Police officers should be neutral, fair and equitable when it comes to interviewing people involved in crimes to best ensure a successful investigation. That’s the theory behind a science-based interviewing methodology called FETI (Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview), which also emphasizes taking care not to re-traumatize crime victims while gathering information.
Members of the CU Boulder Police Department (CUPD) received FETI training this spring, learning to maximize information collection from victims, witnesses and suspects after a crime occurs. The technique was put into practice immediately, adding to CUPD’s slate of options to help address mental health concerns and connect the campus community to resources.
“We are thrilled to be pioneers in this area, which is so important to help ensure not only the success of interviews but also to treat crime victims with the utmost care and respect,” said Assistant Vice Chancellor for Public Safety and Chief of Police Doreen Jokerst. “Placing this type of emphasis on mental health is also right in line with our other community support programs, such as providing an embedded victim advocate and our embedded clinician.”
The method is founded in the neurobiology of trauma and attempts to create an environment where those impacted by crime feel comfortable enough to share the experience they’ve had. Officers are trained to ask questions in a non-leading way, allowing crime victims to respond to cues and share information in a narrative manner.
“As our officers investigate crimes, it is important to understand how traumatic incidents are coded in the brain,” said CUPD Commander Eric Edford, who is also an investigator for the department. “FETI gives officers a tool to help extract facts when people who are involved with these crimes may not be able to readily recall information.”
Trainers describe the method as “collecting the dots, not connecting the dots,” to emphasize the importance of separating the interview from other investigative steps. This helps ensure fairness and neutrality, while leaving less information on the table.
At the CUPD-hosted regional FETI teaching sessions, members of the Boulder County Sheriff’s Department, the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office and other police agencies joined university police to train, first learning the theory and then practicing interview skills.
FETI trainer Lori Heitman explained that gathering information without re-traumatizing victims is crucial. “We focus on what crime victims can’t forget not on what they can’t remember. By focusing on sensory information, we may get to the implicit details they didn’t even realize they took in,” she said.
Heitman equates the human brain to a crime scene, to be handled with the utmost care during an interview. “We don’t want to edit information or use leading or coercive questions, because that can become part of the fact pattern and may not be accurate,” she said. “We have to be purposeful about not putting anything into someone’s memory.”
Instructor Carrie Hull said she was impressed by CUPD’s awareness of the trauma-informed movement and willingness to help share the science-based methodology, which is continually pivoting as new information on how the brain processes trauma becomes available. Officers included in the training will put their newfound knowledge to good use, maximizing the amount of information gathered during an interview, to conduct the most thorough investigation possible.
“We reduce anxiety so crime victims can share the experience they had,” said Heitman, who pioneered the use of FETI techniques. “If you don’t get the interview right, then other things don’t go as well,” she said. “Better interviewing can lead to better conviction rates, which can benefit everyone in the community—both on campus and off.”