What TV gets wrong: Interviews & Interrogations

I’m back (after a short Easter break from the icky stuff) in my ‘Learn Something New Every Day’ series – taken from The Great Courses’ Trails of Evidence: How Forensic Science Works (Lecture 26 – Interview & Interrogation)

Here’s a good one for the crime writers. What TV gets wrong about Interviews and Interrogations:

  1. When TV stars talk about interrogating a witness they really mean interview. Interview is the legal term used for people who authorities expect are willing to divulge what they know (a victim or bystander or witness). Interrogation is a term reserved for the questioning of a suspect.
  2. TV often depicts law enforcement officers going from the lab to the field and back again, conducting multiple specialties including regular police duties like interviews and neighbourhood canvassing etc. Forensic scientists are specialised and would only ‘double-up’ in extreme cases. They aren’t armed. They aren’t authorised to undertake most policing duties.
  3. Interrogation (of a suspect) is usually conducted by only one person. It also never includes a forensic scientist. If they need sample evidence, those samples are taken at a follow-up session where forensic personnel are present.
  4. Officers are trained not to shout/slam/intimidate suspects as we so often see in our favourite police dramas. To get the best in an interrogation, officers should speak in a soft, normal tone and try to win the confidence of the suspect. Intimidation typically backfires.
  5. Because the goal of the investigation and interrogation is to get at the truth (not a confession) trained personnel will never try to ‘trick’ a suspect into admitting their guilt or catch them out. People can confess to anything under duress. Tricking an admission out of someone may not even be admissible in court.
  6. Good investigators spend first 10-20 minutes getting to know the suspect to a) build rapport, b) test their capacity and competence so that they can’t later say they didn’t understand the process and c) learn as much as they can about the person’s character and background.
  7. During an interview with a witness or bystander, the moment it seems like they are possibly a suspect, the interview has to be terminated (for gathering of more info) or suspended while the person is advised of their constitutional rights. All of those TV shows we see where an interview with a witness suddenly becomes an interrogation of a suspect would be thrown out of court because anything the person says before being informed of their rights is inadmissible.

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