Empathy training could help secure more child sex crime convictions
Police officers who display empathy when interviewing alleged child sex offenders could help secure an increase in the number of convictions, according to new research from a leading forensic psychologist.
Professor Coral Dando, of the University of Wolverhampton, was part of a research group examining police interviews with suspects and has identified key empathetic responses which may support offenders revealing more information about their crimes.
In 2012/13 in England and Wales 53,700 sexual offences were reported, yet convictions remain stubbornly low, at around 27% (Home Office, 2013).
Professor Dando, a former Metropolitan Police Officer who was part of the first Child Protection Unit, believes increased training in types of empathy, and when and how that empathy should be used could help offenders open up and thus enable police to gain more convictions.
Her research studied 36 audio interviews conducted by police officers between 2005 and 2012, all involving adult males over the age of 18 years who had been arrested on suspicion of sexual offences against children.
All denied the allegations made against them but 10 admitted lesser sexual offences.
Two distinct types of empathy emerged: spontaneous (stand-alone, interviewer initiated verbal utterances) and continuer (utterances immediately following an empathic opportunity offered by the suspect) empathy, and concerned interviewees personal comfort and understanding of the difficulty/awkwardness of the interview situation. Female interviewers were shown to display more empathic behaviour, but generally of the spontaneous kind, which was argued as possibly less effective than the continuer empathy because it was uninvited.
Professor Dando said: “Despite an average of eight continuer empathy opportunities provided by suspects in each interview, continuer empathy occurred very infrequently. This raises two possibilities. First, a lack of knowledge or training concerning the use of empathy may have meant that officers simply did not recognise this type of empathic opportunity. Second, that officers ignored, rather than missed these opportunities.
“Continuer empathy may be inherently uncomfortable for police interviewers who have consistently reported finding interview encounters with suspected sex offenders extremely demanding.”
“Females were also found to display one of the two types of continuer empathy more often than men (continuer understanding), which might be important for scaffolding cooperation. However, it should be noted that females were also ‘offered’ more empathic opportunities than male interviewers.”
The research was conducted with the University of Wolverhampton and Newcastle University’s Department of Psychology.
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