In recent years, DNA tests have proved something surprising: people sometimes confess to terrible crimes that they definitely did not commit. One reason seems to be traditional American methods of police interrogation.
Officers in Great Britain think they've found a better way in the PEACE method, which stands for Preparation and Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure and Evaluate.
David Harris is a University of Pittsburgh law professor and host of 90.5 WESA's Criminal Injustice podcast. He talked to Jonathan Davison, who trains investigators in the United Kingdom and New Zealand to build a firm but friendly rapport and coax information out of their interview subjects – not just look for confessions.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
DAVID HARRIS: You worked in the United Kingdom and New Zealand. The UK saw a lot of high-profile convictions that were later overturned by DNA tests. Now you train with the PEACE method for interrogation. How does it work?
JONATHAN DAVISON: The main objective we’re looking at, how interviews are conducted and the ethos behind it being that the interviewing of witnesses, victims and suspects was to obtain a complete accurate reliable information to discover the truth (about) what’s under investigation, rather than being a confession-based approach.
HARRIS: And that’s a big, big difference from our method in the U.S., which is all about getting the suspect to confess?
DAVISON: We’re approaching the interview with an investigative mindset and training people to have an investigative mindset where accounts that are obtained from people being interviewed are always tested against what the interviewer already knows and can reasonably establish from their investigations. Some of the misconceptions about PEACE about it being a bit soft or a more conversational approach – we can be robust within the interviews. We’re free to ask a range of questions in order to obtain information that will assist the investigation. We’ll recognize the positive impact of early admissions within the criminal justice system and also investigators are not bound to accept the first answer that’s given. We can be persistent in terms of complete reliable information.
HARRIS: But they don’t have to answer? They can simply not say anything, just like anybody else. That’s the balance that’s been struck.
DAVISON: That’s within people’s rights. They can say nothing or no comment to the interview, but the investigator is still duty bound to cover the question that a court would reasonably expect to be covered a suspect to be questioned about in commission of the offense.
HARRIS: What does that sound like?
DAVISON: "Look, take your time, place yourself back at the scene and in as much detail without leaving anything out, tell me everything." And then we’re leaving that person to be able to relay and report everything that they can remember along with giving them the mental reinstatement of context. It’s giving them the opportunity to recall that event in the order that they remember it. Then the rest of the interview is consolidating what they’ve said. Then as an investigator, maybe breaking that down – that initial account into smaller, what we call discussible topics that we would need as an investigator to explore what’s actually happened within that offense.
HARRIS: Because getting good information isn’t about confrontation – it’s about the relationship.
DAVISON: All the academic studies over the last decades are reinforcing that if you actually build rapport with an individual they’re more likely to yield more information to you or be more comfortable to speak to you, whether that’s a suspect interview or a witness or victim interview. The ethos behind PEACE is that we’re treating everybody, no matter who they are, the way we’d like to be treated ourselves.
Find more at criminalinjusticepodcast.com.