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6 factors that tell police if a witness is credible

Considering these six characteristics which affect a subject’s credibility will give you a head start on getting the best information for your case

When we talk about the credibility of a witness, we are referring to the accuracy of the information they provide. Some witnesses may withhold or distort information on purpose. Others may have a distorted perception based on factors beyond on their control. The following six factors affect the credibility of a witness during an investigation.

1. Youth
Young age can affect the person’s ability to perceive and report the events that they witness. The very young witness may not have the experience to actually recognize what they have seen. Further, they may be hampered by a limited vocabulary.

When the investigator begins to question a young person, they have to ask the questions in a fashion that is understood by the child and prepare to receive the answer in the child’s terminology.

For example, in a case of alleged child abuse, the investigator had found no evidence of abuse. When he asked the little girl how she got along with her stepfather she answered, “he plays games with me.”

She called the game, “Bop the dolphin on the head.” She explained he would bring his dolphin in the shower with him and she would stand in front of him and bop the dolphin on the head.

As you can see by this example, a child will put into their own words what they have observed.

A caution to the investigator when interviewing very young children — an investigator should not lead the child into saying what the investigator wants them to say instead of what happened. There are some cases where young children have been misled into false stories by overaggressive investigators.

2. Old Age
The elderly witness often has the experience and vocabulary to report what they observed. However, they may be slow in gathering their thoughts and giving their answer. An investigator must not be impatient if the person is slow in communicating because of advanced age.

It is very easy to do when you are in a hurry to get information for your case. Sometimes there is a tendency to talk down to the elderly as if they are children. This is not only disrespectful but very irritating to the person to whom you are talking. Doing so may push the person to beuncooperative.

Often times we make the error of assuming that a person is ignorant or mentally deficient because they are old, hard of hearing, or speak English as a second language. We must remember that an older person has lived a complete life and has a wealth of knowledge. We can tap into that knowledge if we are patient and approach them in the proper manner. Showing respect and being friendly often helps to establish a rapport to get the information you need for your case.

3. Intelligence
Generally, the accuracy of information is greater with the more intelligent person. The more intelligent the person, the greater their ability to process and understand the events they have witnessed. They also have a vocabulary to understand and describe what they have seen.

In some cases, an intelligent, successful, or wealthy subject may talk down to the investigator, assuming a government employee is beneath them. When this happens, you should be careful to not to become irritated. Maintain your composure and get the information.

Another concern with a more intelligent person is the fact that, the more intelligent a person, the more capable they are of being a good liar. Use your interview skills to detect deception or whether the person is withholding information.

4. Mental State
The mental state of a person can affect their perception of events and cause them to exaggerate, embellish, or create fictitious information when reporting. Different psychological diseases have different effects on people. The disease may distort their perception of reality or cause them to see people or hear voices that are not there.

Even so, they may have valid information they observed relevant to your case. The difficulty is in translating their perception.

5. Relationship to People Involved
People will often lie, add or omit information based on their relationship with the parties involved. This is why an investigator should ascertain the witness’s relationship to the parties involved before interviewing them.

Friends, family members and co-workers will protect each other and enemies will be quick to point the finger at each other. Determining the relationships in advance will help to formulate a strategy for your interviews.

6. Background Characteristics
A person’s background may influence whether they will cooperate with the investigator and affect the testimony the person gives. People who have had positive experiences with law enforcement will be more forthcoming in their information and those with bad experiences will be more reluctant to come forward.

Remember too that it’s not just their past experience with law enforcement — it is their cultural and social upbringing that dictates how they will communicate with authority figures.

Knowing the history of their background will help to establish a communications rapport.

John Bowden is the founder and director of Applied Police Training and Certification. John retired from the Orlando Police Department as a Master Police Officer In 1994. His career spans a period of 21 years in law enforcement overlapping 25 years of law enforcement instruction. His total of more than 37 years of experience includes all aspects of law enforcement to include: uniform crime scene technician, patrol operations, investigations, undercover operations, planning and research for departmental development, academy coordinator, field training officer and field training supervisor.