Cognitive Interviewing—Techniques for Trauma-Related Testimonial Evidence

In law enforcement, no two cases are the same. What’s more, each piece of evidence will be distinct. Although certain protocols remain the same for collecting interview evidence, it’s important to remember that the process of interviewing a witness or survivor can be dramatically different from interviewing a suspect. Knowing how to adapt to the situation at hand is critical.

Research has proven time and time again that the brain will focus on survival during traumatic events. This can lead to unique challenges during the interview process. Some details about the incident may be remembered clearly because they related to an immediate threat, such as the weapon. But other crucial details, like whether the suspect was wearing a hat, could be entirely lost. Understanding how to navigate these limitations allows public safety professionals to remain productive during the investigation. Practicing techniques for cognitive interviewing when working with victims and witnesses—especially in instances of trauma—can help.

Facing Challenges with Memory Recall

Agencies must document the most comprehensive evidence possible for the case, yet gathering testimonial evidence is rather nuanced. For example, in traumatic situations, stress hormones can trigger unusual reactions, behaviors, and even memory limitations. Some people might be so struck by fear that they experience the inability to move or fight back. Given the nature of an event, this can seem impossible. How could an individual remain immobile during an attack? But it happens.

The difficulty of memory recall can also be surprising. You could discover that a victim of rape remembers the texture of a rapist’s shirt before recalling other meaningful details. It’s common to deal with memory fragmentations and sporadic memory recall in these types of cases. Unfortunately, if a first responder goes into these interviews without the proper training, these types of memory irregularities might be interpreted as attempts at deception.

The more effective approach to memory recall is cognitive interviewing. These methods foster a sense of trust and rapport with the interview subject and encourage them to share their experience at their own pact. Ultimately, this allows for more details to unfold. It involves asking different types of questions, though, which might seem counterintuitive at first. Rather than prompting the interview subject with direct questions, cognitive interview techniques teach us to not rush the process.

Putting Cognitive Interviewing Techniques to Work

To increase memory recall, investigators and public safety professionals must stick to an empathetic approach. Cognitive interviewing means asking open-ended questions. So rather than saying, “What happened?” or “Who did it? Where are they now?” you might try asking:

  • Help me understand your experience.
  • What are you able to tell me?
  • Go on. Can you tell me a bit more?


Any of these open-ended questions can work to create a comfortable, safe space for victims to have their stories heard in as much detail as possible. But it might mean doing away with old habits. Instead of approaching the interview with urgency, we need to understand that memory recall is a real issue, but comes with reliable solutions. There may not be a clear and orderly way for a survivor to share their experience from start to finish. Yet that doesn’t mean the details aren’t there.

Another technique of cognitive interviewing is to explore sensory details. Asking about what they heard or smelled can spark memory recall in a powerful way. It’s all about presenting the interview subject with choices for explaining their story. Not only does this allow them to regain a sense of control by preventing further confusion and traumatization, it also allows them to support the investigation process more thoroughly, by providing law enforcement with the information they need to conduct a strategic, in-depth investigation.

Contact Us