OnPolicing Blog

Enhanced Interviewing Techniques to Improve Memory Recall

July 30, 2018

Jason Potts

Lt. Jason Potts

Vallejo Police Department, CA

Jason Potts

Lt. Jason Potts

Vallejo Police Department, CA

What Happened? Who did it? And, where are they now – simple enough, right? Typical questions that police officers and investigators want answered. But all too often, we attempt to rush and control an interview by asking close-ended questions. This drive for expediency can unintentionally reinforce the victim’s sense of inadequacy, frustrate and confuse them, give off the perception they are not believed, and even re-victimize. Research shows that stress and fear can cause memory alterations and limitations 4. However, cognitive interviewing techniques can mitigate these effects, thus providing a more thorough account of the traumatic event. Cognitive interviewing frames questions to obtain more accurate information and details while simultaneously increasing law enforcement legitimacy in the eyes of the victim. According to several studies, cognitive interviewing elicited between 25% and 40% more statements in the cognitive interviewing groups (intervention) than the traditional methods or business as usual groups (control)8, 4.

Neuroscience Research

Stress hormones like norepinephrine and cortisol create reactions, behaviors, and memory limitations that are surprising to most 5, 12. For example, if subjected to a traumatic, potentially life-altering event, most people believe they would fight back. However, some are so fear stricken that tonic immobility (unable to move) or dissociation may overtake them – seen as counterintuitive behavior to most of us. Further, complicating matters is that neuroscience research has shown memory subjected to a traumatic experience is fragmented and not recalled in a linear way 2, 11. Unfortunately, for an untrained first responder, these memory irregularities are chalked up as deceptive. For instance, Dr. Lisak 11asserted “victims are often able to recall the texture of a rapist’s shirt before being able to remember if the suspect was wearing a hat,” is a profound illustration on memory limitations during a traumatic event (p.3). Recalling one’s memory in an orderly way from start to finish is difficult and typically unattainable as victims and witnesses often have starts and stops with fragmented images 3. For example, asking a victim about the assailant’s face, when he or she was focused primarily on the weapon, will further frustrate 12. Additionally, peripheral details such as the assailant’s face may not have received the same attention because the fear circuitry did not see it as a need for survival, also known as perceptual narrowing 1. This is a well-studied phenomenon in officer-involved shootings where officers may experience the “weapon focus effect” & auditory exclusion, or tunnel vision where the victim focuses on one of the five senses at the exclusion of others 1.  This lack of clarity for these details may frustrate investigators and is often seen as a lack of credibility or worse – deception 12, 1.

To avoid frustrating the victim, we should initially avoid asking close-ended questions as memory is highly malleable and prone to being edited – especially under stress and fear, common in life altering and traumatic events 11, 12. When people are in a highly traumatized state, our fight or flight responses kick in, and parts of our feeling brain (such as the amygdala) kick into high gear, and our thinking brain (including the prefrontal cortex) is decreased, inhibiting our ability to accurately recall memories 5, 11, 12. Victims & witnesses encode details that investigators might not feel are central to the investigation such as the description of a car seat, or tablecloth but ignore another detail such as a vital time sequence, or what the perpetrator may have said or the color of his shirt9, 12. However, these other peripheral memories might be consolidated in their fear circuitry and can be compelling evidence if investigators are able to effectively pull it out. Using cognitive interviewing techniques to retrieve those details by reinstating the context, may assist in better memory recall. Retrieval cues are stimuli that can help a victim remember details more clearly. The power of retrieval cues is evident in a song that immediately brings us back to a moment or the power of the smell of our mother’s cooking or even the smell associated with a life-altering event such as an automobile crash. For law enforcement investigators, reinstating the context of a victim’s trauma is extremely important, while coupled with obtaining powerful and relevant retrieval cues – aided by asking questions about sensory details such as sounds and smells 13, 4. By allowing the interviewee to describe the detail as it is encoded, i.e., “person reminds them of…” or “taller than me” or facilitating picture drawing, investigators are often able to gather implicit memories not commonly known to the victim 7.

Cognitive Interviewing Techniques

Fischer & Geiselman 4discuss the following two goals of investigative interviewing: “eliciting extensive, accurate information and promoting victims’ psychological health” (p.2). Police are better served to let victims tell their story at their pace – eliciting details with more open-ended questions, which are at the foundation of cognitive interviewing.

Along these lines, the following techniques are taught at the U.S. Army Special Victims Capabilities Course 14to military Special Agents:

  • “Acknowledge trauma, pain and stressful situation (be empathic, compassionate, and patient)
  • Use questions like “tell me more,” “help me understand,” “describe” & words “able and experience” (uninterrupted)
  • Give victims the ability to say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember.”
  • Ask for a description of the six senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, and body sensations)
  • Ask “how the case has impacted them” and what the victim can’t forget about the incident (assists with verifying the veracity of trauma)
  • Clarify information

As Fischer & Geiselman 4 discuss, we create improved police legitimacy through “therapeutic jurisprudence” by allowing victims to regain control (often taken from them in the most vulnerable way) by explaining the process and offering them choices 4, 13, 14. Further, victims also have a small sense of success because they can answer, “What happened?” as opposed to being unable to answer if the firearm was a revolver or semi-automatic – potentially increasing their frustration and hindering memory recall. Finally, officers should avoid taking detailed notes during an initial narrative statement. Instead, officers should consider writing brief notes and then later drill/funnel down on details. For example, “car – red, sedan, 4dr, and man – short, thin, tattoos, black hair.”

Officer-Involved Critical Incidents

These techniques (reinstating contextual cues) can also be used when questioning our police involved in critical incidents – by having witnesses go back and conduct walk-throughs of the scene in incidents of officer-involved shootings and allowing sleep cycles – effective techniques to prompt better memory and trauma-informed recall. Delaying interviews by 48 hours (or two sleep cycles), will enable officers to decompress by obtaining episodic sleep. Research shows it may aid in memory recall due to the flood of adrenaline that takes time to settle – time that may allow memory to be consolidated – even if the delay may contaminate some memory10.


Fischer and Geiselman’s 4research has shown that when victims are initially allowed to provide an open-ended narrative, they feel heard, in control, and ultimately trust their interviewers. However, trust is established at the outset with genuine rapport, critically important for setting the foundation for optimum recall. If trust and legitimacy are deposited early on, then the victim feels a sense of dignity and respect 13, 14. However, providing the victim control in the interview takes time – a tall order for many police running from call to call and dealing with their own fatigue & secondary trauma experiences. The effort is worth it with the potential for more trauma-informed recall; besides, it is the golden rule. How would we want our loved ones to be treated if questioned by police after a potentially traumatic and life-altering event?

Jason Potts is a Lieutenant with the Vallejo Police Department where he has served for 18 years & currently assigned to the patrol division as a watch commander; his experiences are in drugs, gangs, general investigations & internal affairs. He is an ASEBP executive board member, a National Policing Institute Fellow and National Institute of Justice (NIJ) LEADS alumni. He is also a military Reserve Special Agent with the Coast Guard Investigative Service where he routinely travels to Fort Leonard Wood Missouri to assist with the instruction of trauma-informed interviewing techniques to military agents. Jason possesses a Master of Advanced Studies (MAS) in Criminology, Law and Society from the University of California-Irvine. For more information on ASEBP, please visit https://www.americansebp.org/

End Notes

1 Archambault, J., & Lonsway, K. (2008). Incomplete, Inconsistent, and Untrue statements Made by Victims. Retrieved from End Violence against Women International website: http://www.calcasa.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/VICTIM-STATEMENTS-8_26_08-1.pdf
2 Bedard-Gilligan, M., & Zoellner, L. A. (2012). Dissociation and memory fragmentation in post-traumatic stress disorder: An evaluation of the dissociative encoding hypothesis. Memory, 20(3), 277-299.
3 Campbell, R. (2013, January 31). NIJ. Interview with Dr. Rebecca Campbell on the Neurobiology of Sexual Assault (2 of 3). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usmJ0YEpOec
4 Fisher, R. P., & Geiselman, R. E. (2010). The Cognitive Interview method of conducting police interviews: Eliciting extensive information and promoting Therapeutic Jurisprudence. International  Journal of Law and Psychiatry33(5), 321-328.
5Gagnon, S. A., & Wagner, A. D. (2016). Acute stress and episodic memory retrieval: neurobiological mechanisms and behavioral consequences. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1369(1), 55-75.
6Geiselman, R. E. (2010). Rest and eyewitness memory recall. American Journal of Forensic Psychology28(2), 65-69.
7High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group. (2016). Interrogation: A review of the science. Retrieved from Federal Bureau of Investigation website: https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/hig-report- interrogation-a-review-of-the-science-september-2016.pdf/view
8Koehnken, G., Milne, R., Memon, A., & Bull, R. (1999). The cognitive interview: A meta-analysis. Psychology, Crime and Law, 5, 3-27.
9Levine, L. J., & Edelstein, R. S. (2009). Emotion and memory narrowing: A review and goal-relevance approach.Cognition and Emotion, 23(5), 833-875.
10Lewinsky, W. (2014). Force Science Institute. Force Science News #254: Force Science Institute details reasons for delaying interviews with OIS survivors. Retrieved from    http://www.forcescience.org/fsnews/254.html
11Lisak, D. (2002). The neurobiology of trauma. Unpublished article. Retrieved from http://www.mncasa.org/assets/PDFs/Neurobiology%20of%20Trauma.pdf
12Lisak D & Hopper, J. (2014, December 09). Why Rape & Trauma Survivors Have Fragmented and Incomplete Memories. Retrieved from http://time.com/3625414/rape-trauma-brain-memory
13Strand, R. (2015). The Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI). Army Military Police SchoolUnpublished article. Retrieved from http://www.mncasa.org/assets/PDFs/FETI%20-   %20Public%20Description.pdf
14   United States Army Military Police School (2017). Trauma-Informed InterviewingChecklist. Developed by the Behavioral Sciences Education and Training Division – Special Victims Capabilities Course. Fort Leonard Wood, MO: Unknown Author

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Jason Potts

Lt. Jason Potts

Vallejo Police Department, CA

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