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CFL Interviews

Gavin Oxburgh
December 2008

"We need to change the way officers think about question types."

Gavin Oxburgh is Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at the University of Teesside, and founder and Chair of the International Investigative Interviewing Research Group (iIIRG). He is currently working on his PhD, entitled 'Towards a more effective framework for investigative interviews with suspected sex offenders'. Before commencing his PhD, Gavin was the Child Protection Training Lead for NHS Lothian, Edinburgh. Prior to this, he served with the Royal Air Force Police for 22 years, specialising in child protection and the interviewing of child victims and suspected offenders.

Before delivering a talk during a recent visit to CFL, he chats to Nicci MacLeod about iIIRG and the implications of forensic linguistics and psychology for police practice.

Prior to embarking on your PhD, you had a long career in policing. What led to your decision to head down the more academic route, and your interest in police interviewing from a research perspective?

 When I was serving with the RAF police I was asked to complete a child protection training course, and I jumped at the chance. At that time the RAF police would interview the victim and then interview the suspect, whereas the Army police would have two separate teams, one of whom would interview the victim and one of whom would interview the suspect. That was the same with the UK Police, various forces operated differently. I started to wonder why that was happening, and what the best way was to go about it - there were arguments for both sides. So I started an Open University degree in Psychology, and decided I was very interested in this so completed an MSc in Forensic Psychology. A PhD just seemed like a natural progression from there.

You set up the iIIRG in 2007, and since then it's grown very rapidly. Can you tell us a bit about the group and its aims?

 I was thinking about it at the start of 2007, and we finally set it up in April of that year. I had started thinking that there were probably several PhD students researching in the area of police interviewing, and that it would be a good idea for them all to come together. More and more researchers were coming forward, and we also had a number of police officers expressing an interest: we had around fifty people at our first seminar that year. The general consensus among those who attended was that the group should continue meeting as a more formal organisation, so we began as the European Investigative Interviewing Research Group. Then people from Australia and Canada and New Zealand wanted to become involved, so the group became international. We now have 180 members.

The overall aim of iIIRG is to bring academics and practitioners who specialise in investigative interviewing together - whether this be witness interviewing, or suspect interviewing, or a combination. Practitioners need academics to help them understand the processes involved in their work, and academics need people on the job to inform and ground their research. Our goal is practice-based research and research-based practice.

With your background in policing it must have been relatively easy to secure the data for your PhD research, but other researchers have experienced incredible difficulty - it took me four years! Do you think there is a certain level of resistance within the Police to allowing academics access to interview data?

I think there used to be, but not quite as much any more. Even though I was a serving police officer when I started researching, it was still very difficult, even within my own force, to secure the transcripts that I wanted. I eventually went to the Metropolitan Police and the Association of Chief Police Officers for help. The Met have been fantastic and allowed me access to everything I wanted - but that was because I had contacts, they were familiar with me and knew I had security clearance and could be trusted to preserve anonymity and confidentiality. It wasn't easy.

Your PhD is still ongoing, but what else do you have in the pipeline at the moment?

Apart from continuing to be heavily involved in developing iIIRG, Tim Grant and I are looking into setting up a joint distance learning MSc in Forensic Psychology and Forensic Linguistics. To have that under the auspices of iIIRG, being jointly overseen by CFL and Teesside, would be fantastic.

Where do you see the main priorities lying, in terms of the direction that forensic psychological and forensic linguistic research should be heading in the near future?

Something else that Tim and I are working on is looking at the question types that police officers are trained about. There are so many disagreements within psychology over what counts as an open question, a closed question, a WH-question, and so on. Even if you look at various police training manuals on interviewing suspects, they describe open questions in one way, WH-questions one way - then if you look at other guidelines, for example, the Achieving Best Evidence document, it says the complete opposite. So we need to change the way officers think about question types, we need to bring linguistics in and achieve some consistency. A question is all about pragmatics, and I think the way officers are trained at present is to assign a question to a category, when in fact it could be a combination of more than one type - depending on the way it's said, and the context. We need to train the police in these more linguistic aspects, and work on ways of achieving that while still keeping it easy to understand for all concerned.

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Related links

iIIRG third annual conference
Metropolitan Police

© Centre for Forensic Linguistics, Aston University, Birmingham, UK, 2013