How Cognitive Interviewing May Help with Suspect Interviewing

When a suspect is being interviewed and they have chosen to lie, they usually have a pre-constructed story. This narrative will generally be a simplified version of the truth and they won’t have intricate details to offer. This is where the cognitive interview comes in.

Case Study

Let’s look at the example of an unarmed robbery suspect, Jason. He robbed a pastry shop early in the morning, entering through an unlocked door, demanding the victim open the register, and then proceeded to beat the victim until she complied. After that, he fled on foot but was located by patrol units after a perimeter was established. He was positively identified by the victim, found in possession of the stolen money, and seen on video committing the crime. 

During the interview, Jason provided a fake timeline, one he had clearly made up. As he told me parts of the story, I decided to employ a cognitive approach, one typically used for victim interviews. I asked him to recall what he remembered most about the incident, and then asked him to describe the people he saw when entering the shop, what he smelled, what sounds he heard, the lighting, and how the victim responded to his demands. Jason had no answers to my questions as he was unprepared for this style.

As he told me parts of the story, I decided to employ a cognitive approach, one typically used for victim interviews.

The goal of cognitive interviewing is to tap into the memory of the interviewee and retrieve details that otherwise may have been suppressed. In the case of Jason, it was to break his preplanned story and get to the truth. When we think of cognitive interviewing, we typically associate it with victim or witness interviews. The cognitive interview helps investigators access memories, particularly those of trauma victims. During a cognitive interview, we seek to obtain a narrative from the interviewee by encouraging them to give all the details they can recall. 

We might use phrases like, “What can you tell us about (the incident)” or “What do you remember most about (the incident)?” We also ask them to explain and describe the incident, and to focus on the five senses. For example, we could ask a victim to describe what they smelled at the scene. This type of questioning can help a victim remember details they may have otherwise suppressed. 

While this style of interview is commonly used with victims and witnesses, it is rarely used with suspects. Instead, the traditional standard interview is used, focusing on a timeline and getting the suspect’s side of the story. However, there are benefits to incorporating cognitive interviewing techniques with a suspect. By asking questions that tap into their cognitive memory, even if the suspect is lying, we can break up their pre-made story and get to the truth.