Research by Malsch and colleagues has found that official police reports provide information on only a small part of suspect interrogation proceedings. For example, they do not inform on whether the suspect was put under pressure. If official police reports do not accurately represent a suspect interrogation this may affect the decision a court comes to. In this research, either visual or audio recordings of 55 suspect interrogations were compared.
By comparing these recordings with the official written reports, the researchers were able to determine what information was omitted or misrepresented in preparing the report. In addition, interviews with detectives, prosecutors, lawyers, and judges took place. An experiment was also carried out to establish the respective influence of visual and audio recordings during interrogations.
The results of the research demonstrate that only a quarter of the interrogation process is reproduced in official reports. The main questions which arise in an interrogation are mostly present (63 percent), but follow-up questions and answers to these are reproduced in only a quarter of the official reports examined. Official reports appear therefore to reduce the details of interrogations considerably.
Leaving information out of official reports carries risk. During interrogations, pressure can be placed on suspects to provide information without this being accurately reported. Furthermore, emotions and tension or hesitations by the suspect are often not reported. Official reports therefore present suspects as being far surer of themselves than they actually were during the interrogation. The official reports consequently distort the interrogation process: a different picture of the suspect emerges than would be evident from watching or listening to visual or audio recordings of the interrogation. The behaviour of the interrogator is not described in the official reports, despite the fact that this behaviour can impact on a suspect’s statements.
As a consequence, interrogations are now recorded in more serious cases. A potential downside of this is that visual images are given too much prominence, discounting other information. This is a risk because research has shown that suspects are more likely to be judged as guilty if their non-verbal behaviour is visible. This also applies to situations when the non-verbal behaviour of the defendant is described in the official report, for example, ‘suspect is crying’ or ‘silence’.
Criminal trials still do not make frequent use of interrogation recordings. According to prosecutors and judges, these take up too much time. Judges consider the presence of a recording to be important, but they rarely look at them. Dutch criminal proceedings are generally conducted on the basis of written records, and those involved assume these written pieces to accurately represent the ‘reality’. Malsch and colleagues’ research show that this is not the case. The researchers recommend that it becomes standard practice to include interrogation recordings in case files, so that when cases are heard visual and audio recordings can be referred to.
The results of this research were discussed at the conference The suspect interrogation: official reports or recordings? on 2 December 2014.
Malsch, R. Kranendonk, J. de Keijser, H. Elffers, M. Komter en M. de Boer. (2015). Kijken, luisteren, lezen. De invloed van beeld, geluid en schrift op het oordeel over verdachtenverhoren. [Look, listen, read. The influence of visuals, audio and written word on the judgement of suspect interrogations.] Politiewetenschap 79, Politie en Wetenschap, Apeldoorn; Reed Business, Amsterdam 2015.