Top Forensic Psychologist Says Investigators Must Accept They Can Do Better

Jill McMahon - Tuesday, March 26, 2013

 

A woman suffered a vicious rape in London. There was little information to work with after the initial investigation. The victim had been drinking heavily before the attack and she believed there was little chance of the rapist being caught, let alone convicted. She seemed unable and unwilling to provide important details of what had happened.

An investigative team was assembled, including one of the UK’s top forensic psychologists, Professor Ray Bull. “She was understandably reticent, she didn’t want to say anything that was inconsistent and that might weaken her case,” says Bull. “But a lot had happened to her and we needed to work that out.”

Bull selected an interviewer, a young woman, whom he thought would be most effective. He listened in to the interviews and, drawing on more than 30 years of research in psychology, provided continual advice. He helped her obtain key details, some of which enabled police to connect the attack to another incident, and eventually convict a serial rapist.

Investigative interviewing is at the very core of the system of justice, says Bull, and investigators must strive continually to improve what they do. “It’s essential. The consequences of not being good are horrendous. This is real life - and if you get it wrong you can do a lot of damage to a lot of people.”

Bull conducts research on investigative interviewing of suspects, witnesses and victims, as well as witness memory and voice recognition. He shares his research and that of other academics internationally, consulting to organisations as diverse as the UK’s Home Office, courts, governments, police forces and even large private companies.

While investigators need to have a high level of self-belief and confidence, he says, they need to be open to accepting that they can always do better. At an institutional level, organisations need outside help and to learn from the variety of research that is now available. “I spend a lot of my time going around the world training the trainers,” says Bull, who was recently in Jamaica working with an internal police organisation.

People are not naturally good interviewers. “What you want in an investigation is for a person to give you lots and lots of information,” Bull says. “Socially, we learn the opposite - in normal conversation we ask a lot of closed and leading questions, and that can be very difficult to give up.”

Bull has been closely involved with the substantial changes that have taken place in the UK with investigative interviewing. In 1986, it became a legal requirement for police to record interviews, the first country to do so. It was only when these recordings were analysed that police officers themselves realised they were not interviewing well.

“People guilty of serious wrong-doing were running rings around the investigators,” says Bull.
That led to investment in research and the training of detectives in the mid-1990s. Today, the UK is widely considered a model of cooperation between academics, investigative authorities and the government.
New research is continually challenging commonly-held beliefs, says Bull.

“It’s a common belief, for example, that people who have done something wrong are not going to tell you about their wrongdoing. Well, in fact, there’s an increasing amount of recent and meaningful research that has come to the surprising conclusion that only about 25% of people guilty of wrongdoing will absolutely deny it.

“In fact, about 50% of people who are guilty of wrong-doing are pretty open-minded about how they are going to behave, and wait to see how they are treated by investigators,” says Bull.
Interviewers need not to have a domineering approach if they are to persuade potentially hostile suspects or witnesses to give them information. There need to be pauses and silences in the interview, and establishing and maintaining rapport with the interviewee is one of the “most essential” skills to learn, says Bull.

The key to a good investigation, says Bull, is the content of what people say. “You need to interview in a way that gets people talking, and then you can analyse and compare what they say with other information and that substantially increases the percentage above chance of getting to the truth.”

Bull started working with a major police force in the UK in 1970, helping officers with recall and memory. He’s conducted research on interviewing vulnerable people and authored the first official guidance in the UK on how to interview children. He is regularly asked to provide expert reports on the quality of interviews and testifies in court on average about eight times a year.

During an academic career now spanning more than 40 years, Bull has written or co-authored more than 200 academic articles and books.

He received a Commendation from the London Metropolitan Police for “innovation and professionalism” for his assistance with the London rape case.

He has since received awards and recognition for his work from the British Psychological Society, European Association of Psychology and Law and a special prize for his “extensive contributions to investigative interviewing” from the Scientific Committee of the Fourth International Conference on Investigative Interviewing.

Professor Ray Bull will be visiting Australia in April & May 2013 to conduct a series of master classes on investigative interviewing. Click here for more information.


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