Examining the (In)accuracy of Police Reporting and Interrogation

Audio recording full interrogations may lead to greater accuracy in reporting of interrogation behavior by police and suspects. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 3, pp. 230 –243

Police Reports of Mock Suspect Interrogations: A Test of Accuracy and Perception


Saul M. Kassin, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Jeff Kukucka, Towson University
Victoria Z. Lawson, Institute for State and Local Governance of the City University of New York
John DeCarlo, University of New Haven


A 2-phased experiment assessed the accuracy and completeness of police reports on mock interrogations and their effects on people’s perceptions. In Phase 1, 16 experienced officers investigated a mock crime scene, interrogated 2 innocent suspects—1 described by the experimenter as more suspicious than the other—and filed an incident report. All 32 sessions were covertly recorded; the recordings were later used to assess the reports. In Phase 2, 96 lay participants were presented with a brief summary of the case and then either read 1 police report, read 1 verbatim interrogation transcript, or listened to an audiotape of a session. Results showed that (a) Police and suspects diverged in their perceptions of the interrogations; (b) Police committed frequent errors of omission in their reports, understating their use of confrontation, maximization, leniency, and false evidence; and (c) Phase 2 participants who read a police report, compared to those who read a verbatim transcript, perceived the process as less pressure-filled and were more likely to misjudge suspects as guilty. These findings are limited by the brevity and low-stakes nature of the task and by the fact that no significant effects were obtained for our suspicion manipulation, suggesting a need for more research. Limitations notwithstanding, this study adds to a growing empirical literature indicating the need for a requirement that all suspect interrogations be electronically recorded. To provide a more objective and accurate account of what transpired, this study also suggests the benefit of producing verbatim transcripts.


interrogations, suspects, police reports, accuracy

Summary of the Research

“Over the years, research on police interrogations, confessions, and their role in known cases of wrongful conviction has animated calls for reform. Many such reform efforts have been aimed at protecting highly vulnerable populations (e.g., juveniles, people with intellectual or mental health impairments) and at curtailing the use of coercive interrogation practices (e.g., presentations of false evidence, minimization tactics that imply leniency). Perhaps the most significant proposed safeguard is to require the electronic recording of interrogations—the entire process, not just the confession. As stated in the AP-LS white paper: “Without equivocation, our most essential recommendation is to lift the veil of secrecy from the interrogation process in favor of the principle of transparency”

“There is a perennial debate concerning the recording of suspect interviews and interrogations. As an historical matter, the practice has drawn strong resistance from many federal, state, and local police professionals— especially those trained by John Reid & Associates, which, until recently, had steadfastly opposed the recording of interrogations. The bases of opposition have varied. Some have opposed recording on pragmatic and logistical grounds— citing the scope of such a requirement; financial costs; the evidentiary consequences of a failure to comply, for example, due to equipment malfunction; and issues of consent, especially in two-party consent states. Others have expressed concern over how recording might alter the behavior of both police and suspects during interrogation and the subsequent decision-making of judges and juries” (p.230-231).

“There are two primary sets of reasons for the proposed recording requirement. The first is the expectation that the practice of recording will increase accountability and discourage the use of coercive interrogation tactics, thus reducing the risk to all suspects” (p. 231).

“A second purported benefit of recording interrogations is to provide an accurate factual record of the interrogation behavior of police and suspects. Perhaps the most frequently invoked argument is that it is the most effective way to memorialize the process by which a statement was taken and, hence, increase the fact-finding accuracy of prosecutors (who decide whether to charge a suspect), judges (who rule on whether a confession was voluntary or coerced), and juries (who determine whether a confession is credible and hence whether the confessor is guilty or innocent)” (p. 231).

“In lieu of electronic recordings, the Federal Rules of Evidence (2015) provide that a police witness may use a personally prepared report concerning an interview or interrogation, including what the defendant said, to refresh his or her recollection while testifying (FRE 612). Yet the accuracy of these reports, which is often in dispute, has never been tested in the context of a suspect interrogation” (p. 231).

“Basic research on memory for conversation content suggests that this process may be fraught with bias and error. Neisser (1981) highlighted this problem in a case study in which he analyzed John Dean’s high-stakes memory of Watergate-related conversations with President Nixon. Dean testified as to his recollections with specificity and confidence. Yet when tapes of oval office conversations were discovered, Neisser discovered that although Dean was generally correct about what happened (e.g., that there was a cover-up), his memory of specifics was often distorted (e.g., overestimating his own role)” (p. 231).

“Numerous social scientists, legal scholars, and practitioners have recommended a policy reform that would require the electronic recording of entire suspect interviews and interrogations—not just the resulting confessions. Historically, such a requirement has proved controversial, drawing opponents from the law enforcement community who have speculated about the possible adverse effects on police, suspects, and juries” (p. 239).

“In light of the research literature on memory for conversations, the acceptance in court of note taking in lieu of electronic recording, and the significance of the issue for policy and practice, the present research was designed to assess the memorial accuracy of police reports of suspect interrogations. In an experiment conducted at a large Northeastern police station, a sample of experienced investigators examined a mock crime scene, interrogated two innocent male suspects, and submitted a report on their interrogations” (p. 233).

“Police participants, half of whom were female, ranged in age from 26 to 55 (M 43.94, SD 7.46) and had an average of 16.33 years of law enforcement experience (SD 6.00). Half had received formal training in suspect interviewing and interrogation; 62.50% estimated that they had conducted over 100 suspect interviews during their careers (if a range was provided, we converted the estimate to the midpoint of that range; the overall median was 250). All suspects were male and ranged in age from 18 to 62 (M 34.91, SD 13.86). A total of 46.88% had previously been arrested; 25% had been suspect-interviewed by police; 28.13% had been convicted of a crime” (p. 232).

“Within each session, one police participant investigated a staged crime scene involving a theft and then interrogated two male suspects, both of whom were factually innocent. After looking at the crime scene but prior to interrogating the first suspect, they were told that the first or second of the two suspects (in counterbalanced order) had acted suspiciously upon learning that he would be questioned about the theft. Phase 1 thus employed a two-group (Suspicion: Present vs. Absent) within-subjects design” (p. 232).

“Participants in Phase 2 were 96 undergraduates, 64 of whom were female, with a mean age of 19.45 (SD 2.84). A total of 38.54% self-identified as Hispanic, 17.71% as White, 15.63% as Asian, 12.50% as Black, and 15.63% as multiracial or Other. To determine whether outside fact finders would form different or more accurate impressions when they had access to verbatim transcripts of suspect interrogations, compared to secondhand police reports, participants read a brief summary of the case and were randomly assigned to either read a police report or an interrogation transcript of one of the 32 Phase 1 interrogations” (p. 238).

“The most important signal to emerge from our study is one that strongly supports a requirement that all suspect interviews and interrogations be recorded and transcribed in order to provide a more accurate account of the process and improve the fact-finding performance of judges and juries. This signal is embodied in the following main findings: (a) Police and suspects diverged in their perceptions of the suspect’s behavior during the interrogation sessions in which both parties were present; (b) Police committed frequent errors of omission in their Incident Reports, underreporting their use of confrontation, maximization, leniency, and presentations of false evidence; and (c) Phase 2 participants who read a police report, compared to those who read a full verbatim transcript, perceived the process as less pressure-filled and were more likely to misjudge innocent suspects as guilty” (pp. 241-242).

Translating Research into Practice

“Taken as a whole, these findings help to explain the second problem with false confessions (the first being that they occur): That they are too often believed by judges and juries equipped only with secondhand information about the process by which the statements were elicited ” (p. 241).

“With an accumulation of DNA exonerations illuminating the problem of false confessions, and with research indicating the dual risk that innocent people might confess to crimes they did not commit and that judges and juries may well believe these false confessions, it is easy to understand calls to reform that focus on the recording of interrogations. Limitations notwithstanding, the present study adds to a growing empirical literature indicating the need for such a requirement, if only to ensure the accuracy and completeness of memorial accounts of key transactions between police and their suspects—accounts that form the basis of decisions routinely made by judges and juries” (p. 241).

“The present research was designed to test for an important possible benefit of audio recording full interrogations: that these recordings provide a more accurate factual account of the interrogation behavior of police and suspects than would otherwise be derived from police reports” (p. 239).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“As a matter of policy, one could argue from our results that perhaps strictly content-focused interrogation transcripts—without access to audio and visual cues—would provide a sufficient basis for fact finding. Such a conclusion would not be warranted. While a transcript fully communicates the verbal text of a police–suspect interaction, it does not depict potentially important aspects of the suspect (e.g., his or her physical condition, appearance, attire, voice, and demeanor; whether he or she is seated in a corner or handcuffed) or the police officers (e.g., their number, size, and proximity to the suspect; whether they are uniformed or in plain clothes; whether weapons are visible; whether they raise their voices). In this regard, extensive research indicates that fact finders render more balanced and accurate judgments from “equal focus” video recordings that show both the suspect and police rather than one or the other” (p. 240).

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Authored by Charlie McNess

Charlie McNess is currently the Clinical Coordinator of EAC Brooklyn CRAN, she received her Master’s degree in General Psychology from New York University in 2016. Her research interests include criminal justice diversion.