As in real life, in movies, television, and stories, police interviews—whether of witnesses or perpetrators—are vital to figuring out what has occurred. Interviews reveal facts (maybe) and impressions of everyone involved (for sure). Experts at several recent crime-writing conferences talked about how writers can get this aspect of police work right (also see this post), specifically when it comes to interviewing witnesses and in officer-involved shootings.
Police detectives working today in the United States, UK, Canada, Australia, and other countries are likely to have been trained in cognitive interviewing. These techniques, developed and tested over the past 30 years, improve the amount of information witnesses recall, avoid the creation of false memories, and reveal discrepancies in testimony.
The detective may ask open-ended questions that walk the person through the hours before the event, encouraging as many details as possible. Such careful establishment of the context of the crime helps the interviewee recall it in greater detail. Similarly, the interviewer may suggest reconstructing events backwards. In all cases, interviewers encourage reporting even the smallest detail, which may be hooked, in memory, to something significant. And, buried in there may be an important clue.
This academic video from the University of Queensland describes the scientific underpinnings of cognitive interviewing and the tests that have been used to demonstrate its greater effectiveness, in terms of amount and accuracy of information recalled, compared to traditional question-and-answer interviews.
Police officers involved in a shooting are generally not immediately taken away for an extensive debrief. When their stress levels are too high, they may be unable to provide coherent descriptions of what occurred and may not recall key information. A delayed interview
24 to 48 hours (ideally, two sleep cycles) later produces more cogent details. From a writer’s perspective, this delay gives the media and community time to speculate on the events and to be concerned “nothing’s being done.”
Additional considerations in writing about officer-involved shootings are covered in this interesting article about how the police react to such events and move toward investigation.