Asking the Right Questions

By Ron Fanfair, Toronto Police Service Published: 10:28 a.m. December 28, 2017

Detective Kerry Watkins knows the answers you get often have something to do with the questions you ask.

A man on a street
Detective Kerry Watkins has modernized interviewing techniques at the Service

The Toronto Police College and part-time Humber College instructor was recently honoured with a Chief of Police Excellence Award, for his work modernizing how Toronto officers conduct interviews of witnesses and interrogation of suspects to ensure police are getting only the facts.

“The modern approach is one that’s consistent with best practices around the world. We are moving away from an accusatory and highly coercive sort of approach, when interviewing suspects, to a more inquisitorial approach in which our purpose is not solely to seek a confession from a suspect, because we know that’s a relatively low probability event. Our focus when we go into the room to speak to the suspect should be on gathering the maximum amount of information possible. If, in addition to information, we get an admission, that’s great. If, in addition to information and admission, we get a confession, that’s great, too."

He said a number of courts and academics have found that older questioning methods, such as the Reid model of interviewing and interrogation, have been linked to the production of false confessions.

“Our focus, as investigators, should be to seek the truth as best we can and to gather as much information as we can in support of our investigation to find out what the truth is. That sort of approach is consistent with emerging best practices around the world,” said Watkins, noting that officers will interview many more witnesses than suspects over their careers.

Watkins’ interest in embracing a modern interviewing approach was sparked after he was appointed a member of the task force that investigated the Russell Hill subway accident in 1995.

Three people were killed and 30 were taken to hospital with injuries when one train rear-ended another.

“We interviewed hundreds of people, from lawyers and engineers to the Toronto Transit Commission head and the train drivers, and I also took part in the coroner’s inquest,” he said. “During the inquest, a lawyer commented that the interviewing could be better. That caused me to stop and think and, on reflection, I concluded he was right and that is when I undertook to improve myself.”

Watkins has attended extensive PEACE interview training courses in England. 

PEACE is an evidence-based interviewing model developed by British police investigators in collaboration with psychologists and other scientists. The PEACE approach has developed into several tiers of basic and advanced training courses linked to an officer’s field of work and identified potential.

“I would say that the UK and the rest of Europe are at least a decade ahead of North America in their adoption of evidence-based interviewing practices and training, which is one of the reasons I went there,” said Watkins, who is retiring from the Service but will continue to teach.

Watkins went to Norway to study with the interview adviser who oversaw the interviews of Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people six years ago in the deadliest attack in Norway since World War II. He also took part in this year’s International Investigative Interviewing Research Group (IIIRG) annual conference in California. 

The IIIRG is a global network of interviewing professionals working tirelessly with national and international bodies committed to improving investigative interviewing and ensuring improvements are underpinned by a robust evidence base.

Kerry has ensured that state-of-the-art interviewing techniques that are widely accepted right across the judicial community are being implanted not only within the Toronto Police community, but the policing community across Canada

Watkins, who held a graduate degree in criminology from University of Toronto when he became a police officer in 1987, obtained a Master of Laws degree at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School last year.

He specializes in investigative training, particularly investigative interviewing which is an area in which he has extensive experience and is a recognized subject matter expert.

Spending a vast majority of his time in investigative units, including the Hit & Run squad, Internal Affairs, Homicide and Financial Crimes has helped him acquire real-life field experience interviewing witnesses and suspects, while seeking to gain knowledge about successful interviewing techniques.

As the lead instructor in investigative interviewing at the Toronto Police College, Watkins has developed and implemented a two-week training interviewing program for Service members.

“We focus on interviewing victims, witnesses and suspects using evidence-based best practices,” he said. “We have involved people from outside the police service, which I think is very important. That means we have psychologists and people from Innocence Canada come in to lecture and give perspectives on how things can go wrong. We also have lawyers from the outside who gave us feedback on not just statement law, but they also sit in on some of the mock interviews we do. We tape them and then play them back and the lawyers help give the students feedback on how they did. The lawyers have been very candid with their feedback and the students absolutely love it. The officers are better prepared when they get into the interview room and in court. They have a much more comprehensive understanding of not just the mechanics of conducting investigative interviews, but the legal context in which they operate too.”

Recently retired Detective Sergeant Cameron Field nominated Watkins for the award.

“Kerry set an incredibly high bar as to where we should go when we are actually doing interviewing and interrogation,” he said. “In the last five-to-eight years, he has been the singular reason why PEACE-based interviewing is really advanced here in Canada. A lot of work was done before he started this and it’s important to note that. But, as with most things, you need a fresh push and he’s was the central figure who has really brought it to the forefront.

“When you think about it, we have murder, sexual assault, child abuse and domestic violence cases where investigators really need to interrogate and interview people. Kerry has ensured that state-of-the-art interviewing techniques that are widely accepted right across the judicial community are being implanted not only within the Toronto Police community, but the policing community across Canada.”

The Chief of Police Excellence Award is granted to a member for special achievement through dedication, persistence or assistance to the Service.

“It’s always nice to be recognized for one’s work,” said Watkins, who strongly believes in the need to integrate the results of scientific research into investigative practice and is a strong proponent of continuing education for investigative professionals. “The more significant thing for me about the award, though, is that it is recognition of the fact that we needed to move our practice in the area of investigative interviewing forward and make it more evidence-based. It’s also recognition of the fact that we, as a Service, needed to change and improve. We have done that, and we will continue to do so going forward.”

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