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Importance of Privacy During an Interview

We have all had the experience where a person tells us something in private that he never would have told us in a public setting. It is well accepted that it is easier to talk about sensitive matters with only a single person present. Yet, how many times are victims interviewed in the presence of a family member, or a witness is asked questions in front of other possible witnesses? Frequently, suspects are questioned with two or more investigators in the room. Each of these situations violates the person’s privacy and will result in less truthful information being learned.

The lesson is clear. If we want someone to be open and candid with us, we must create an environment which affords that person privacy. Too often we assume that privacy is not an important issue. Consider an employee who confidentially reports to a supervisor that two co-workers are using marijuana during lunch break. The supervisor may wrongly assume that because the employee initially came forward with the information that he or she will be willing to repeat it in the presence of the people being accused. Retractions of allegations under this circumstance generally are not the result of a fabricated charge, but rather the psychological difficulty of having to repeat allegations in front of the person accused. In the above scenario, the supervisor should have taken a detailed statement from the employee (dates, times, other witnesses, etc.) and requested that the named co-workers come in for separate private interviews.

Whenever feasible, an investigator should arrange to elicit information in a private environment. This is especially important when questioning witnesses or a victim. Frequently, these individuals will have discussed the event with others before being interviewed. If those individuals are present during an interview of the witness or victim, the information developed will be perfectly consistent with what was previously reported to friends or family members. However, if the witness or victim is interviewed in private, much more accurate information is learned. At a crime scene this may mean separating a witness from friends or family members, taking a solitary walk with a victim, or talking to a suspect in the back seat of a squad car. Whatever the environment, the investigator should create a sense of privacy.

The ideal interview environment, of course, is one conducted at the investigator’s place of business in a room designed specifically for that purpose. Such a room should have two chairs facing each other, perhaps 4 feet apart, without any physical barrier such as a desk or coffee table between them. The environment itself should afford privacy. That is, the door should be closed and recording or monitoring devices should not be conspicuously displayed. If a third person must be present in the room, e.g., a witness, this individual should be seated in a remote corner of the room, out of the subject’s sight, and remain totally silent and uninvolved during the course of the interview.


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