Legal, criminological and forensic

‘How does this fit into the real world of policing?’

For two decades Professor Becky Milne (University of Portsmouth) has worked to improve police interviewing of witnesses in the midst of crises. Ella Rhodes met her.

24 September 2019

After taking a year out to work with the Gemini Trust during Ethiopia’s famine of the late 80s and early 90s, and a (happily) failed attempt at becoming an optician, Becky Milne ended up at Portsmouth Polytechnic studying psychology.

Professor Ray Bull arrived at the university during Milne’s second year. Their working lives have been intertwined ever since, and it’s no surprise Milne calls him ‘Dad number two’. Bull has spent his career creating better methods for police to use during suspect and witness interviews and he was deeply involved, along with law enforcement professionals, in developing the ‘PEACE framework’. This approach encourages police to build rapport with interviewees before an interview begins, using active listening techniques. A conversational, rather than confrontational, questioning style is used, alongside a cognitive interview which helps obtain a more detailed account of events.

After working on her third-year dissertation with Bull, Milne began a PhD with him in 1992 exploring police interviewing of vulnerable witnesses. ‘If I was going to study police interviewing for three years, I needed to find out what the police do. In that day and age it was very unusual to have outsiders go into the police, but I managed to work with Dorset police and observed what they did. I also went to America to work with Professor Ed Geiselman, who was one of the creators of the cognitive interview. I met the LAPD over there and they were using the cognitive interview and it was about to be introduced into Britain as part of the PEACE package which Ray was part of.’

During the early 90s Bull and Professor Stephen Savage set up the Institute of Police and Criminological Studies (now the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies) at the University of Portsmouth, beginning the development of the first ever degree for police officers. The institute brought together psychologists and sociologists and it continues in that multi-disciplinary vein, melding the expertise of lawyers, ex-police officers and criminologists.

‘Throughout my career my teaching has been to practitioners so I’ve always had to work out, as a psychologist, how does all this theory fit?’, Milne says. ‘If you’ve got a room full of police officers who are paying to do a degree and you’re teaching communication skills or memory or perception, you need to apply it to make it relevant for them. From day one I’ve always had to ask how does this fit into the real world of policing, interviewing and investigation? I’ve learned so much sitting in a multi-disciplinary department.

Achieving best evidence
After she qualified Milne began supervision of PhD students – all of whom were initially police officers. She has so far supervised 18 and has 18 more currently under her supervision. She tells me she acts as ‘PhD mum’ in the university and many of her former PhD students have sent her Mother’s Day cards in the past.

‘My first PhD student, Colin Clarke, was a Met police officer and was asked to examine the PEACE package, and whether it works, through a Home Office grant. We did the first ever national review of police interviewing post-PEACE. The result of that was the Clarke and Milne report, published in 2001, which was adopted by the Association of Chief Police Officers and put a lot of the things we said into policy and practice. One of the things we recommended is teaching police officers to interview across their careers. You can’t do it in one lump… it needs to be drip-fed. We came up with a tiered approach for interview training which was adopted nationally and has gone to lots of different countries.’

For 16 years Milne has sat on the National Police Chiefs’ Council board (formerly the Association of Chief Police Officers) as an academic lead on police interviewing in Britain, acting as a conduit between the worlds of policing and academia. Having written the Memorandum of Good Practice, the first ever guidance on interviewing children for legal purposes, Bull and his colleague Professor Graham Davies (University of Leicester) were asked to redraft the document in 1999 after the adoption of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act to widen the net of who is allowed a video interview as their evidence-in-chief. This became known as the Achieving Best Evidence document and Milne was involved with writing a later version of that document.

‘I had my lottery card that day’
Just over six years ago Milne survived a brain haemorrhage, losing her vision and speech entirely. She gradually regained her vision and later learned to speak again with help from her specialist nurses and neuropsychologist, with whom she built ‘wonderful relationships’.

'In the early days I knew what the words were and the semantics I could visualise them but I just couldn’t say them. It was quite interesting, I could describe them, I could say it’s about this long, starts with an S. The words I struggled with were all very long words with an R in them – my neuropsychologist and I did a pattern analysis!

‘When my neuropsychologist saw I was one of her clients, she thought “oh my god”… she had one of my books on her shelf, she was still in training. But I thought it was brilliant. I told her I’d rather have one of my PhD students treating me, because you’re keen and up-to-date. Once she realised she could have fun, she asked if she could try loads of things out on my brain… I said of course you can! We had great fun bizarrely!’

Milne says that when she talks about trauma with police, ‘it’s quite interesting having gone through a brain injury it’s good to have felt what that’s like. I’m very lucky I had my lottery card that day, I tell you.’

Gold standard
Despite her injury, Milne has gained her professorship since that time. And in the wake of the London Bridge terrorist attack in June 2017, she was called by an Interview Advisor – a police officer who is trained to the highest level in interviewing and is in charge of interviewing strategy – for advice on how best to interview witnesses.

‘They had mass witnesses and trauma issues including some with emergency services personnel. Between us we created a strategy. The first step is to triage. The gold standard of interviewing would be a full visually-recorded interview with a highly-trained interviewer. We had to triage and categorise the witnesses, from people who had interaction with terrorists to people who didn’t see anything. Then we had to work out who was best to interview each one.’

In such work, a ‘witness care strategy’ operates alongside an interview strategy. ‘Obviously you’ve got to take complete consideration of their health and wellbeing first… my job is to help them do that and help them look at the triaging. Good interviewers should tailor every interview to the individual in front of them. I also attended the structured debrief after the incident.’  

Given the number of terrorist attacks that have happened in recent years Milne began looking at the interview strategies used by the Metropolitan Police, Greater Manchester Police and British Transport Police, to look for commonalities. Later she called a meeting, along with the National Crime Agency National Vulnerable Lead Kevin Smith, to bring together those who had worked in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in order to see what could be learned. Milne and Smith eventually wrote the Witness Interview Strategy for Critical Incidents (WISCI). Their paper outlines the importance of developing a strategy for these incidents which takes into account initial contact with witnesses, the interview and post-interview processes.

FIT for practice
Milne tells me a key challenge for researchers, even those who work in research with practitioners, is the transference of findings into practice. As a way to help criminal justice organisations use the best evidence in their practice, Milne and a former PhD student and retired Sussex Police Detective Superintendent Andy Griffiths, developed the Framework of Investigative Transformation (FIT). The model comprises eight evidence-based factors which need to be in place to ensure the decades of knowledge around interviewing and investigations are used in real-world criminal justice organisations.

These FIT factors include a desire to change on the organisation’s part. ‘One country I spoke to six or seven years ago told me “we don’t have miscarriages of justice here”, or “we’ve got no problem”. Seven years later they’re coming over to the idea… it took them that long to want to change. The “want” in a want to change is in inverted commas because normally “wanting” to change comes after a miscarriage of justice – we’re often forced to change.’

The other factors include leadership, legislation and training regimes. Investigators should also take an open-minded and investigative approach when looking at cases, and should be provided with the right knowledge and technology. ‘I think we need to adopt new technology more. We’re all bad at that because we hate change, but the criminal justice system is particularly poor at it. There’s something called the handwritten police statement, and I think it’s a blight on justice. If I could change that with the use of more technology, that would be one area I’d really like to change. What we’re asking police officers to do at a crime scene is basically to ask questions, listen to the answers, and write them down. But human memory is very fragile. This is not a very accurate process and so the officers end up, understandably, asking very closed questions and sometimes leading questions, because it helps them in the process of making sure they write down what’s said in front of them accurately.’

Milne and others are now advocating free recall and open response, while recognising this is ‘very difficult for frontline officers. But now we’ve got body worn cameras, let’s cut out the middle man… we can just have a conversation on camera.’

Milne has also begun to examine communications in fire service control rooms, and the best ways for call handlers to gather information. She will also be looking at body-cam footage from firefighters and paramedics to examine their communication on-scene.