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The Cognitive Interview

The cognitive interview was originally developed by Fisher & Geiselman as a questioning instrument for witnesses and victims in various police incidents. The idea behind this interview is to make use of various techniques to yield a great deal of accurate information from the person being questioned.

At first, the technique was used in post time, that is to say, after an event had occurred and ended, we as police attempted to get information from witnesses and victims in order to find and apprehend the suspects.  It is for this reason that the basis of the cognitive interview is the assumption that time is on our side.  In addition, it is possible to create very relaxed conditions for the interviewee, which facilitates the interrogation process.

During the years in which I worked in the Psychological Interrogation Department (Polygraph), we conducted interviews in this way. We received and analyzed files about events, defined questioning objectives and summoned witnesses for a particular hour on a certain day. We created the necessary conditions and executed cognitive interviews according to the rules.

However, when you are part of a unit for managing crisis situations, the circumstances are completely different. Lives are in immediate danger. For example after an earthquake or missile attack, people might be trapped in ruined buildings and we need to get information in real time and under impossible conditions. The resource of time works against us like a kind of ultimatum; the longer it takes to receive information, the greater the risk to people’s lives. Exactly the same thing applies when questioning freed hostages or people who have escaped from a crumbling building. Sometimes they are wounded, they are always in bad mental state – yet we must still get information from them immediately. And indeed, we have successfully done that, time after time for years.

The cognitive interview has proved its usefulness as a toolbox for better communication between the interviewer and the interviewee in any situation, including those occurring in real time. Again and again, there have been breakthroughs with cognitive interviews of – for example – a 12 year-old girl in the presence of her mother, which  led to the solution of a kidnapping incident. Two years ago, I conducted a cognitive interview with a victim who was still recovering from an operation after 3 terrorists had murdered her friend and tried to murder her too. Her interview led to the arrest of all the suspects as well as the solutions to 21 terror and criminal cases.

One of the fundamental principles, and to my mind the source of the cognitive interview’s power, is that of collaboration and transfer of responsibility. Right from the start of the interview, it is made clear to the interviewee that the responsibility for retrieving the information from their memory lies with them. As interviewers we cannot know what happened and so we will not ask or ‘dictate’ to them about the occurrence.

This process of taking responsibility creates co-operation between the interviewer and the interviewee, which automatically motivates the latter to take pains in helping the police get the information needed.

To summarize:

The cognitive interview has proved itself as a tool for accessing information not only in post time, but also in real time events. Even when  removed from ideal conditions and applied in the field, it is still a strong and effective instrument whose power lies in the good communication that it generates between interviewer and interviewee , as well as in the responsibility felt by the latter for the quality of the interview. It is recommended that every unit dealing with crisis management, negotiations and criminal interrogation specialize in conducting the cognitive interview.

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