United Nations may recommend PEACE approach

Ella Rhodes reports.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, has suggested a worldwide protocol for police interviewing, recommending a similar approach to one developed by UK psychologists and detectives. The PEACE approach was developed by a committee of detectives with input from psychologists, including Professor Ray Bull (Professor of Criminal Investigation, University of Derby: pictured above).

In an interim report to the General Assembly Mendez emphasised the usefulness of an investigative interviewing approach and wrote of the PEACE approach: ‘Models of investigative interviewing can provide positive guidance for the protocol and be applied in a wide range of investigative contexts, including during intelligence and military operations.’ We spoke to Bull about the development of this approach, its advantages and how it has been adopted in several other countries.

Bull said several cases of police obtaining false confessions led to the introduction, in England and Wales, of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act in 1984. A small, but ground-breaking, part of this legislation, he added, was that interviews with suspects had to be tape-recorded from 1986 onwards.

Two police officers, who also had degrees in psychology, carried out their doctorates using these newly tape-recorded interviews. Their work found that while there was minimal evidence of police coercing suspects into confessions, many interviewers lacked skill in the area, partly because there was little training in interviewing techniques at that time.

The Association of Chief Police Officers and the Home Office gathered 12 detectives to develop a training course for interviewing suspects, witnesses and victims of crime. Tom Williamson, one of the police officers who had carried out his PhD on the earlier recorded interviews, called on three other psychologists, including Bull, to compile findings throughout psychology to pass onto this committee of detectives.

Bull explained: ‘One of the psychologists collated relevant psychology findings and wrote it in a way which could be understood by everyone. He produced two unpublished volumes on studies in psychology which were passed to the committee. That’s how the psychology came into it at the beginning.’ Thanks to this work the detectives eventually developed the PEACE approach in 1992; this stands for planning, engagement, account, closure and evaluation.

The detectives emphasised the need to plan an interview well, engage and develop rapport with a suspect, witness or victim. Bull said: ‘The detectives knew inherently that without rapport you won’t get much information and subsequently research has shown their judgement was right. Only when you’ve established rapport and are talking meaningfully do you then begin to focus on getting an account relevant to the investigation; so you’ve planned, you’ve engaged, you then get an account.’

Psychology findings were also used by the committee of detectives to look into the effects of different questions on people. They developed a hierarchy of question types. Suggestive questions can be risky, so the technique started with broad and open questions and left leading or suggestive questions to the end of an interview.

During the ‘closure’ stage of an interview officers summarise what a suspect, witness or victim has told them to ensure everything is accurate – this may also cue other memories related to an incident. Finally, officers will re-engage and establish rapport with a subject. Bull said: ‘Not only is that humanely important, but when they tell other people they were treated well this might help other people come forward. In complex investigations you often need to interview that person more than once, and if they leave the room feeling they were treated properly that might influence what they say next.’ Officers should finally evaluate what went well or not during the interview.

Both New Zealand and Norway, following high-profile miscarriages of justice in these countries, have adopted the PEACE approach. In research of the technique, compared with more coercive styles of interviewing, it is found they are equal in getting confessions from the guilty, but the coercive approach leads to more confessions from innocent people. Bull said: ‘When I speak with UK detectives they can almost never think of a false confession after PEACE was introduced. There was the case of George Heron in Newcastle in the early 1990s after PEACE had come in, but the people who interviewed him hadn’t yet been trained in the approach.’

Bull said on hearing the news that the UN Special Rapporteur has recommended a similar approach to be considered by other countries: ‘I was overwhelmed really, it must be relatively rare to have been part of a growing team of people around the world who have developed something that might lead to a big change.’ 

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