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Lack of knowledge about Swedish police interrogations and interviews – new research project will look for answers

We lack knowledge about Swedish police interviews and interrogations, and about what actually happens when the police ask questions. How do they phrase them and how do they express themselves objectively during an interrogation or interview? These are the questions that two researchers at Södertörn University will try to answer in a new project.

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Police interviews and interrogations must be conducted objectively; questions must be open, must not be leading and the person being interviewed must be given the opportunity to talk about what happened from their perspective. However, the Swedish police have been criticised, and their capacity for impartiality in investigative work has been called into question. There is also little understanding of how Swedish police interviews and interrogations are conducted, not least as regards the important role of language.

“In this project, we will study how language is used, which questions are asked and how they are formulated to make information manageable. Studying interviews and interrogations from a linguistic perspective is important, because language is used to ask questions, recreate memories and retell stories. We will highlight how objectivity is constructed, with a particular focus on how questions are asked and how the interviewee’s statement is rephrased by the police,” says Lina Nyroos, associate professor in Swedish at Södertörn University.

High stakes interactions

She and her colleague Hedda Söderlundh, associate professor in Swedish, are starting the Språkbruk och interaktion i svenska polisförhör (Language use and interaction in police interviews and interrogations) research project in January 2022, with funding from the Swedish Research Council. This is not the first time that interactions are the topic of her research, particularly interactions in institutional contexts, such as performance appraisals; these are often contexts with a clear distribution of power and situations where there is a great deal at stake.

“This is often the case, but police interviews and interrogations are absolutely critical. Internationally, there is a much more knowledge about interactions in these interviews and interrogations, not least in the UK, where researchers have studied different types – for example, they have studied how interviews with children or people with disabilities are conducted,” says Lina Nyroos.

The role of rephrasing

Part of what the two researchers will be examining is rephrasing. Pausing during an interaction, summarising what the interviewee said, is a human thing to do, according to Lina Nyroos. People do it all the time, as it functions as a form of confirmation that the listener has understood and interpreted correctly.

“It is part of the structure of the interview: ‘Okay, have I understood it correctly if…’. But in this institutional context it is interesting to investigate these rephrasings, how well they correspond to what was said. What is included and excluded,” she says.

The results of an interview or interrogation an have serious consequences for everyone involved in a criminal investigation, which is why it is important to examine how the police work in practice, as well as how the principles of the rule of law are complied with. The hope is that the results of the study will be beneficial in policework and in Police Education, not least when it comes to interview techniques.

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