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Recording Investigative Interviews – The Benefits Outweigh the Risks

Posted - May 26, 2015

Over the years I have had many interesting discussions on the advantages and potential disadvantages of recording investigative interviews. I have tried to look at all sides of the issue and have written about topic in the past. I thought it was about time I revisit this topic and make a case for recording.

Let’s consider a scenario as follows: An investigator is conducting an interview with a witness. The investigator asks questions of the witness, maintaining a polite and respectful demeanour during the course of the interview. Although the interview includes some challenging questions and a few questions need repeating, the interview generally appears to go well. Six months later during the hearing, the witness testifies and proceeds to describe an interview alleging the investigator was rude, threatening, and coercive.  In addition, the witness changes the story and denies the accuracy of the interview.

This scenario is not uncommon and without an audio or video tape of the interview, the investigator’s ability to defend such allegations is limited. What is left is the so called “he said / she said” scenario. The credibility of the witness and the investigator will be measured and the investigator hopes their credibility stands up to scrutiny. These situations produce stress for all parties and may cloud the facts in a hearing or trial, making the job of the prosecutor and the trier of fact more difficult.

On the other hand, there might be investigators who will cross the line and may say and do things that are inappropriate. While we hope these individuals are rare, all investigators must be accountable for their actions. A simple solution to prevent this type of behaviour and to guard against false allegations is to record interviews. Not all organizations are comfortable with the recording of interviews and there are pros and cons to both approaches. This article will suggest that the benefits of recording interviews outweigh the negative aspects, which a competent investigator can overcome. In the end, we will leave it for the reader to decide what is best for them and their organization.

First, let’s look at the potential negative aspects of recording interviews:

  • Interviewees may be reluctant to provide information and may end up not providing information useful for the investigation

  • Recording interviews might result in the need for those interviews to be transcribed. The transcription of interviews results in additional cost in terms of human resources and materials

  • Investigators who are less experienced may inadvertently say things that could be misinterpreted, which may open the investigation to criticism

  • If the investigator is recording the interview, the interviewee may demand to do the same and the interview content could then be leaked to other potential interviewees, thereby potentially disrupting the integrity of the investigation

A skilled investigator can address the disadvantages to recording interviews and should be able to put the interviewee at ease, thereby obtaining the information required, despite any nervousness on the part of the interviewee. Arguably, people are more nervous about what will be done with the information they provide than the manner in which it is documented. Providing an adequate explanation to an interviewee to help their understanding of how the investigator will use the information and what steps the investigator will take to protect them, will assist them in overcoming many of their concerns.

With respect to the additional resources that may be required to transcribe interviews, there are ways to combat this issue. First, it should not be necessary to transcribe the interviews in their entirety. Investigators can still take notes and use the recording as a tool to confirm accuracy when preparing the report. They can also use the recorded interview for the purposes of addressing any potential conflicts that might arise in terms of what was discussed or said in the interview. Although some additional resources may still be needed to review the recordings and summarize the relevant points, the benefits will outweigh this modest increase in resources.

As for investigators saying something that may compromise the investigation or the integrity of the interview, the fact that the interview is recorded does not change this situation. If these allegations arise, an investigator should be honest and demonstrate the integrity necessary to take ownership of that issue, regardless of whether the interview is recorded or not. Avoiding recording in order to hide misconduct or a lack of competence is simply unacceptable, and if recording an interview prevents misconduct, then we can add that to our list of benefits. Although the image of an organization can be vulnerable for many reasons, good investigative practices can always be justified, whereas unaddressed or unproven allegations can cause even more damage.

In regards to the interviewee wanting to tape the interview, the investigator can agree to provide them with a copy of the recording when the investigation is completed. This should be a policy decision of the agency the investigator represents and consistently applied. However, in this time of technology being readily available, there is no way to prevent the interviewee from surreptitiously recording the interview without the investigator’s knowledge. In fact, as an investigator, I assume this is happening in all cases. The investigator’s decision to record does not change the potential for this to happen.

Now let’s look at the potential benefits related to taping interviews:

  • The accuracy of the information gathered is 100%

  • The potential for the investigator to miss an important point in an interview due to poor note taking is eliminated

  • Evidence to confirm or refute allegations of impropriety on the part of the investigator will be readily available

  • During the course of an interview, the investigator can become more engaged with the interviewee, actively listening in a manner that encourages them to express their thoughts. Although notes should still be taken, they can be more superficial and investigators can get their eyes out of the notes and onto the interviewee

  • Because investigators would be able to observe the interviewee more closely and consistently throughout the course of the interview, they may make observations that assists in considering the interviewee’s credibility

The benefits of audiotaping interviews outweigh the potential negative side to this practice and it is our recommendation that investigators and the agencies they represent consider this issue and develop some policies and procedures to incorporate recording interviews into their investigative processes. At the very least, in the event recording is not an option, have the interviewee sign the notes of the investigator to confirm the accuracy of the statement.

Benard + Associates experience and expertise in investigations is unparalleled in the industry. Click here to learn about our investigative services.