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5 tips for officers in use-of-force interviews

Part Two: Dr. Ed Geiselman offers tips for protecting yourself from an interviewer who doesn’t understand the principles of human memory

In Force Science News #188 (Click here to read it), Dr. Ed Geiselman, an internationally recognized authority on interviewing techniques, offered five critical reminders for investigators on how to elicit accurate and comprehensive statements from involved officers and eyewitnesses in OISs and other use-of-force cases.

But what it you’re an involved officer being questioned by an investigator who doesn’t understand or adhere to these “best practices” for fair and impartial interviewing? What can you do to protect yourself from bias or ineptitude on the part of your questioner?

First, of course, you need to be knowledgeable about the methods of proper interviewing. So take time to review Geiselman’s pointers in Part One of this series before heading into the interview room. Then you’ll be better equipped to recognize if and when your interviewer employs undesirable tactics ...and prevent yourself from inadvertently cooperating in sabotaging your own statement.

Beyond that, Geiselman offers the following advice. These are lessons the UCLA psychology professor has drawn first-hand from analyzing officer interviews as an expert witness in disciplinary hearings and as a faculty member of the certification course in Force Science Analysis. They represent his observations from a behavioral science perspective but you should check with your attorney for his guidance from a legal-strategy standpoint.

Tips for Involved Officers
1.) Request a delay.
As explained in Part One, fatigue can contribute significantly to memory “failures,” including incomplete and disorganized recall, inconsistencies, delayed recollections, and the inability to adequately articulate your thoughts. “If you’re tired and overly stressed, you’ll also be more susceptible to suggestion, intimidation, and biased questioning by the interviewer, Geiselman says.

“Yet many departments still require that officers submit to detailed questioning immediately after a shooting or other critical incident, even though in some cases the involved officer has been awake for 36 hours or more.”

In contrast, the Force Science Institute recommends a delay of 24-48 hours, including at least one good sleep cycle, before a detailed statement is required from an involved officer after a major force event.

“If you believe that you are not in a frame of mind to perform adequately in a full investigative interview because of lingering stress and/or sleep deprivation, request a delay,” Geiselman counsels. “Don’t ignore or minimize your mental and physiological state in an effort to appear strong in the face of potentially negative factors.

“If the request is denied because of department policy, you can then state at the outset of the questioning that you have asked for a postponement and why. Having that in the record may prove valuable later in helping to explain shortcomings in your memory.”

2.) “Interview” yourself, using cognitive techniques. “Become familiar with the memory-enhancement elements of cognitive-style interviewing and use them to help recollect what happened during the force incident,” Geiselman suggests. “You can ‘interrogate’ your own memory both before and during the interview itself.”

Some of these techniques were described in Part 1. They include a full-sensory reconstruction of the circumstances surrounding the incident...thinking about it in detail “frame by frame” ...trying to remember what happened in reverse order as well as forward order ...looking at the scenario from the different perspectives of people at the scene, etc.

“All these can often surface details that may elude you if you try just to verbally recite the bare basics of what you think happened in sequence,” Geiselman says.

“It’s good to start by getting a picture in your head of what was going on before the incident erupted. Mentally and emotionally put yourself back there in the moment. Slow down your thinking and take time to remember as much about the experience as you can. Concentrate on being as complete as possible, rather than just hitting highlights.

“Ideally, you want to give as thorough a report as possible in your the first session with an interviewer so you don’t have to make corrections later, and this approach can help.”

3.) Communicate your concentration. “Let the interviewer know when you are taking time to concentrate on responding to his or her questions,” Geiselman advises. “This will free you from feeling pressure to give immediate answers in order to appear truthful.

“Sometimes memories are difficult to retrieve, and the mannerisms and body language of concentration, such as long pauses, deep breaths, and breaking eye contact, may look like the classic indications of deception if the interviewer doesn’t realize you are focusing intently on recollecting.

“If you consciously struggle to avoid these natural reactions to deep concentration in order to maintain an artificial appearance of truthfulness, you’re devoting your energy to the wrong priority and you may be bypassing opportunities to surface important buried memories.”

4.) Take the initiative to make the record complete. “Be sure to address critical issues in your statement if the interviewer fails to do so,” Geiselman says. “Your initial feeling may be to shut down and say little beyond what you’re asked, but in some cases it maybe to your advantage to get information that’s neglected into the record.

“In particular, comment spontaneously on your state of mind throughout the incident. This would include your understanding of any advance information you were given by dispatch or other sources.

“Also comment on your threat assessment throughout the encounter. Include elements of your training and experience which were triggered in your mind by the circumstances as they unfolded.”

5.) Above all, don’t speculate. “Understand the strengths and weaknesses of your own perceptual and memory systems,” Geiselman urges. “Inevitably there will be aspects of the event that you didn’t see or hear, and your memory will be imperfect. No one can remember everything or recall all that they do ‘remember’ accurately. That’s a human reality.

“Don’t hesitate to state, ‘I don’t know,’ and then maintain that you do not know throughout the interview if that is the truth. However, it’s important to spontaneously correct inconsistencies and offer additional recollections as they come to mind without delay. The sooner errors are corrected or missing elements legitimately supplied, the less likely these alterations will be viewed with suspicion.

“Above all, do not speculate, guess, or fill in gaps of memory with what you think ‘might’ or ‘must’ have happened, even if pressed implicitly or openly by the interviewer to do so. This is quicksand too dangerous to venture into.”

The FSRC was launched in 2004 by Executive Director Bill Lewinski, PhD. -- a specialist in police psychology -- to conduct unique lethal-force experiments. The non-profit FSRC, based at Minnesota State University-Mankato, uses sophisticated time-and-motion measurements to document-for the first time-critical hidden truths about the physical and mental dynamics of life-threatening events, particularly officer-involved shootings. Its startling findings profoundly impact on officer training and safety and on the public’s naive perceptions.