Eyewitness Evidence: A Trainer's Manual for Law Enforcement  


Table of Contents

Sample Lesson Plan: Interviewing



Section III. Procedures for Interviewing the Witness by the Followup Investigator

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A. Preinterview Preparations and Decisions

Principle: Preparing for an interview maximizes the effectiveness of witness participation and interviewer efficiency.

Policy: The investigator should review all available witness and case information and arrange an efficient and effective interview.

Procedure: Prior to conducting the interview, the investigator should?

  1. Review available information.

    BulletThis information may include police reports and crime scene information. It is important for the interviewer to have all information relevant to the case prior to conducting the interview so that the interview can be tailored to elicit the maximum amount of information from the witness.

  2. Plan to conduct the interview as soon as the witness is physically and emotionally capable.

    BulletOnce the witness is capable, any delay in conducting the interview should be minimized as there will be less detailed information available as time goes on.
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  1. Select an environment that minimizes distractions while maintaining the comfort level of the witness.

    BulletDistractions will interrupt the witness?s memory retrieval. Avoid interviewing the witness in an environment where distractions are more likely to occur, such as a place of business. This should be determined with the witness to accommodate his/her schedule and needs.

  2. Ensure resources are available (e.g., notepad, tape recorder, camcorder, interview room).

    BulletSecure these items prior to the interview so the interview will not be interrupted.
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  1. Separate the witnesses.

    BulletIndependent witness statements can be used as corroboration/ confirmation. Witnesses should not hear others? statements because they may be influenced by that information.
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  1. Determine the nature of the witness?s prior law enforcement contact.

    BulletPrior law enforcement contact may include an arrest record, prior victimization, warrants, or any relationship to/with law enforcement personnel. This information can help put any information obtained from the witness into context for the purpose of assessing witness credibility and/or reliability. It also can assist later in rapport development.

Summary: Performing the above preinterview preparations will enable the investigator to elicit a greater amount of accurate information during the interview, which may be critical to the investigation.

Clarify that this procedure involves general law enforcement contact, not contact related to this case. The purpose of this procedure is to assess the witness?s credibility.
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B. Initial (Preinterview) Contact With the Witness

Principle: A comfortable witness provides more information.

Policy: Investigators should conduct themselves in a manner conducive to eliciting the most information from the witness.

Procedure: On meeting with the witness but prior to beginning the interview, the investigator should?

  1. Develop rapport with the witness.

    BulletThe development of rapport between the witness and interviewer will make the witness more comfortable during the interview process. Comfortable witnesses will generally provide more information. In the course of developing rapport with the witness, the interviewer can learn about the witness?s communication style (e.g., how the witness describes everyday events as compared with how the witness describes the incident). For example, if the witness appears nervous during the rapport development phase, the interviewer should not necessarily interpret nervous responses to later questions as being fabrications.

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  1. Inquire about the nature of the witness?s prior law enforcement contact related to the incident.

    BulletPrior law enforcement contact related to the incident includes interviews by other officers at the scene, participation in a showup and with whom, and so forth. This information can help put the witness?s comments into context. Do not ask about prior criminal record at this time. The interviewer should ask the witness if he/she has heard any other accounts of the incident (e.g., through the media, from other witnesses).

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Clarify that this procedure involves contact related to witnessing the incident. Do not ask the witness about his/her criminal record (this type of information should have been obtained during preparation for the interview).


  1. Volunteer no specific information about the suspect or case.

    BulletTelling witnesses facts about the suspect or case may influence their memories of the incident. The interviewer must ensure that information from the witness is based only on the witness?s memory and not on any information gleaned from the interviewer.


Summary: Establishing a cooperative relationship with the witness likely will result in an interview that yields a greater amount of accurate information.

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C. Conducting the Interview

The following is a summary of the order in which interviewing concepts should be instructed for maximum benefit. These concepts are more thoroughly discussed in Memory Enhancing Techniques for Investigative Interviewing (Fisher and Geiselman, 1992) (see Further Reading). After these concepts are explained, the 12 most important procedural points are listed as they appear in the Guide.

There are four basic principles of interviewing cooperative witnesses:

BulletSocial dynamics between the interviewer and witness.

BulletFacilitation of the witness?s memory and thinking.

BulletCommunication between the interviewer and witness.

BulletSequence of the interview.
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Play Audio Cut 3 and Audio Cut 4 (examples of two contrasting interview techniques):
Ask students to hypothesize as to why one set of techniques works better than the other.
Explain the four basic principles of interviewing and why they are essential. Provide examples of how the associated procedures can impact the information obtained.


Social Dynamics Between the Interviewer and Witness

Two goals are critical to establishing appropriate social dynamics:

BulletMaintain or reestablish rapport with the witness.

BulletEncourage the witness to actively and voluntarily report information, rather than passively respond to the interviewer?s questions.

Establishing rapport

When seeking to obtain information of a personal or intimate nature from a witness, establishing a personal relationship with the witness gains his/her trust. Rapport development will help the witness to feel more comfortable conveying personal information. It can be accomplished by personalizing the interview and by developing and communicating empathy.

BulletShow understanding and concern. This can be accomplished by asking about the witness?s health, empathizing with the witness?s situation, avoiding judgmental comments, and establishing common ground with the witness.

BulletPersonalize the interview. The interviewer should treat the witness as an individual and not as a mere statistic. This can be accomplished by avoiding pre-memorized questions that sound programmed or artificial (e.g., ?Is there anything you can tell me that would further assist this investigation??) and referring to the witness by his/her name.

BulletListen actively. The interviewer should ask interactive questions that follow up on the witness?s previous responses, repeat witness?s concerns, lean forward, and make eye contact.

Active generation of information

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The following information on the four principles should be conveyed or read to the class. Include examples that are supported by audio cuts.


The witness should be encouraged to volunteer information without prompting.* Because the witness, rather than the interviewer, possesses the relevant information, the witness should be mentally active during the interview and generate information, as opposed to being passive and waiting until the interviewer asks the appropriate question before answering. The interviewer can encourage the witness to be mentally active by directly requesting this activity or by asking open-ended questions. An open-ended question allows for an unlimited, narrative response from the witness (e.g., ?What can you tell me about the perpetrator??).** The interviewer should avoid interrupting the witness?s answer to an open-ended question.***

Encouraging the witness to actively generate information can be accomplished by?

BulletStating expectations. This is important because witnesses may not know what to expect or may have incorrect expectations of their role in the interview. The interviewer should state explicitly that the witness is expected to volunteer information.

BulletAsking open-ended questions. These questions allow the witness to do most of the talking during the interview and can make the witness feel more in control.

BulletAvoiding interruptions. Interrupting the witness during his/her answer discourages the witness from playing an active role and disrupts his/her memory. Rather than interrupt, the interviewer should make a note and follow up at a later time with any questions that arise during a witness?s narration.
Play Audio Cut 5*, Audio Cut 6**, and Audio Cut 7*** (examples of poor technique)


BulletAllowing pauses. It is important to allow for pauses after the witness stops speaking and before continuing to the next question. These periods of silence allow the witness to collect his/her thoughts and continue responding, thereby providing a greater amount of information.

Play Audio Cut 8 (example of good technique)

Conduct role-playing exercises focusing on social dynamics and get feedback.


Facilitation of the Witness?s Memory and Thinking

Much of the information about the incident is stored in the witness?s mind. For the witness to remember these events, he/she must concentrate and search through memory efficiently. The interviewer can promote information retrieval in several ways:

BulletMinimize distractions. The interviewer should ensure that physical distractions, such as noise or the presence of other persons, are minimized. In addition, the interviewer can encourage the witness to block out these distractions by closing his/her eyes and concentrating on the memory.

BulletEncourage the witness to mentally recreate the incident. The interviewer can promote the witness?s efficient recollection of the incident by instructing the witness to mentally recreate the circumstances surrounding the incident (e.g., think about his/her thoughts or feelings at the time of the incident).
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BulletTailor questions to the witness?s narrative. Because the witness is the source of information, the interviewer?s questions should be tailored to the witness?s current thoughts and narrative. For example, if the witness is thinking or talking about the perpetrator?s face, the questions should be about the face and not about other aspects of the incident, such as a license plate.* The interviewer should try to understand what aspect of the incident the witness is thinking about. Based on this inference, the interviewer should ask an open-ended question about that topic and then follow up with nonleading, closed-ended questions related to that topic. A closed-ended question is specific and limits the witness?s response to one or two words (e.g., ?How tall was he??). When asking closed-ended questions, the interviewer must ensure that the questions are nonleading. A leading question suggests an answer to the witness (e.g., ?Was his hair blond??).
Play Audio Cut 9* (example of poor technique)

Conduct role-playing exercises focusing on facilitation of the witness?s memory and thinking and get feedback.


Communication Between the Interviewer and Witness

The interviewer has investigative needs to solve the crime and the witness possesses relevant knowledge about the details of the crime. Both individuals need to communicate to each other this information. Otherwise, information may not be fully or effectively reported.

The interviewer should convey investigative needs (i.e., the types of information he/she is looking for) to the witness. The investigator needs the witness to report the event in more detail than would be conveyed in normal conversation. The investigator should explain this need for detail to the witness to ensure the witness is fully aware of how to provide the description.

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Witnesses may have a very good memory of the incident but fail to communicate the knowledge effectively. Therefore, the interviewer should try to facilitate the witness?s conversion of memory into effective communication. This can be accomplished by encouraging nonverbal responses (e.g., drawings, gestures) to supplement verbal descriptions as appropriate. The interviewer should also encourage the witness to report all information and not edit his/her thoughts. However, the witness should be cautioned not to guess simply to please the interviewer. It is preferable that the witness state, ?I don?t know,? or indicate that he/she is uncertain about a given answer.

Conduct role-playing exercises focusing on communication and get feedback.


Sequence of the Interview

To be effective in obtaining the maximum amount of information from a witness, the interview should be conducted in stages. The structure of the interview is first designed to calm the witness and gain his/her trust. The interview should continue with general instructions provided by the interviewer, followed by the witness?s narrative, and then relevant, probing questions by the interviewer. (Note: Ideally, information should be gathered using primarily open-ended questions. More specific, closed-ended questions should be used only when the witness fails to provide a clear or complete response.) The interview is then closed, leaving lines of communication open between the interviewer and witness.

The following is an example of a sequence to conduct the interview:

  1. Attempt to minimize the witness?s anxiety.
  2. Establish and maintain rapport.
  3. Encourage the witness to take an active role in the interview.
  4. Request a ?free narrative? description of the incident.
  5. Ask the witness to mentally recreate the circumstances of the incident.
  6. Ask followup questions to elicit additional information related to the witness?s narration.
  7. Review your notes and other materials.
  8. Ask the witness, ?Is there anything else I should have asked you??
  9. Close the interview.
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To review, the course structure should be based on the concepts described above and follow the outline: Social Dynamics, Memory/Thinking, Communication, and Sequence. At the end of each of the four sections, role-playing exercises should be conducted. Following are the key interviewing procedures as they appear in the Guide.

Conduct role-playing exercises or practice interviews and get feedback. Use civilians as witnesses when possible.


Principle: Interview techniques can facilitate witness memory and encourage communication both during and following the interview.

Policy: The investigator should conduct a complete, efficient, and effective interview of the witness and encourage postinterview communication.

Procedure: During the interview, the investigator should?

  1. Encourage the witness to volunteer information without prompting.

    BulletThis allows the witness to maintain an active role in the interview. Unprompted responses tend to be more accurate than those given in response to an interviewer?s questioning. Use a structured format (e.g., fill-in-the-blank form) only after you have collected as much information as possible from open-ended questions.

  2. Encourage the witness to report all details, even if they seem trivial.

    BulletSometimes the witness may withhold relevant information because he/she thinks it is unimportant or out of order. All information the witness provides is important.
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  1. Ask open-ended questions (e.g., ?What can you tell me about the car??) and augment with closed-ended, specific questions (e.g., ?What color was the car??).

    BulletOpen-ended questions allow the witness to play an active role, thereby generating a greater amount of unsolicited information. Open-ended responses also tend to be more accurate and promote more effective listening on the part of the interviewer. The interviewer also is less likely to lead the witness when framing questions in this manner. Ideally, information should be gathered using primarily open-ended questions. More specific, closed-ended questions should be used only when the witness fails to provide a clear or complete response.

  2. Avoid leading questions (e.g., ?Was the car red??).

    BulletLeading questions suggest an answer and may distort the witness?s memory.
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Reiterate the importance of using primarily open-ended questions.


  1. Caution the witness not to guess.

    BulletWitnesses, particularly child witnesses, may guess in an attempt to please the interviewer. Instruct the witness to state any uncertainty he/she may feel concerning an answer.

  2. Ask the witness to mentally recreate the circumstances of the event (e.g., ?Think about your feelings at the time?).

    BulletRecreating the circumstances of the event makes memory more accessible. Instruct the witness to think about his/her thoughts and feelings at the time of the incident.

  3. Encourage nonverbal communication (e.g., drawings, gestures, objects).

    BulletSome information can be difficult to express verbally. Witnesses, especially children and witnesses responding in other than their first language, may have difficulty with verbal expression. Witnesses? recall can be enhanced by encouraging them to draw diagrams of the crime scene, perpetrator?s scars, and so forth or to use gestures to demonstrate actions.
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  1. Avoid interrupting the witness.

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    BulletInterrupting the witness during an answer discourages the witness from playing an active role and disrupts his/her memory. Do not immediately continue questioning when a witness pauses after an answer. During a pause, the witness may be collecting his/her thoughts and could continue to provide information, if provided ample time.

  1. Encourage the witness to contact investigators when additional information is recalled.

    BulletWitnesses will often remember additional, useful information after the interview. Remind the witness that any information, no matter how trivial it may seem, is important.
Emphasize the usefulness of allowing ?pauses.?


  1. Instruct the witness to avoid discussing details of the incident with other potential witnesses.

    BulletWitnesses should not hear others? accounts because they may be influenced by that information. The independence of witnesses is important for corroboration of the information they have provided with other witnesses? statements and other evidence in the investigation.

  2. Encourage the witness to avoid contact with the media or exposure to media accounts concerning the incident.

    BulletMedia information may contaminate the witness?s memory. Media requests for a story or offers of compensation may encourage witnesses to fabricate information.

  3. Thank the witness for his/her cooperation.

    BulletThis reinforces the rapport that has been developed and the interviewer?s commitment to the witness, encouraging the witness to continue to cooperate.
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Summary: Information elicited from the witness during the interview may provide investigative leads and other essential facts. The above interview procedures can enable the witness to provide an accurate, complete description of the event and encourage the witness to report later recollections. Witnesses commonly recall additional information after the interview that may be critical to the investigation.

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D. Recording Witness Recollections

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Principle: The record of the witness?s statements accurately and completely reflects all information obtained and preserves the integrity of this evidence.

Policy: The investigator should provide complete and accurate documentation of all information obtained from the witness.

Procedure: During or as soon as reasonably possible after the interview, the investigator should?

  1. Document the witness?s statements (e.g., audio or video recording, stenographer?s documentation, witness?s written statement, written summary using witness?s own words).

    BulletDocumentation is imperative in the instance that the witness cannot be located later. Use of the witness?s own words ensures that the information is recorded accurately. Additionally, in some jurisdictions, the witness?s statement must be signed to be admissible in court.
These procedures are conducted with the witness.


  1. Review written documentation; ask the witness if there is anything he/she wishes to change, add, or emphasize.

    BulletThis is useful for clarifying the information received from the witness to ensure the information has been recorded accurately. This also provides an extra opportunity for witnesses to remember additional information.
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Summary: Complete and accurate documentation of the witness?s statement supports a successful investigation and any subsequent court proceedings.

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E. Assessing the Accuracy of Individual Elements of a Witness?s Statement

Principle: Point-by-point consideration of a statement may enable judgment on which components of the statement are most accurate. Each piece of information recalled by the witness may be remembered independently of other elements.

Policy: The investigator should review the individual elements of the witness?s statement to determine the accuracy of each point.

Procedure: After conducting the interview, the investigator should?

  1. Consider each individual component of the witness?s statement separately.

    BulletA witness may not have information about all elements of an incident. Thus, some recollections may be correct while others may be incorrect.
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These procedures are conducted after the interview, without the witness.


  1. Review each element of the witness?s statement in the context of the entire statement. Look for inconsistencies within the statement.

    BulletNote any inconsistencies for future reference. Also, note that the inconsistency of one element with another does not imply that the entire statement is inaccurate.
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Step 2 examines the internal consistency of the statement.


  1. Review each element of the statement in the context of evidence known to the investigator from other sources (e.g., other witnesses? statements, physical evidence).

    BulletNote any inconsistencies between the witness?s statement and other information. These inconsistencies can be useful in assessing the accuracy of elements of witness statements as well as in directing the investigation.
Step 3 examines the external consistency of the statement as it relates to other information obtained in the case investigation.


Summary: Point-by-point consideration of the accuracy of each element of a witness?s statement can assist in focusing the investigation. This technique avoids the common misconception that the accuracy of an individual element of a witness?s description predicts the accuracy of another element.

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F. Maintaining Contact With the Witness

Principle: The witness may remember and provide additional information after the interview has concluded.

Policy: The investigator should maintain open communication to allow the witness to provide additional information.

Procedure: During postinterview, followup contact with the witness, the investigator should?

  1. Reestablish rapport with the witness.

    BulletThe investigator should ask the witness about something personal that follows up on his/her previous contact with the witness (e.g., ?Has your arm healed??). Witnesses will continue to provide information to investigators with whom they have a continuous positive relationship.

  2. Ask the witness if he/she has recalled any additional information.

    BulletThis reinforces the idea that the witness is an active part of the investigation. Witnesses generally recall additional information following the initial interview.
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  1. Follow interviewing and documentation procedures in subsections C, Conducting the Interview, and D, Recording Witness Recollections.

    BulletGo back and review this material. (See pages 15?22. Refer students to Guide pages 22?24.)

  2. Provide no information from other sources.

    Bullet Witnesses may ask the investigator about information that has developed since the initial interview. Providing the witness with specific information obtained from other witnesses or from physical evidence may influence the witness?s perception of the incident.
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Bullet Should other information arise following the initial interview that differs from, contradicts, or corroborates information the witness provided, this information can be clarified with the witness at this time. However, the investigator can present that information to the witness in a nonleading manner. The investigator can provide the witness with neutral information, such as asking if any vehicle was present at the time of the incident, NOT ?Are you sure there was not a blue Ford at the scene??


Summary: Reestablishing contact and rapport with the witness often leads to recovery of additional information. Maintaining open communication channels with the witness throughout the investigation can lead to additional evidence.

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