As some of the comments in the last thread obviously show, the topic of conferring is a contentious issue at best, at worst it is seen by some people as Police officers lying through their teeth to cover perceived mistakes. Whatever your view is, there is no perfect answer, short of downloading peoples memories into a computer to be analysed, so the best answer has to be one that achieves the highest quality of evidence possible. There has been extensive research in the areas of memory formation and retention which suggests that the current practice of conferring is one of the ways to achieve the best evidence.
In reaction to repeated calls by the IPCC and the MPA, the Met has commissioned Portsmouth University to conduct studies to determine which methods would be best for not only achieving best evidence but also for the welfare of the officers involved. There have been extensive studies already conducted in the US which suggest that the current practice of conferring IS the best method of obtaining accurate evidence, the problem we face is the public simply don't trust that medical and psychological evidence and think that we are colluding when we sit down, debrief to reconstruct the incident and our own individual actions and then write them up.
The following is an article from the Metline magazine published by the Met Police Federation and discusses the outcome of research commissioned by the Met Fed into how errors in recall can occur. Have a read if you want and feel free to discuss, critique or lament et cetera.
The Write Approach - New research sheds much needed light on how the brain processes memory in high stress encounters and calls into serious doubt suggestions that officers should not be able to confer over notes after incidents.
Officers who confer and write a report after a firearms incident are likely to produce a more accurate account of the event than officers who do not confer and are interviewed. That is the conclusion of a research team which carried out an experiment in which volunteer firearms officer were put through a challenging simulation of an incident and were afterwards required to demonstrate what they had remembered of it. The events during the simulation were recorded by three CCTV cameras so that the officers recollections could be checked against what actually happened.
The primary aim of the study was to examine the validity of current theories about how memories are generated and their relevance to Police officers involved in high stress incidents, but it also examined the effectiveness of achieving accurate recall of events from individuals afterwards. The experiment was carried out by the Force Science Institute, which is conducting a number of scientific research programmes for the Met Federation. The researchers realised that the study had to be realistic enough to create genuine stress among the participants, as well as requiring them to make the sort of 'action decisions' that would be vital in a real life encounter. It also had to be arranged in a way that the outcome would be changed by the officers actions and novel enough that the officers would have to read the situation rather than rely on experience.
The answer was to rig the gym at Hendon to resemble the reception area of a hospital ward, complete with waiting patients sitting around. The officers were given a scenario, learning that they were being posted as guards for a man who had been wounded in an armed robbery and was in a locked ward. As they walked through the reception area to their posts, they were confronted with a conflict - which they had not been told about - between the 'brother' of the wounded man and the receptionist (the receptionist having denied the brother access to the ward) of such an intensity that the officers were obliged to intervene. While their attention was taken up by this incident a hostage taker burst through a door beside the reception desk with his left arm around a hostage and a double barrelled shotgun in his right arm. The hostage taker discharged his weapon twice into the floor before pointing it at the officers, who then needed to control or shoot the man. Once he had been disabled, the action ended.
Forty six officers participated in the study, divided into teams of two or three. When it came to recalling the incident some were asked to write reports after conferring with colleagues, some wrote a report but without conferring, some were questioned - after conferring - by a third party while a fourth selection of officers were each interviewed without conferring among themselves.
The researchers, meanwhile, categorised the officers recollections into two types. The first type - called 'internal' - encompassed recollections of the officers own thoughts and behaviour. The second - 'external' - dealt with recollections about the other players and the environment. Each of these types was then further divided into "narrow" (a specific focus of attention) and 'broad' (a wider overview).So, for example, if an officer remembered thinking that he or she had to move to a pillar, the recollection was graded 'internal narrow', while if they thought they were in danger it was an 'internal broad' recollection. A recollection that the shotgun had two barrels was recorded as 'external narrow' while the memory of someone falling to the floor was 'external broad'.
In this way, it was easy to see what sort of things were most likely to attract an officers attention, and which things they were least likely to pay attention to and, consequently, fail to memorise. The different methods of eliciting their memories - written reports, interviews, conferring and non conferring - were also graded for their effectiveness in respect of the number of things officers could recall and the accuracy of those recollections. Overall, the officers recall of 'external' things was more than 400% better than their memories of what they themselves were thinking or doing. And within the 'external' category, their recollection of specifics ('narrow' focus) was almost twice as good as their recollection of the broader picture.
The researchers report comments: "this 'tunnel vision' or 'selective attention' is characteristic of all humans who engage in this type of encounter... this study indicates that this phenomenon also occurs in well trained Police officers." It continues: "the important element of an 'external' focus of attention particularly an 'external' and 'narrow' focus of attention, is that the process of focusing allows the officers to focus on what is important to them at the time but that they can miss other items that may later turn out to be important. For example, if the officers attentional processes at the moment of the shooting were on the alignment of the gun, they did not note anything about the specific movement of the subject, their clothing, the subjects action towards the hostage etc"
The researchers say that this narrow, external focus facilitates great performance but renders officers 'attentionally blind' to anything they are not focused on. Their memories therefore became less accurate, or non-existent, about things upon which they were not focused. The report points out: "They were quite often inaccurate or unobservant about the hostage and almost never noted the behaviours or action of anyone other than the shooter. They almost never noticed the presence or action of the shooters brother and even other officers."
The researchers cite one officer who described how his two colleagues 'froze' and how he fired his first shot before either of them had drawn their weapons, but the video showed them all drawing their guns almost simultaneously, with one - who was just two feet away - firing immediately afterwards. Another officer spent a great deal of time describing how he pushed an individual out of the way, while the video showed him putting his hands as if to push the person but then recoiling back and taking cover. The different methods of getting officers to reconstruct events after the incident - writing reports after conferring, being cognitively interviewed without conferring - had wildly varying error rates.
When it came to recalling those things upon which the participants were 'externally' and 'narrowly' focused upon - that is things to which they were more attentive - the officers who conferred and wrote reports recalled 314 correct details and only made two errors, representing an error rate of 0.14 per officer. The researchers describe the statistic as "amazing". The error rate per officer of the 'external narrow' recollection of the report writing group who did not confer, although still small, was 0.6 per officer. Officers who were interviewed provided, on average, more than twice the amount of information that the report writers did, but their error rate soared. For example, officers who conferred and were interviewed about their 'external narrow' observations recalled 765 items of which 66 were incorrect - an error rate of 4.5 per officer.
Worst for errors were those officers who did not confer and were interviewed, whose error rate in the 'external narrow' category was 6.6 per officer - that is, 47 times greater than the confer/report group.
Commenting on the big discrepancy between report writing and interviews, the researchers comment: "The primary source of the errors dealt with information on the edge of the constables focus of attention. The constables worked hard to provide accurate information but the interviews apparently led them to expand on items that they were less knowledgeable about." The researchers point out that the primary aim of the experiment was to demonstrate the degree to which 'focused attention' occurred in high stress incidents and the manner in which it affected the officers perception afterwards.
The effectiveness of the different methods of eliciting memory recall was only a secondary study and did not meet the criteria of a full study, which would require more officers to participate. But they conclude that, nonetheless, their findings indicate "reports produced less information but are more accurate in their detail" They add: "when constables are going to have to report on an incident, the most accurate reporting of the details is going to be provided by those constables who had a chance to confer. A further conclusion might be that the less the officers provide about the incident, the fewer errors they will make, especially if they report only on the behaviour that they were most specifically focused on"
The article was based on the research report entitled "A study of the presence of perceptual distortions in firearms officers" and raises some very important points which the study by Portsmouth University will go into much greater depth. The issue regarding statements is always going to be the perceived credibility or ability to trust those submitting the evidence, but the ultimate aim is to provide evidence to a court for trial or coroners inquest. There is only so much error in a statement that a jury will tolerate before bringing the whole statements reliability into question. With regard to the accuracy in statements, the problem we face is to decide if we want an extremely accurate statement whose credibility will always be questioned by some people, or if we want less accurate but more detailed Police witness statements that face being deemed unreliable because of the vastly increased number of errors.
As always, it seems we're damned if we do, and we're damned if we don't.