Empathy in the field : Towards a taxonomy of empathic communication in information gathering interviews with suspected sex offenders

While interviewers typically show empathy towards victims it is considered this is done to a lesser extent with suspects and that an opportunity to build rapport and foster openness is lost.

This research looks at the issue of empathy when interviewing sex offenders and whether an empathic response might illicit more information from the interviewee. The researchers qualitatively examined    police interviews of sex offenders to see to what extent they understood and communicated an understanding of the interviewees perspective. They also explored the extent to which officers picked up on opportunities to be empathic.

Thirty-six audio interviews undertaken by two police forces in the UK and averaging 129 minutes were analysed. In this sample, all interviewees denied the allegations (rape and/or sexual assault of a person under 16 years) but 10 of the cohort did acknowledge lesser sexual offences such as viewing images of child abuse or committing indecent exposure. The researchers identified four type of empathy responses:

Empathy 1: Spontaneous comfort: this occurs without prompting by the interviewee and consisted of additional information outside that of the formal requirements at the start of an interview. e.g. “if you want more time then let me know.”

Empathy 2: Continuer comfort: the same information as given in Empathy 1 but is prompted by the interviewee in response to a difficulty named or demonstrated by the suspect e.g. “I’m sorry shall we take a break while you compose yourself?”

Empathy 3: Spontaneous understanding: the interviewer demonstrates some understanding of the interviewees situation spontaneously, eg. “I’m sorry but I’m going to have to ask you a difficult question.

Empathy 4: Continuer understanding. the interviewer demonstrates some understanding of the interviewees situation when prompted by an aspect of the interviewee’s presentation of something they said. E.g. “I can see that you are upset, can I help you in any way?”

Upon analysis it was found that, when opportunities for empathy were presented by a comment of behavior of the suspect, continuer empathy occurred very infrequently. It was highlighted that this may have occurred because officers ignored the cues or because they did not recognised them as such. The necessity for training to prevent this was highlighted. The researchers also found that female interviewers showed significantly more empathy than men (almost double) but noted that most of this was in the spontaneous empathy category and urges caution as this type of uninvited empathy may in fact be counterproductive and build blocks to rapport rather than encourage it.

The research recommends that further understanding of the power of empathy in interview is explored to ensure interviewers maximise the opportunity to gather intelligence.

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