Line of police in masks and yellow jackets. LLB (Hons) Law with Criminology.

The science of questions that cut to the chase

Discover how Professor Becky Milne's groundbreaking research work is helping police, fire services and paramedics to ask the right questions at the right time

Becky Milne, Professor of Forensic Psychology at the University of Portsmouth, is so widely known as an expert on police interviewing techniques that the producers of The Bill sought her input to give their fictional cops authenticity.

Back in the real world, she uses her forensic psychology research to advise police, fire services and paramedics on how to question victims and witnesses of crimes, fires and incidents to best elicit useful information.

However, training control room personnel in UK fire and rescue services showed the challenge of dealing with an emergency. Operators, for example, often have to field such calls in 90 seconds, “but, in that time, operatives still have to build rapport with the caller”. Professor Milne and the research team demonstrate how to structure rapport and communication within this time restriction and gather the needed information. 

Just as we put tape around a forensic scene, I explain that we need to ‘put tape around’ everyone’s head at a scene because it too is fragile, easy to contaminate and needs protecting. So we’ve got to be really careful, from the frontline all the way to court, about keeping that snow as uncontaminated as possible.

Professor Becky Milne, University of Portsmouth

Called in to help British Transport Police in the aftermath of the 2017 London Bridge terror attack, she was asked to advise on the best ways to interview police personnel – both for gathering information as part of the investigation and to help affected officers handle their own trauma.

The police officers themselves had been collecting information from shaken witnesses and walking wounded. Given the inevitably that most, or all, officers would one day again have to interview other victims of trauma, Professor Milne provided tools and techniques for gathering information to avoid adding to interviewees’ trauma. She likens memory to a field of snow that should not be contaminated with the footprints of unnecessary questions.

“Just as we put tape around a forensic scene, I explain that we need to ‘put tape around’ everyone’s head at a scene because it too is fragile, easy to contaminate and needs protecting.

“So we’ve got to be really careful, from the frontline all the way to court, about keeping that snow as uncontaminated as possible.”

Professor Milne has run advanced interviewing training programs around the UK and abroad. She has evaluated police interview techniques for the Home Office and has helped to write the national guidance document ‘Achieving best evidence’, which sets out the best ways, for legal purposes, to interview vulnerable groups, such as abuse victims.

She has also worked on devising interview strategies for major incidents including terror attacks and, together with Dr Kevin Smith of the National Crime Agency, wrote the national guidance document ‘Witness interview strategy for critical incidents’.

And now, it's being trialled and used in other countries, such as The Netherlands, highlighting the global relevance and challenge for interviewing and investigating techniques in today’s often complex criminal scenarios.


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