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Ethical Considerations in Interrogation

Todd Green
Ethical Considerations in Interrogation

The word ‘interrogation’ brings to mind many techniques, most of them unpleasant. That is why the word is no longer used in Australian police circles. The practice is now known as Investigative Interviewing. Law enforcement today is constantly formulating new interview techniques to gather information and prove or disprove a person’s guilt or innocence using a psychological approach. Here we look at some of the different types of interview techniques being employed today and the ethical considerations surrounding them. 


Interrogation or investigative interviewing employs questioning techniques. These may be used exclusively or in tandem to achieve the best end result.

  • Closed questions: There are two possible answers to these questions, “yes” or “no” or “true” or “false”.
  • Open questions: Open questions allow for discussions rather than simple answers.
  • Funnel questions: These are a combination of closed and open questions. This technique starts with broad, open questions and gradually narrows to closed questions.
  • Leading questions: A leading question encourages a specific response.
  • Rhetorical questions: A rhetorical question is not actually a question, but a point made in the form of a question.
  • Clarifying questions: A question specifically addressing an answer that has already been supplied.
  • Probing questions: As the name implies, these are in-depth questions which invite a detailed answer. 

During the interrogation, a law enforcement officer may use any of the following methods: 

Positive confrontation – the investigator tells the suspect that the evidence points to their guilt.

Theme development – in order to obtain rapport, the investigator uses a theme that would perhaps give justification for the crime.

Cognitive interview – the investigator questions in such a way as to force recollection of an event. It involves mental reinstatement, reporting everything, changing the order and changing the perspective. It is used to reduce uncertainty, especially if there has been a significant time-lapse.

Surprise approach – the interrogator asks the suspect something unexpected to short circuit any rehearsed responses if they are lying.

Reverse telling – the interrogator asks the interviewee to relate events in a reverse order. This will help those telling the truth to recall greater detail while making it harder for those who are lying to maintain their story. 

A controversial technique often used in the US and Canada is The Reid Technique, which encompasses both accusatory and non-accusatory methods.

It creates a high-pressure environment followed by sympathy and understanding from the interrogator, but only if the subject confesses. It’s controversial because, while it can get information from unwilling subjects, it also has a high rate of false confessions. 

Fast forward to current times with a less barbaric mindset in the police force, and you will see why techniques are evolving toward a more empathetic approach. 

Unlike the days when interrogators pre-judged their suspects based solely on past records or character history, the emphasis is now on innocence until proven guilty. An example of this modern approach can be seen in Psychological Priming.

Psychological Priming is where the environment in which the interview is conducted or the way the interviewer speaks, subconsciously influences the interviewee’s behaviour by putting them at ease. This can lead to them offering information they might not otherwise have intended to give. 


Techniques such as intimidation and force are morally questionable and now, they are also being found not to work. The implementation of more subtle means of persuasion are proving more effective and also more ethically acceptable. 

Research by Michael Skerker points to three groups of stakeholders in the interrogation process. These are the community as a whole, the interrogator and the person being interviewed. 

He lists four different approaches to interrogation:

  • Coercive interrogation – this is where the interrogator seeks to break the subject’s will through either physical or psychological means.
  • Confession based interrogation – using emotional pressure to make confession the only choice.
  • Information-gathering interrogation – has the aim of gaining an accurate understanding of what actually happened rather than relying on a confession.
  • Strategic interrogation - builds rapport which involves putting the suspect at ease and allowing them to tell the story in their own words rather than just being required to list events. 

Skerker argues that the morality of an interrogation method is determined by the motives of the interrogator. If they are aware of more effective techniques which are also more ethical, then they have a moral obligation to use them. The use of coercive techniques such as deception have a higher rate of unreliable evidence and false confessions made under duress. He also claims that while the interrogator has an obligation to behave ethically, a suspect is not entitled to privacy laws, other than those relating to religious or political views, if they have committed a crime or violation of human rights. 

When considering the ethics of interrogation, it’s becoming a consensus among developed nations that coercive methods are not as effective as information-gathering and strategic methods. And while we need to ensure the guilty don’t escape punishment it is equally important to ensure the innocent are not wrongfully convicted which means treating all suspects ethically.

Todd Green
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