaking. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctbd3TTsKMU&feature=player_embedded
Featured Image: Fragen Puzzle by Gerd Altmann, https://pixabay.com/de/fragen-puzzle-wer-was-wie-warum-1328347/
Image: Grammar Police by Yurana. Original Cartoon by: Leigh Rubin, http://www.rubescartoons.com/
- Moston & Engelberg 1993:223
- Coulthard & Johnson 2007: 134
- Coulthard & Johnson 2007: 135
- Coulthard & Johnson 2007: 135