How Can I Get An Anxious Witness To Tell Me More?

We've all been there. We are interviewing a witness who has valuable information about our case, but they are reluctant to speak with investigators. How can we help reduce their anxiety about talking with us and encourage them to tell us more about what they know?

Most people believe in justice, but they do not want to get overly involved in other people's business. This idea seems to be the number one reason witnesses are afraid to speak with investigators or tell them too much. This hesitancy can happen even if the person you are interviewing was the person who reported the allegation of wrongdoing. We all want justice served,  but most people don't want to get involved with the process.

Some people figure the best way to help without creating trouble for themselves is to make an anonymous report. These reports usually include enough information to tell the investigator that the reporting person has some insider knowledge. Anonymity offers a solution to people who want justice served without getting overly-involved.

There are different levels of anonymity. Some witnesses report information that gives the investigator enough information to proceed with the investigation. Others, in an attempt to mask their identity, offer information that is so vague and sparse that the investigator is left with very few leads, if any, to follow.

In speaking with hundreds of reluctant witnesses, the number one reason witnesses do not want to get involved with a case is as unexpected as it is prevalent: People do not want to be the reason that someone else gets in trouble. They want and even expect justice. But, they generally don't want to be the ones to cause another person to lose their job or get charged for criminal violations.

This dissonance seems odd to me. Humans seem to have a natural desire to root out injustice. Still, they also feel bad for feeling they are the cause of the punishment, often forgetting any discipline the suspect suffers is the consequence of their behavior. Still, people feel uncomfortable if they believe they are the puzzle piece that initiated another person's suffering.

Understanding this phenomenon helps us formulate a strategy when interviewing witnesses who seem hesitant to get involved with the case or uncomfortable offering information that is material. Our approach should bring perspective to the witness about the importance and weight of their testimony.

Here are some tips for improving the perspective of a witness during an interview:

  1. Be honest about your ability to keep a witness anonymous. Some agencies cannot keep all aspects of an interviewee's identity anonymous. The investigator will likely be required to report whatever identifying information they learned from the interview, including the contact information for the witness. If you cannot protect the identity of a witness, be upfront about this fact.
  2. Explain the investigative process. Most people do not understand the work of an investigator, and likely, the little information they know comes from movies, television, or news reports. Educate your witness by making it clear that an investigation will look at all aspects of a case without any goal of proving someone innocent or guilty. The investigation aims to find out the truth of what happened, regardless of what kind of case disposition the evidence produces. For this reason, it is important for the investigator to get relevant information from all sources.
  3. Highlight the importance and need for corroboration. A witness needs to know that the information they hold can be the key to supporting other case facts. Each piece of information, for example, the information provided by a witness interview, is not enough to tilt the investigation in one direction or another. All information must be provable, verifiable, and act to provide accurate corroboration with all the other aspects of the available evidence.
  4. Make sure the witness understands the bottom line: The information they provide will not be the reason a person is convicted. The information provided by the witness is only valid when it is confirmed by other evidence or when it acts to confirm other facts of the case. In this sense, the weight of the testimony is essential to arrive at the correct outcome of the case but will not be the sole reason a person is charged with a violation.
  5. Make sure the witness knows one person's testimony won't convict an innocent person or won't exonerate someone who is guilty. Understanding this fact is crucial because it helps the witness understand their statement is just one small piece of the puzzle but holds enough importance to meet their goal of seeking justice without being the direct cause of someone's negative consequences.
  6. Remind the witness that we are all responsible for the consequences our words and actions precipitate. If the person under investigation violated some policy or statute, then their behavior is the cause of the negative consequences they have to face after an investigation is completed. The witness does not cause these negative results.

While several points are listed here, this conversation usually takes about three to five minutes, usually at the beginning of an interview. We find the few minutes it takes to educate the witness saves both people time and produces a more effective discussion.

For those investigators who understand basic interrogation techniques, you have experienced the importance of clearing mental resistance to the interview. While a witness is not usually actively trying to deceive the investigator, clearing their mental resistance is just as important. Once a witness understands they are doing the right thing by talking to you, that their information is essential but not overly powerful, and that the suspect is responsible for any consequences, the witness will be more ready to speak openly with investigators.

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