Ron Iddles spent over 25 years in homicide Victoria. He has arrested 95 per cent of suspects from approximately 300 murder investigations he has conducted. He has testified in at least 150 murder trials and seen only three acquittals. His proven reputation has impacted victims, perpetrators and the justice system. I was given the absolute privilege of asking Mr Iddles, now Secretary of the Victorian Police Association, his thoughts on police interviewing.
According to Ron, the ABC of approaching a homicide investigation is:
- A = Assume nothing
- B = Believe nothing
- C = Check everything
Interviewing witnesses provides the opportunity to gather important information about a crime. People can be influenced by leading questions and the development of false memories. Ron says that witnesses should give a free narrative account. Interviewers must give witnesses the opportunity to use their memory, based on the six senses, by putting them back into the environment. He provides an example, “I want you to visualise you are sitting in the lane way as described. You told me you saw a man getting bashed. This is your story so take as long as you like. Tell me what you see. Close your eyes if you wish.”
Ron says, “Let them tell the story. From the account you can expand it. ‘So you saw the man had a bar? Describe the bar to me. What was the man wearing?’” He continues by saying, “All questions should be open. Police can contaminate the mind by being suggestive or forcing choice.” He provides an example, “’Was his hair brown or black?’ The man’s hair might have been blonde but the interviewer has now forced the witness to make a choice.” Mr Iddles stresses the importance of giving witnesses sufficient time. “Tell them it may take an hour. If you do not do this they will edit the information they give you. And interview in an appropriate place.”
Face-to-face interviews generally have a predetermined set of topics or questions guiding the interview. They tend to ask specific questions about each of the items in the predetermined set of questions, controlling the flow of information and doing much of the thinking and talking. “Good interviews must allow suspects, victims and witnesses to give their account first,” Ron says. He gives an example, “’I intend to interview about the death of Bill Smith, tell me about that.’ Your face-to-face interview to some extent is controlled by what the suspect tells you. If they say, ‘I did not do it,’ or ‘I cannot tell you anything’ you then must say, ‘Well now I want you to tell me where you were between 8 am and 6 pm.’ Cover the period of the crime. Get them committed to a story. Once you do that you put the evidence to them. ‘So you told me you were in Smith Street, Collingwood, at 9 am. Is that so? See, I have some CCTV footage which shows you in Glenroy at that time. How can you explain that?’ You want suspects, victims and witness doing the talking.”
Asked what he perceived to be reasons behind witnesses being reluctant and what initial actions interviewers could take to address this, Ron says, “Witnesses may be fearful and be concerned for their welfare. Interviewers only have a couple of minutes to make a good impression. Trust is a massive influence. You can gain trust by the way you dress, act, and speak. Build rapport. Select interviewers who will connect with the witness.” In regards to hostile witnesses, Mr Iddles says, “A hostile witness is normally a witness who has made a statement and for whatever reason does not want to testify or they change their version on the witnes stand. Most times it can come down the manner in which police have dealt with them. Occasssionally it could be a result of having been threatened and if that is the case, then witness protection must be considered.”
Balancing sensitivity towards victims and witnesses as well as simultaneously obtaining essential evidence can be an issue. Ron says, “The wellbeing of the victims and witnesses is number one at all times. Build a trust relationship. Listen, be genuinely understanding and empathetic, and be prepared to give something of yourself to make it personal.”
Asked to compare his general considerations regarding police interviewing prior to commencing his career to his understanding today, Mr Iddles says, “Before training it was basic. Just question and answer. No structure. Now it is about structure, their account, listening and understanding, and having good communication skills. Interviewing is just a conversation.” Asked to consider hindrances and valuable tools in police interviewing, Ron says, “A hindrance would be lack of preparation. Most police do not prepare properly for interviews. I have travelled, been trained, and permitted to experiment within the confines of the law.”
Ron says, “At all times, operate within the law. Do not be overbearing. Do not override a person’s operating mind. And do not be threatening.” He concludes by suggesting some basic principles for police interviewers, based on PEACE:
- P = Planning. When and where are you going to do the interview? Who are you interviewing? Understand their background – know a bit about them.
- E = Engage and explain. Let them know what you are doing.
- A = Obtain a free narrative account.
- C = Challenge – When an account is contradictory to the evidence, provide the facts
- E = Evaluate what you have been told. What do you need to do now? Evaluate your own performance.