Police interviews with criminals and witnesses may be the fodder of popular TV crime shows but forensic interviewing is a highly specialised area which can take years of practice to hone.
Professor Martine Powell, Director of the Centre for Investigative Interviewing based at Griffith University’s Mt Gravatt campus and world-renowned child interviewer, says one of the biggest issues in how interviews are conducted in practice is the lack of consistency with scientific guidance.
“The aim of investigative interviewing is to elicit an accurate and detailed account of an event or situation from a person, but in practice too few interviews are characterised by open-ended prompts,’’ she said.
“When interviewing child witnesses, it often appears that despite the best of intentions, interviewers tend to stray from being relatively passive receivers of children’s information and instead play a major role, albeit inadvertently, in shaping their accounts.
“This is a problem in most jurisdictions. Knowing how to close the gap between recommended and actual practice is the most talked about issue in my field and the focus of our work.”
Formerly based at Victoria’s Deakin University where she was Founding Director of the Centre for Investigative Interviewing, Professor Powell (pictured, below) has moved the centre to Brisbane where it sits within the Griffith Criminology Institute.
“The Institute is one of the largest, most vibrant and high-performing criminology communities in the world,’’ she said.
“Investigative interviewing is a research area that integrates well with all of its core research themes, not just policing. The centre is closely aligned with the two other related discipline areas – education and law.”
An expert in eyewitness testimony, Professor Powell says child witness interviews form the central plank of criminal trials about alleged child sexual abuse.
“The aim is to conduct interviews in a manner that minimises unnecessary stress or discomfort of the interviewee and assists professional decision-making.
“Properly conducted interviews advance the police investigation by eliciting a thorough, accurate record of the crime details. On the other hand, poorly conducted interviews distort the witness’s memory and contaminate the entire investigative process.
“For this reason, initial police interviews with vulnerable witnesses such as children or people with communication impairment, are often recorded on videotape and presented as evidence-in-chief during the trial.”
Interviews are conducted at various stages of the criminal justice process, ranging from the initial police interview of a victim, witness or suspect to an in-court interview in front of a judge or other decision-maker.
“Interviews during the initial phase of the police investigation are usually the most critical in determining whether a criminal case is solved,’’ Professor Powell says.
“This is especially the case when there is little or no physical evidence and only one witness to guide the investigation.
The Centre supports one of the largest groups of investigative interviewing researchers in the world with collaborations in England, North and South America and many Australian jurisdictions.
“We are working with organisations to streamline and coordinate training across all areas of criminal justice interviewing,” Professor Powell says.
“Our philosophy is that closing the gap between recommended guidelines and actual practice involves working together to coordinate services and research.’’