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What Can We Learn from Subject Interviews?

After years of interviewing eyewitnesses as the forensic artist for one of the largest police agencies in Northern California, I found myself championing efforts to convince investigative practitioners about the benefits of mindful interviewing. Whether it was from my appearances on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Forensic Files—Trail of a Killer, the Dove Real Beauty Sketches campaign, or as a featured speaker at Harvard University discussing how forensic artists might be wrong about their interview process. I believe it has always been my interview technique that has facilitated authentic recollections from eyewitnesses, guided by principles mindful of what I call “cognitive evidence.” Still, I’ve found that investigators find authentic recall less useful and instead resort to collaborating with their eyewitnesses to produce statements that align with their investigative theories.

At the same time, I’ve found the confidence level of many interview practitioners overstated because their interview strategies are rarely scrutinized. It is quite possible that professional investigators expect their subjects to reveal all the information precisely, regardless of their memory of the event. The problem with this investigative mindset is that it can lead to gathering questionable facts. Even cognitive psychologists test the veracity of their eyewitnesses instead of evaluating the effectiveness of interviewers gathering facts about the staged event. Ideally, if we measure the efficacy of subject interviews by evaluating queries, analyzing responses, and appraising abidance to interview principles, we can ensure all our investigations will be based only on reliable facts.

Complacent Interview Strategies

Over the last forty years, corporate and government interview practitioners have engaged in gathering information from subjects utilizing interview methods that demand professionalism, encourage rapport, and employ interview tactics that assume, with enough guidance, that important information will be revealed. However, many investigative administrators soon realized that relying on the heuristics of experienced investigators might be influencing their department’s effectiveness at solving more cases. So, a systematic process for conducting interviews was adopted to improve their collection of evidence.

One of these interview methods employed by law enforcement agents and corporate investigators is the cognitive interview (CI) technique developed by Ronald P. Fisher, PhD, and R. Edward Geiselman, PhD. Their acclaimed interview style encourages the eyewitness to recall events by accessing memory codes through augmented communication techniques. In their book, Memory-Enhancing Techniques for Investigative Interviewing—The Cognitive Interview (1992), they describe how interviewers should direct the eyewitness toward memory codes to assist them in revealing what happened. The interviewer, while actively listening, is expected to identify scenes (segments of their statements) that they can probe further to clarify details regarding the suspect or crime elements.

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The structured approach of the CI is unclear about the dangers of memory contamination or the limitations of eyewitness memory. Instead, it relies on the investigator to enhance recall by abiding by a systematic process that includes context reinstatement (CR), report everything (RE), recall from changed perspective (CP), and recall in reverse order (RO). Undoubtedly, both the novice and experienced investigator maneuver in a memory minefield to retrieve as much information as possible, regardless of the reliability of statements.

Let’s take a moment and look at how the CI interviewer might identify scenes in two investigative examples and then I’ll offer you an example of a mindful inquiry. First, in a robbery investigation, the investigator might consider the following scene as the victim recalls the event in the “report everything” phase of the interview. The robbery victim describes the suspect approaching with a weapon and demands their bag. Because the investigator believes the eyewitness had a good look at the suspect, saw the weapon and clothing, and maybe heard the suspect say something, the investigator sees this as an opportunity to ask about this scene in the change perspective or reverse order phases of the interview.

Next, in a retail theft crime, the eyewitness might describe the suspects entering the store as they move to the counter to steal merchandise. The investigator relies on this specific scene to encourage the eyewitness to recall more information about the race, age, and build of the suspect. They also focus on the clothing and any conversations they might have had with their associates. Eventually, the investigator makes a note of it and probes further in the next phase.

In each scenario, they’ll ask the eyewitness to consider events from different perspectives to improve the number of details recalled. The cognitive effort in exhausting these perspectives can be challenging for the eyewitness, which means the strategy for identifying scenes can be complicated for the novice interviewer and even problematic for veteran investigators. With this in mind, if the eyewitness is recalling details and the investigator is determining which scenes to probe into further, are they really listening to every detail?

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Because the interviewer expects memory codes to activate accurate recall from the eyewitness, they may presume every detail just needs to be accessed. For instance, in our robbery example, if the investigator hears the eyewitness describe the weapon as being black and small, they might ask whether it was a semi-automatic pistol or a revolver. These questions might be relevant to this case, but consideration of how they were asked and how the eyewitness responded could be precarious for the veracity of the evidence collected. Let’s say the investigator asks, “You said it was a small black gun. Was it like this one?” The investigator then shows their Glock. 380 from their holster. The eyewitness might say, “I think so, I don’t really remember—I don’t know much about guns.”

Similarly, in the retail theft case, the interviewer might ask about the clothing of the suspects, and the witness says, “I think they were wearing black, but it could have been dark blue—it looked like a jogging suit.” The interviewer then asks, “Was it something like this?” and shows pictures of athletic jogging suits from a website. In both cases, when the investigator offers them choices (black pistols, athletic jogging suits) and the eyewitness selects one, this could be considered eyewitness memory contamination.

If, on the other hand, we approach the robbery interview in a mindful manner, we might ask, “What else can you tell me about the gun?” using an open-ended question versus a force-choice question. The eyewitness replies, “I’m sorry, but I really didn’t get a good look—I told you, I don’t know anything about guns.” We can be confident they have no more reliable information to offer.

Consequently, if we understand that in eyewitness recall sometimes that is all there is, we can avoid these dubious investigative tactics and alternatively concentrate on maintaining the integrity of the cognitive evidence collected.

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Psychologists Focus on the Accuracy of Eyewitnesses

While psychologists have concentrated on the accuracy of eyewitness recollections, there is scant evidence about the effectiveness of interviewers generating dependable eyewitness recollections. Nevertheless, we can gain valuable insight into how eyewitnesses interact with their interviewers if we look closely at the experiments. In her 1996 book Eyewitness Testimony, Elizabeth Loftus, PhD demonstrated how eyewitnesses (college students) easily could accept information that was not present at the actual event observed. For example, in one experiment they asked eyewitnesses to view a video of an automobile accident and then asked how fast the car was moving before it hit or smashed into the other car. Later, respondents’ recollection of the speed of the vehicle increased by 43 percent because broken glass was present at the scene. The broken glass was post-event information that was introduced to see whether eyewitnesses would accept the associated details or not. Indeed, enhancing recollections by suggesting information that describes an event is important for interview practitioners to consider and avoid.

I’ve been lecturing in the justice studies department at San Jose State since 2017, and when I have the opportunity to teach the eyewitness interview course I have students participate in a modified version of the Deese-Roediger-McDermott (DRM) task. Originally developed in 1959 by Dr. James Deese and then renewed by Dr. Henry L. Rodiger III and Dr. Kathleen McDermott in 1995, the activity demonstrates how easily someone can accept false memories. Every time I present this memory task to university students and investigator audiences, they always come away amazed at how easily they believe they saw something, when in fact they didn’t.

At the end of the presentation, I remind the audience of the dangers of introducing information in the spirit of clarification. Whether investigators are helping eyewitnesses come up with a word to describe a certain type of clothing, a style of weapon, a picture of a car, or showing photos of possible suspects, these are all types of post-event information that can be accepted by the eyewitness. After the official report is written, will we ever know what was an authentic recall from the eyewitness and what was implied by the investigator?

Deconstructing an Interview for Examination

When I considered writing The Mindful Interview Method (2023), I knew that I had to explain the evolution of my interview process for practitioners who might consider including it in their investigative toolbox. In other words, I had to explain my perspective on the art of interviewing and consider my experience as a forensic artist.

Even though I was a member of the Bureau of Investigation at the police department, I was an outlier for the types of victims I would interview. Most investigators would be assigned to a specific unit where they only dealt with certain types of crimes like robberies, sexual assaults, juvenile crimes, or fraud. I, on the other hand, was interviewing victims of all these felony crimes and more. With this in mind, my interest in the psychology of human memory led me to make changes to my interview technique and my office at the police department, where I would eventually interview thousands of eyewitnesses for the next seventeen years.

As a sworn forensic artist, I had complete autonomy with a law enforcement agency that was known for progressive ideas in leadership and training—that gave me confidence in challenging the status quo. So, I altered my interview strategy to be more mindful and changed my interview environment to generate more reliable information from eyewitnesses. For instance, I knew from practicing meditation that focused attention could allow the eyewitness to consider their criminal event from a different perspective. Closing their eyes and taking deep breaths could help them settle in for my guided interview session. Likewise, the interior design of my office was transformed from the spartan decor of a police station to a welcoming refuge of comfortable furniture, living plants, a desktop waterfall, and the sounds of new age music playing on a 70-minute loop. Because of my interest in the psychology of human behaviors, I created an environment where being relaxed and focused would improve eyewitness recollection and recognition.

Soon after starting my forensic art career, my improved interview style would be showcased on the Oprah Winfrey Show. The entire show was void of celebrities talking about their latest projects and instead examined the unreliability of eyewitness statements. Further, the show included psychologists and other experts in cognitive behaviors that explained how eyewitnesses were often mistaken. In our segment, I was one of three sketch artists asked to interview an audience member who had witnessed a theft—a staged event with a confederate victim in the audience. Meanwhile, as I was interviewing my eyewitness, she was called away by producers. Soon, she returned and asked me to add facial hair to her suspect sketch although she had previously described him as being clean-shaven. I was about 99 percent done with the sketch.

Nonetheless, in an actual theft case, I would have advised the investigator to consider sending me another eyewitness. In fact, when I met her she was unsure about her recollection because she said she was seated in the back and was obscured by audience members in front of her. All she kept saying was, “I can’t believe I’m going to meet Oprah!”

I’m sure the producers wanted to provide what cognitive psychologists call cross-race description issues. My eyewitness was an African American woman, and the male suspect was eventually revealed to be Caucasian. When Oprah asked me about my sketch, I walked her through my interview process and told her that I relied only on what the eyewitness said and nothing more. In the end, my sketch proved that eyewitnesses are unreliable despite my sketch resembling a male subject.

After retiring from law enforcement, I was asked by an international PR firm representing Unilever to participate in a marketing campaign called Dove Real Beauty Sketches. The video featured me interviewing real women describing themselves for a sketch and then comparing that sketch to one where I interviewed other people interacting with the same woman. It was an amazing experience and introduced my interview technique to a broader audience. My interview method aligned with trauma-informed approaches that allowed these real women to reflect on personal issues that caused them to see themselves in a negative light. And yet, the others I interviewed found these real women to be more beautiful than they believed. Equally important, I stayed clear of making suggestions that would alter their authentic perceptions.

Years later I began lecturing at the university and had the opportunity to develop a course about my interview technique. I included research material that supported my theories about human memory and the psychology of how people process information. I decided that students taking the course might not be interested in becoming forensic artists and instead might find the process for gathering facts from subjects more applicable to their future careers. In addition, I had to reexamine my interview technique, pull back the trappings of a complex sketch interview, and retain only the elements that were at the core of recovering reliable cognitive evidence. After examining my interview technique, I realized I had been faithful to three principles for every eyewitness interview since 1995: respect for the eyewitness, accepting limited information, and limiting suggestive questions.

A decade before I retired, I began recording my sketch interview sessions to memorialize them for training and court testimony purposes. In preparing my manuscript, I decided to review several hundred of these interviews and select some for comprehensive analysis. I found that what made these interview sessions so successful was that they were buttressed by the mindful interview principles I was abiding by.

Since the principles were focused on the cognitive evidence I collected, the assessments I designed about these interview sessions resulted in reliability scores that deemed the interviews highly reliable, reliable, or less than reliable. As a result, the Efficacy of Eyewitness Interview Assessment (EEIA) program I created allowed me to evaluate other non-forensic sketch interview sessions.

As I deconstructed my interview technique, I found certain components of inquiry that were consistent in every interview, and I labeled these segments “mindful interview standards.” These standards included the mindful reset, probing framework, intentional listening, mindful of cognitive evidence, and mindful closing. What I was looking for in these interviews was a probing structure for assigning these components. In my analysis of these transcripts, I compared interview styles and asked the reader to consider whether the interviewers gathered reliable statements from their eyewitnesses. During a recent presentation with law enforcement investigators, I asked them whether they evaluate their interview sessions on a regular basis and only 1 percent of the group said they did.

Of course, when agencies or corporations have no mandate for administering interview assessments any fidelity investigators have for recovering the truth from their interviews is unknown.

A Mindful Outlook on the Efficacy of Interviews

So, why not consider the efficacy of our subject interviews? Imagine investigative agencies and private corporations storing all their interview sessions and then arbitrarily selecting them for assessment—it would give the company an idea of the reliability of the evidence their interviewers were gathering. Their trainers would have conclusive proof of the deficiencies in adopting principles and standards so they could reexamine their instruction delivery and improve their curriculum for their interviewers. Likewise, an annual evaluation process would improve the collection of cognitive evidence for investigations and simultaneously recognize investigators for their level of proficiency.

Optimistically, we can continue to expect our government and corporate entities to develop systematic interview routines that adopt evidence‑based principles and standards that deliver reliable evidence for their investigations. Even though cognitive researchers publish research articles that cite eyewitness memory as being unreliable, investigators continue to rely on it to follow leads, identify suspects, and conduct internal corporate investigations. Admittedly, we also find that investigators, in their zeal for the truth, often fall back on heuristics that assume certain outcomes. Until investigative administrators consider the paucity of reliable authentic recollection data, investigators must be the vanguard for ensuring accountability for investigative interview practices. After all, if we hold ourselves accountable and accept the presumption that we agree on basic interview principles, we can begin to accept regular objective assessments that can measure the reliability of cognitive evidence we collect from our subjects.


Gil Zamora

Gil Zamora has interviewed thousands of eyewitnesses about violent crimes since 1995. Trained in composite art by the FBI he eventually gained valuable insight about eyewitness misidentifications as the police artist for the San Jose Police Department. He enjoys lecturing students at San Jose State University and the University of New England about eyewitness interviews. For more information visit www.mindfulinterviews.com or email Gil at gil@mindfulinterviews.com.

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