Inspector (Ret) Chris Butler

On July 31st the Washington Post published a very thought-provoking article by Tom Jackman dealing with the issue of critical incidents, such as officer-involved shootings, and whether it is better to delay the officer interview or interview the officer immediately. If you have not read the article, I highly suggest you do, and you can find it here;

Washington Post – Interview Article

This is a very critical issue and one that should fascinate every responsible and professional investigator. Certainly, the objective of the investigator tasked with interviewing subject and witness officers after a shooting must be to obtain the greatest amount of accurate memory information with the least possible induced memory errors. So, which is better? Should officers be interviewed immediately after? Should a period of decompression and memory consolidation be permitted?

On the later issue, many agencies that I am familiar with have policy on ensuring the officer is provided a period of rest – typically at least one full sleep cycle if not more. For example, the IACP OIS Guidelines state that their Psychological Services Section recommends delaying interviews from 48-72 hours “in order to provide the officer with sufficient recovery time to enhance recall”[1] In a similar vein, in April of 2017, the Wisconsin Department of Justice published their General Investigative Guidelines for Officer-Involved Death Investigations which states that following a critical incident “Officers may be allowed to go home and sleep and wait 24-72 hours after the incident to give a formal statement”.[2]

The common practice in the law enforcement industry seems to have largely trended towards allowing this rest period in order for the best memory consolidation and potential for recall to occur. This practice is under-girded by the wisdom of some of the most recognized researchers on stress and memory in North America and the United Kingdom.

However, the recent article in the Washington Post discusses a recent ‘research’ project in Australia that purports to have determined there was little difference in the memory accuracy of officers who were interviewed immediately afterwards when compared to officers whose interviews were delayed.

I have studied numerous peer-reviewed research reports in some of the worlds most prestigious journals on the issue of stress, memory, memory error and contamination, and memory consolidation. My professional practice as a use of force investigator is to typically favor the delayed formal interview when possible; and when the interview is conducted, a Cognitive Interview (CI) by trained investigators is the only technique used.

Personally, I have serious concerns with the research methodology used in the Australia study (As an example – the officers in the study cohort were given a multiple choice questionnaire after their ‘shooting’) . As a result of methodological errors, I am highly suspicious that the authors did not find the outcomes that they purportedly found.

But, read the article for yourself and please let me know what you think? I am hopeful some experts on memory will comment and help me out!

[1] International Association of Chiefs of Police “Officer-Involved Shootings: A Guide for Law Enforcement Leaders”; Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. 2016

[2] “General Investigative Guidelines for Officer-Involved Death Investigations”; Wisconsin DOJ; April 2017.