Photo: The terrorist suspect being interviewed by Norwegian police. Provided with kind permission by the author.
In 2011, ten years after a new approach of questioning criminal suspects was introduced in Norway called ‘Investigative Interviewing’, the country was struck by a terrorist attack which killed 77 people. In the aftermath of the attack, Asbjørn Rachlew, a Police Superintendent in Oslo was tasked with recruiting and advising a team to interview the suspect, Anders Behring Breivik. In this expert blog for Penal Reform International, Asbjorn explains why Investigative Interviewing represents the safest and most efficient approach to solve crime and to counter terrorism.
In the early 1990s, a judicial ‘U-turn’ was initiated in the United Kingdom with their approach to questioning suspects in criminal cases. In short, the police were requested to alter their mindset and change their questioning procedures. This entailed a shift from an interrogative practice aimed at getting the suspect to confess, to a research-based interviewing procedure designed to gather and test accurate and reliable information.[i]
Although this U-turn from interrogation to Investigative Interviewing has influenced police training outside of the UK and has expanded to various regions of the world, the vast majority of police forces still haven’t committed themselves to the fundamental principles and ethos underpinning the concept of Investigative Interviewing.[ii]
In his last report as UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez urged the international community to develop global standards, endorsing ‘Investigative Interviewing’ as best practice.[iii] Investigative Interviewing was chosen because scholars and practitioners from different corners of the world advised that rapport-based interviewing represents the safest and most efficient approach to solve crime[iv] and to counter terrorism.[v]
The need for a global shift towards Investigative Interviewing
For a better understanding of the need for a global shift in interviewing practices, we need to reflect upon the fact that torture, coercion and manipulative confession-orientated interrogation techniques are all different means to the same end. Although manipulation is less brutal than torture, the mindset of the interrogating officers remains the same: They are trying to solve their (sometimes complex) tasks with a methodology, designed to confirm their presumption of guilt.
Police engage in such an approach because they believe it is the right thing to do. Humans tend to seek confirmation rather than invalidation (cognitive predisposition). Accordingly, within criminal justice systems, there is a belief that searching for information that confirms our assumptions is the smartest way to solve problems. Furthermore, the system recognizes – and salutes – confessions. This is a perilous mixture, feeding the underlying cause of wrongful convictions, the likelihood of false confessions and unethical procedures, including torture, psychological coercion and manipulation.
[W]ithin criminal justice systems, there is a belief that searching for information that confirms our assumptions is the smartest way to solve problems. Furthermore, the system recognizes – and salutes – confessions. This is a perilous mixture, feeding the underlying cause of wrongful convictions, the likelihood of false confessions and unethical procedures, including torture, psychological coercion and manipulation.
Investigative Interviewing in Norway
Following a judicial scandal in Norway, involving a false confession by a young suspect in an infamous homicide case in the late 1990s, the Norwegian police looked to the UK. On the turning of the century, the Norwegian National Police University College officially committed themselves to Investigative Interviewing, acknowledging that confession-focused “tricks of the past” no longer constituted best practice. A national training course was developed in close cooperation with scholars and colleagues from the UK and subsequently delivered to new recruits and detectives in all regions.
Although this change in policy became a painful process of change for some, the general feedback from police officers was very positive. In brief, officers felt more professional (e.g. it enhanced their understanding of the interviewer’s influence and gave them a deeper understanding of ethical issues involved) and more effective (e.g. more structured interviews, enhanced communication skills and enhanced knowledge of how to utilize potential evidence).[vi]
22 July, 2011 – Terror in Norway
Ten years after the introduction of Investigative Interviewing, Norway was struck by terror. Following a massive car explosion in front of government buildings in Oslo, killing 8 people, a right-wing extremist disguised as a police officer, continued his killing-spree on the island of Utøya. Although the majority managed to escape by hiding or swimming to the mainland, 69 people were shot dead on the island – one by one. Most of them were teenagers, gathered at the Labor Youth’s summer camp.
Norway was in shock and in a state of emergency. Thousands of people were left in painstaking grief, including members of the government who lost personal friends, colleagues and members of their own political party’s youth wing.
At first glance, one may think that the Norwegian police, once they had arrested the suspect, faced a relatively straight-forward investigation. After all, the suspect was arrested on the scene, and CCTV footage from Oslo confirmed his identity. However, from an investigative point of view (and less known to the public), the situation escalated after the arrest.
After the suspect had achieved his main objective, which he described as “to secure global attention by the means of terror”, he moved on to the next phase which he called “the operation”. In police custody, the suspect now looked upon himself as an “intellectual soldier”, representing a covert pan-European organization, standing up against “the Islamic invasion of Europe”.
Ticking bomb scenario
Ten minutes into the first audio-recorded interview of the suspect on Utøya island, immediately after his legal rights had been explained to him, the suspect took advantage of the situation and threatened the nation in a strategic attempt to increase the terror by creating a ticking-bomb scenario. He said:
“What you have seen here today is just the beginning. This is not the operation. It is only firecrackers compared to what will happen … Cell two and three will activate in the near future”.
We (the Norwegian police) had to take him seriously. Our capital was still burning from what was clearly a massive bomb. Young, politically active people had been cowardly and systematically killed. Nothing seemed random. Even the fake police badges, carefully sewn onto the suspects home-made police uniform, demonstrated thorough planning and careful preparations.
Like most police officers, I was called in. My assignment was to recruit and advise the team tasked with interviewing the suspect.
Before I continue, I would like to pause for a moment and ask the reader of this blog a question: How would you question the suspect, if you were left in charge? The nation was on its highest alert and military forces had been mobilized. – “Cell two and three will activate in the near future…”
The relatively new methodology, Investigative Interviewing, was facing its greatest test yet. Everyone was confident that the police would benefit significantly from our investments in training as our detectives initiated the challenging task of interviewing the young and (potentially) highly traumatized survivors. But how would ethical interviewing, including rapport building, interpersonal communication theories, human rights, cognitive- and strategical interviewing techniques resolve the situation at hand with a suspect who had just blasted our government buildings and killed 69 young people trapped on an island?
The relatively new methodology, Investigative Interviewing, was facing its greatest test yet… How would ethical interviewing, including rapport building, interpersonal communication theories, human rights, cognitive- and strategical interviewing techniques resolve the situation at hand with a suspect who had just blasted our government buildings and killed 69 young people trapped on an island?
The torture question
I have held numerous lectures and training sessions on Investigative Interviewing in various parts of the world. Since 22 July 2011, I often ask the audience the very same question: “How would you question the suspect?” I can still clearly picture a military intelligence officer, colonel of rank, in a training in East Asia, responding to the very same question. There must have been 30, perhaps 40 participants gathered in the conference room. The audience was deadly silent, before the colonel took charge and raised his voice:
“We would torture him! We must protect the people!”
The colonel’s honest response gave us an entry point to discuss one of the most dangerous myths still very much alive, also in the Western world. After all, a President was elected in the US who pondered (or ponders) bringing back water-boarding.
In line with Juan Mendez`s call to the international community, aiming for global and sustainable guidelines to prevent harsh and abusive interrogations, I believe that it is important to start by debunking the myth that torture and other confession-oriented interrogation tactics represent an efficient way to gather reliable information and solve crime.[vii] Sadly, this is a universal question, relevant to all states. Hence, an authoritative protocol, advocating Investigative Interviewing will benefit all countries in the world.
By drawing attention to manipulative, confession-oriented interrogation techniques, one could argue that the much-needed focus within torture prevention is diverted away from the gravest breaches of human rights. But I will argue that if the UN chooses to follow Mendez`s recommendations it would address the misleading argument that coercive interrogation is needed for “crime fighting”, a myth I strongly believe the United Nations are in a unique position to eliminate by instituting a sustainable framework based on the research and ethos underpinning Investigative Interviewing. It will benefit all states pursuing a more effective and professional police force, including those in which torture no longer constitutes a serious threat.
Investigative Interviewing – verified through science
As pointed out above, ten years have passed since we launched the first Norwegian training program in Investigative Interviewing. The training course was given the name C.R.E.A.T.I.V., standing for ‘Communication, Rule of Law, Ethics and empathy, Active consciousness, Trust through openness, Information gathering, Verified through science.’
The acronym seeks to capture the values and principles we wanted our new methodology to be associated with, simultaneously taking an active deliberate stance, away from confession-oriented interrogations. Fortunately, our police organization has allowed us to pursue and sustain these officially proclaimed principles and values in practice, including through internal PhD scholarships on relevant subjects. Because our Police Academy had transformed into a University College, our police force had simultaneously come to rely more on evidence-based thinking and methodology.
This research on evidence-based techniques, which had been done for over 30 years, including on Investigative Interviewing, coupled with 10 years of experience, demonstrates that the best way to gather accurate and reliable information is to meet the people we interview with human dignity, as a foundation[viii] The ethical approach helps us communicate empathy, which in itself is the key element to establishing earnest inter-personal communication. If you want (as we very much do) accurate and reliable information, these principles constitute the key elements in a professional interview of victims, witnesses and suspects of crime. Detectives who understand, internalize and operationalize these basic principles tend to be our best listeners – which is arguably the most important skill for effective interviewers. Make no mistake about it: Investigative Interviewing is not an easy task if it is to be performed in a professional manner, particularly not in situations under pressure. As pointed out by some of the leading pioneers in the field:[ix]
An effective and professional investigative interviewer needs to obtain a better understanding of life`s most complex event – a face-to-face encounter with another person.
Based on these insights we recruited police detectives competent to operationalize the presumption of innocence in any circumstance by generating and actively testing alternative hypotheses through systematic preparation, empathic rapport building, the use of open-ended questions, active listening, and strategic probing and disclosure of potential evidence[x].
Returning to Utøya, I am not in position to judge our performance, but I am prepared to, and have testified at court that our interviewing officers, in this particularly tragic case, followed the methodology of Investigative Interviewing and that we achieved our objectives without coercion or manipulation.
Norway tomorrow will be recognizable
In one of its very first public statements, delivered just a few hours after the terror in Oslo and Utøya, the Norwegian government assured its citizens and the world in general, that:
Norway tomorrow will be recognizable – nobody can take from us our values, our democracy.
Ten years after the policy shift to use Investigative Interviewing, it was already ingrained in us. I feel confident that we would have interviewed the suspect in line with the ethos of Investigative Interviewing without the inspirational response from our leaders. Nevertheless, as an operative police officer who supervised the interviews, it was reassuring to know that our government trusted us. It provided us with crucial confidence. After all, we were all facing a situation that we had never faced before.
Through its statement; “Stick to your values”, the government essentially said: “Stick to Investigative Interviewing and C.R.E.A.T.I.V”. In essence, we were provided with the task to tackle the challenge with the methodology we were trained in and hence believed in, without interference by impulsive orders from Chiefs of Police, General Prosecutors or desperate politicians, promoting a “tough approach” despite evidence pointing to its ineffectiveness.
The most important safeguard
I have chosen not to focus on the various safeguards that serve as measures to prevent torture and other ill treatment in interrogative settings, by themselves or in combination. These safeguards, including the right to legal assistance, the right to remain silent, access to medical examination, electronic recording and right to information, detailed custody records – to name a few, are so important that we cannot ignore any of them. However, these (and other) safeguards are nonetheless complementary measures. My central point is that the most important safeguard against torture, coercion and manipulation in interrogations is indeed the interview methodology employed by the police.
The mindset of an Investigative Interviewer, in his/ her preparations, interpersonal communication and questioning of suspects cannot be altered along the way. To start off with “Investigative Interviewing” and then move on to “persuasion” at the end – or in between – has been a common, manipulative technique in confession orientated interrogations for decades.[xii] The emergence of such a ‘contemporary’ combination-package (using investigative interviewing and interrogation), commonly referred to as `soft-interrogations` does not facilitate the advocated change of mindset acquired to advance the much-needed change in practice from confession-orientated to information gathering techniques.[xiii]
To come back to our example of the terror suspect in Norway, he was interviewed 31 times over a period of 9 months totaling 220 hours. Every second is recorded. The suspect was informed and reminded of his human rights in the opening of each interview. His lawyer was present at all times. The only complaint he had when the trial started was that he regretted having said too much. He was sentenced to prison and remains there.
Combined with all other available sources of information, the extensive investigation revealed that he most likely acted alone and that there never was a ‘cell two or three’. I believe that the Norwegian public feels confident about this.
As far as the “ticking bomb argument” is concerned, one is left to speculate who the suspect would have “given up”, if we had tortured him long enough. Imagine the subsequent trial and the impact such a scenario would have had on public trust; towards the government in general and the criminal justice system in particular.
Although more research is needed, it is not hard to imagine that Investigative Interviewing, and the mindset it represents, is more effective than its alternatives – also in the long run.
Download End-notes (pdf)
Read the Special Rapporteur on Torture’s statement and report calling for universal standards for interviewing detainees.