Best Practices for Conducting Witness Interviews

Gathering important information from witnesses is often key to investigations. Therefore, if investigators want to get a witness’s raw account, they must implement a methodology that mixes tried-and-true approaches and legal understanding. To do so, investigators need to review the best practices for conducting witness interviews—and then bolster the results with law enforcement transcriptions to give them a solid base to build their case.

In this article, you’ll learn how:

  • Investigators should familiarize themselves with the case details and ensure the witness’s comfort and understanding before proceeding.
  • Using plain language and maintaining a respectful demeanor can help investigators build rapport, which can encourage witnesses to provide more information.
  • Securing gathered information from witness interviews involves thorough documentation and complying with legal requirements.

What Is A Witness Interview?

In the context of investigations, getting the unfiltered side of events from people who know something about what happened is all part of the witness interview process. The interviewer—whether a cop, an investigator, or another professional—wants to get the full story of what the witness saw or experienced.

Witness interviews are crucial in putting together the pieces of a case since the info witnesses give can help point to suspects or back up or point out weaknesses in the evidence. Nailing down witness interviews means being all ears, asking the right questions, and creating an atmosphere that gets the witness to spill the truth from start to finish.

Types of Witnesses and How to Interview Them

Criminal justice professionals have dealt with all sorts of witnesses. Below are some common ones; knowing them is essential before leading to the best practices for conducting witness interviews.

WitnessesTheir Description & How to Deal With Them
Honest and CooperativeHas information and is willing to give it. Ensure all information is obtained and compared to other witness accounts.
Silent, Know-Nothing, or DisinterestedDoesn’t want to get involved. Try to open them up and get a statement. If unsuccessful, obtain a “know nothing statement.”
Reluctant or SuspiciousHas information but is reluctant to share due to fear of involvement or retribution. Use psychological strategies to get them to cooperate.
Bashful or TimidThey may be victims of a violent crime, foreigners to the country, or leery of talking to police. Show interest, sincerity, and a desire to help establish rapport.
Hostile and DeceitfulDeliberately attempts to impede the investigation by lying. Determine the motivation for the deception, which may point back to a person of interest.
Talkative or BoastfulThey should be ready and willing to cooperate and enjoy being involved. However, they may embellish or provide untrue information for personal gain or fame.
Under the InfluenceHas had a few drinks but is still coherent. They may share personal and intimate information more freely, which is usually true.

Best Practices For Conducting Witness Interviews

Getting the whole truth from witnesses is certainly a surefire way to expedite cases. However, getting people who witnessed the crime to spill the beans isn’t as simple as it sounds. For that reason, I’ve covered some useful tips that may come in handy when interviewing a witness.  

Know Your Case

Before conducting a witness interview, investigators must thoroughly familiarize themselves with the case. 

As part of the preparation for the interview, they’ll need to dig into the details of what happened, including the when, where, and who of the situation that triggered the investigation. It’s also smart to research the witness’s background, like their job and connection to the case, since these can give valuable information during the interview.

Also, when investigators show that they know what they’re doing, it helps build trust with the witness. Plus, being well-prepared means investigators can ask questions that hit the mark, which maximizes what can be gained from the interview.

Set The Stage by Introducing Yourself

At the beginning of the interview, investigators should take a moment to introduce themselves and anyone else in the room—give their names, who they work for, and why they’re allowed to conduct interviews. They must explain why they’re there—to get the facts straight.

It’s very important to let witnesses know they’re there voluntarily so they can leave whenever they want. The interviewer should also give witnesses a chance to ask questions and really try to build a good vibe before getting into the finer details.

Show Respect

Treating witnesses respectfully is necessary if you want your interviews to be worthwhile

Investigators must be polite from start to finish, watching their tone and body language so they don’t project themselves as intimidating. The goal is to create a comfortable environment for the witness without outside distractions hindering open communication.

When investigators show genuine interest in the witness’s concerns, they help build rapport based on trust and understanding. In the end, showing respect and creating a supportive atmosphere encourage witnesses to give more detailed, accurate information that leads to a better understanding of the matter.

Plan Your Questions

The interviewer needs to know exactly what they want from the interview and how the witness can help connect the dots. Therefore, writing down an outline or list of must-hit points ensures they’ll cover all the important matters, even if the witness starts to go off track.

However, it’s also important to be flexible and adapt to the witness’s personality or communication. This can help create a good rapport.

So, keeping things conversational—rather than grilling them like a court deposition—can get the witness to let their guard down and share more useful details.

Use Plain Language

The ability to communicate effectively matters most for witness interviews, and keeping everything simple is a must to ensure the witness understands what you’re asking. So, investigators should ditch the fancy legal lingo that might confuse the person they’re talking to. Instead, they should opt for straightforward questions that are easy to understand.

However, investigators must stay in the driver’s seat to steer the conversation toward the investigation’s important subject and avoid any detours that could throw the conversation off course. Ask the witness follow-up questions to help clarify anything they say, though it’s important not to suggest different answers, as this can mess with the accuracy of the details.

Practice Active Listening

Investigators must emphasize active listening during witness interviews, even though it’s a crucial skill often overlooked. 

To be more specific, active listening is more than just hearing the words coming out of the witness’s mouth; it means analyzing how they say it, their tone, and their body language to get what they’re trying to say—again, it’s not always easy for someone who witnessed an event to convey what they’ve experienced, especially if it’s a crime. 

Investigators need to let the witnesses talk without interrupting them so they can have the momentum to tell their story. Don’t ask questions if the witness isn’t done stating something. Trust me; this approach respects the witness and encourages them to provide more information. 

Maintain Professionalism

In every investigative interview, investigators must keep things professional from start to finish. They should dress appropriately—leave the casual jeans at home—since they can make them look less credible. Investigators should also treat the interview like a business meeting, not a casual hangout, keeping a respectful distance from the witness.

The interviewer’s vibe is important to the outcome of the interview. So, looking competent and professional can earn respect from the witness. A confident approach can also help innocent people feel more at ease while turning up the heat on those who might have something to hide.

At the end of the day, keeping things consistently professional can create an environment that’s just right for getting reliable info from witnesses.

Document Thoroughly

When digging for details in a witness interview, take good notes—that’s the golden rule. Write down all the important facts, word-for-word quotes, and anything else that jumps out at you. Don’t forget the basics like date, time, location, and who was in the room. Those small details are important.

When the interview wraps up, create a summary while everything’s still fresh. Having all this documented will save you so many headaches when you start connecting the dots later, and it keeps your investigation bulletproof in case anyone tries to shoot holes in it. Plus, solid recordkeeping just makes your life way easier. So don’t cut corners on this; document the witness interview like your life depends on it.

Maintain Confidentiality

Investigators need to guard sensitive details like the crown jewels and only let the people who absolutely need to know in on the secret. If they have to share documents with anyone outside the inner circle, they must redact any personal or identifying details first—you don’t want your witnesses getting targeted, do you?

Also, if investigators really need to make sure someone keeps their mouth shut, have them sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Follow Chain of Custody Procedures

Criminal justice professionals need to keep a crystal-clear record of every time evidence or information changes hands between the professionals in the investigation. 

Only authorized personnel should have access to these documents. The fewer people accessing them, the lower the chance of someone mucking it up.

Playing by the legal rulebook should be a top priority for professionals looking to protect the information they’ve gathered from witness interviews. They need to ensure they’re not running afoul of any data protection or privacy laws, like the Criminal Justice Information Services Security Policy that lays down the law for handling sensitive criminal justice info.

Getting the green light from witnesses with all the necessary consents is necessary to ensure everything’s above board legally. Also, staying in the loop on legal matters is essential to keeping everything on the straight and making sure everyone’s rights are protected. 

Transcribe Witness Interview Recordings

A clean, easy-to-read conversation transcript makes it easy for investigators and authorized personnel to analyze the details and connect the dots.

For this, investigators should contact professionals to handle the transcription. Look for a partner who can make sure nothing slips through the cracks and has over 99% accuracy rates, somebody like Ditto Transcripts.

Let Ditto Handle Your Witness Interview Transcript Needs

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