custody Emotions Psychology sensory

Interrogating the senses: Cognitive interviewing

Kate Herrity

Sensory criminology stresses the utility of broader, sensory experience for understanding processes of criminal justice. In doing so, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of over-emphasising the novelty of such approaches, but this would be to overlook the ways in which the sensory is deeply embedded in criminal justice practices. There are a host of exciting and innovative projects and people in a number of fields, doing vital work such as Forensic architecture, a research agency investigating an array of human and nature rights abuses, based at Goldsmiths using all manner of innovative approaches both applied and theoretical. Their Saydnaya project with Amnesty international is a persuasive demonstration of how the sensory can be combined with other techniques to powerful effect. They met with survivors and used their testimony to create an account of what went on behind the prison walls, using architectural and acoustic modelling. Kate McClean’s work in Sensory maps is another example of the ways foregrounding the sensory provide a means of deepening and broadening our understanding. The Odeuropa network, and their site host a number of innovative cross-disciplinary initiatives. It is not new developments I wish to focus on here, but the contention that the value of attending to the sensory is evident in established criminal justice practices – specifically in the form of cognitive interviewing – and that acknowledging this raises interesting and important questions for criminology.

Cognitive interviewing (CI) demarcates emotions and the senses, usefully distinguishing between these separate realms of experience. CI and the ideas that underpin it, provide an example of how sensory sources of knowledge are embedded in forms of criminal justice. Exploring these methods further reveals how an absence of dialogue between practice and theory has – in the case of the sensory – left theory lagging behind. Attending to the broader uses of sensory experience provides powerful instruction for research practice, and a means of deepening our understanding of violence and its impact.


Cognitive interviewing is a technique used for accurate information retrieval and/or “research synthesis” in social science, forensic and health settings (e.g. Miller et al. 2014; Beatty and Willis 2007). CI is a means of improving the quality of questionnaire data as well as a host of other applications for gathering information, but has gained greatest traction as a technique for interviewing victims and witnesses following a crime – most usually of a more serious, violent nature. In England and Wales CI was nationally wheeled out in 1993 (Shepherd et al. 1999). Its implementation across Australian, American and Canadian police services has been somewhat piecemeal though encouraging witnesses to “rely on their senses” in the process of interview retrieval has a long history, if often focused on speedily concluding investigation and suspects’ testimony (Alpert et al 2012). It has been demonstrated to be more effective than either standard interviewing or hypnosis (Geiselmen et al 1985). Its precision has been built upon in subsequent refinements in both practice and theory, while retaining its two core objectives: retrieving as much accurate information as possible, while safeguarding the wellbeing of the interviewee.

How does it work?

CI works to increase the amount and accuracy of memory retrieval, by circumventing the trauma, arousal and/or anxiety induced by witnessing or being involved in a violent event and minimising the conflabulations (the filling of gaps in memory with believed but false recollection) and inaccuracies that can result. CI places the health and wellbeing of the interviewee at the centre of the process by increasing their agency and control over the course of the interview. This is underscored by the crossover in use of these techniques in therapeutic and forensic settings. While cognitive interviewing has been enhanced and further developed, the basic cognitive theory and principles of memory its retrieval remain; i)in times of stress and trauma memory is better elicited when the broad conditions of the event are recreated, ii)when the subject is encouraged to think about all manner of detail, and iii)when they are encouraged to revisit the event from different points and iv)different perspectives.

These four points of memory retrieval strongly insinuate the sensory. They encourage the foregrounding of detail and perspective which might otherwise be regarded as peripheral, thereby utilising the weaknesses and quirks of memory while under duress; e.g. the trauma and/or distress of being caught up in a violent event. Lieutenant Jason Potts illustrates this point when he quotes Lisak (2002): “Victims are often able to recall the texture of a rapist’s shirt before being able to remember if the suspect was wearing a hat”. Reliving rich and vivid sensory experience, or “flashbacks”, characterise intrusive recollections; a “hallmark” of post-traumatic stress disorder (Clancy et al. 2020). Lee Broadbent’s tweet powerfully illustrates the debilitating effects of these intrusive, traumatic revisitations for witnesses, victims and those caught up in the aftermath of violent events. Effects cognitive interviewing can work to manage.

It is increasingly acknowledged that these techniques are useful when interviewing suspects too. This more accurately reflects the significant number of perpetrators of violent offences who are identified as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and associated symptomscknowled. Acknowledging the complicated relationships between victim, perpetrator, violence and trauma also works to disrupt the simplistic binaries we tend to ascribe these categories (e.g. Ternes et al. 2019).

Why this matters

Cognitive interviewing has the subject/participants wellbeing at its core, providing a means of extending greater agency and control over the narrative course. This allows those being interviewed to reflect on their responses in was which extricate their emotional response from their recollections. In this way, sensory memories form part of a broader repertoire of coping strategies, lending greater power to the interviewee in ways which safeguard their wellbeing and protect them against additional trauma. This distinction between feeling and feelings, provides a useful means of distinguishing the sensory from the realm of emotions for which it often provides a powerful conduit. While memory of our senses can offer a compelling means of evoking emotion, they are entirely separate facets of human experience. The senses are not emotions and collapsing them risks obfuscating both our recognition of the epistemological and methodological potential of the sensory and our understanding of how we make sense of our world.

Potts persuasively argues that cognitive interviewing can enhance police legitimacy when dealing sensitively with victims and witnesses of crime. He demonstrates the value of considering how these long-established knowledges can be better and more consistently incorporated into practice. In the social sciences, these approaches to working with people who may be vulnerable and/or have suffered traumatic experiences, offers instruction for how we may proceed more ethically in the field. Attending to the sensory highlighted this in my own practice, providing me with a means of working carefully when researching sound in the prison environment. Considering the utlity of cognitive interviewing also serves to validate the role of the sensory in understanding matters criminological. In this aspect of criminology, theory is substantially behind practice. We speak about the iterative process between research and theory but attending more closely (and carefully) to the sensory reveals a chasm in communication between those of us who talk and teach and those of us who do and practice. The deeply embedded practices and wisdom of CI illustrate how impoverished our thinking can be in the absence of these conversations.

Being more sensitised to the sensory onslaught which characterises the aftermath of trauma allows us to better comprehend the profound toll of those working with violence and its aftermath. Accounting for how the sensory can be a source of intrusive recollection and distress allows for a more sensitive response to victims of violent crime, as Potts persuasively argued. More controversially, perhaps, this also carves out space for considering the impact of violence – as well as the often complicated and pre-existing relationship with it – for those who engagined in it. It is not so much the extension of these techniques in the field of interrogating suspects I argue for here, but rather what this affords us in greater and deeper understanding of a complex criminological phenomenon. Often, representations of violence become couched in those tensions between moral and legal discourse, to the detriment of disinterested inquiry. We cannot see, hear, smell, feel for the emotions that so frequently characterise responses to criminal justice (Karstedt et al 2011).

CI is an example of the ways in which the sensory informs practice and understanding in the realm of crime investigation. It also demonstrates the value of honouring the iterative process between practice and theory as it extends beyond our academic realm[1]. Here is a means of clearly distinguishing between our sensory and emotional worlds, and an opportunity to reassess our understanding of violence and trauma. Far from being a frivolous novelty, or an academic indulgence, exploring the ideas underpinning the development and deep-rootedness of CI illustrates the profound source of understanding offered by our senses.

For more on this, and the potentials of sensory methods for understanding criminological practices and processes, please see our forthcoming chapter: Herrity, K., Schmidt, B., Warr, J.J. “Sensory “Heteroglossia” and Social Control: Sensory Methodology and Method in Dodge, M., Faria, R. (eds) Qualitative Research in Criminology: Cutting Edge Methods. Springer


Alpert, G.P., Rojek, J. and Noble, J. (2012) ‘The cognitive interview in policing: negotiating control’, Australian Research Council, Centre for Excellence in Policing briefing paper, issue 13. Available online:

Beatty, J.C., Willis, G.B. (2007) “Research synthesis: the practice of cognitive interviewing”, Public Opinion Quarterly 71(2): 287-311.

Broadbrent, L. (2021) [Twitter]12th August, Available at Accessed 12th August 2021

Clancy, K.J., Albizu, A., Schmidt, N.B., Li, W. (2020) “Intrinsic sensory disinhibition contributes to intrusive re-experiencing in combat veterans” Nature: Scientific reports, no. 10, article no. 936 [online]:

Geiselman, R.E., Fisher, R.P, Mackinnon, D.P. and Holland, H.L. (1985) “Eyewitness memory enhancement in the police interview: cognitive retrieval mnemonics versus hypnosis”, Journal of Applied Psychology 70(2): 401-412.

Karstedt, S., Loader, I., Strang, H. (2011) (eds) Emotions, Crime and Justice. London: Hart Publishing

Potts, J. (2020) blog post “Enhanced interviewing techniques to improve memory recall” National Police Foundation 28th September Available at: Last accessed: 03/11/21

Shepherd, E., Mortimer, A., Turner, V. and Watson, J. (1999) ‘Spaced cognitive interviewing: facilitating therapeutic and forensic narration of traumatic memories’, Psychology, Crime and Law 5(1-2): 117-143.

Ternes, M., Cooper, B.S., Griesel, D. (2019) “The perpetration of violence and the experience of trauma: exploring predictors of PTSD symptoms in male violent offenders” International Journal of Forensic Health Vol.19, No.1

[1] I argue this, as well as demonstrate the instructive value of lived experience in my sensory penalities chapter:

Emotions police power sound

The knock

Jason Warr

The other day I was lain abed, taking advantage of the snooze alarm, dozy with the warm snuggled hug of the memory foam topper keeping me from the day. Parched, gritty eyed, in comforting dark when I was torn from my state by Bang … BANG, BANG!

I was immediately alert, up, on edge, worried, looking for the fresh Adidas, thrown back, awaiting the later crash as the door succumbed to uniformed baton and boot. The sounds of the banging immediately transported me back to a former time and a “6 in the Morning …”[1] moment that I was not, until this moment, aware had been haunting me. Fortunately, this time it was not the police. It was just an impatient delivery driver bringing some novelty to the door (unlike some advisory others we’re adhering to lockdown rules) and had ignored the doorbell and had just slammed fist to door. However, it got me to thinking about the police and The Knock.

Thus far many of the blog posts that have been presented here have focused on the sensorial nature of the prison and conducting research therein. This is understandable as the admins are all currently prison researchers and thus many of our connections are in the same field. However, the aim here has always been to expand our work and thinking beyond the realm of prisons and our book on Sensory Penalities into the wider realm of a sensory criminology. Here I aim to discuss one element of that: namely, the symbolism enmeshed within the police actions of knocking on a door.

Kate Herrity[2] notes that sounds such as banging (in one section of her thesis she discusses banging on cell doors) are symbolically communicative. The rhythm, timbre, volume, pitch, and tone of the ‘bang’ convey a range of messages and information. From calls for attention, to dissatisfaction, to alarm and panic, to anger – all can be contained within those sounds. She also argues that in order to understand the sound environment, the soundscape, of the prison (and thus in order to understand the prison), we need to become attuned to those sounds in order to be able to interpret and discuss their relevance and meaning within the social ecology of that environment. I contend here that we can extend such thinking to explore the relevance and meaning of police behaviours – here specifically the Knock.

Knocking is an interesting phenomenon in and of itself. There are whole articles and essays based on this.[3] The interpretations of ‘knocks’ is a complex neuro-social interaction which comprises varying neuro-functions conjoined with forms of social cognition[4]. There is the identification of both the action itself (becoming aware of the sound) and the form (discerning location and component of the sound) and then a process of contextual interpretation – what does the sound/knock mean? Ordinarily, and evidently, a knock represents an external person’s expressed desire and intention to gain some access into the space from which a door currently blocks their progress. The knock, therefore represents an intent[5]. However, there is a complex relationship of cultural expectation, mores, and manners involved in the act of a knock. Evidenced by the fact that some ‘knocks’ on a door can be considered rude – you will know what I mean by that. Think about that, you will have some recognition already that some forms of ‘knock’ are inappropriate. BANGBANGBANG when bringing a cup of tea to someone on a conference call for instance. Yet, though we have some recognition of this when asked to contemplate it, it is nevertheless one of those simplistic acts in our quotidian lives that is much more complex than we ever really bother to consider.

When it comes to the police, and their knocking on your door, this is complicated by the function of their knocking. Or in deed not knocking. In the US policing literature, there is a wide range of critical explorations on the controversial policy and practice of the ‘No-Knock’ warrant – whereby the police can gain access to a property without the ordinary provision of having to ‘knock’ on the door[6]. When it comes to police practice there is a great deal of symbolic communication layered into the sounds of their knocking or decisions not to knock. Due to the delivery drivers rude awakening of my imagination it made me realise that I have been subjected to varying forms of the ‘the knock’ by the police. There is no singular knock here, instead there is a multitude of aural communications, being proffered by differing forms of the knock. Here I explore three.

tap … tap, Tap

When I was 17 a friend of mine died. The police who attended the scene asked me to accompany them to the family’s home in order to break the news to my friend’s mum. It was the first and only time I ever got into a police car willingly. Fuck knows I did not want to go but … what do you do? I remember so vividly how nervous the two officers, one older male, the other a younger woman, were on the way there. It was the first time I had ever seen people who I associated with power, hostility, and ill-treatment seem vulnerable. The ride there was filled with pained silence. They had seen the devastation wrought on the child of the person we were on our way to see. The closer we got the more nervous we all got. As we reached the house, I felt sick with dread. The officers approached the door and gave the door a tentative tap, followed by a brief pause, and then two more taps. The last of which seemed more assertive – tap … tap, Tap.

Tap, Tap … Tap, Tap

Sat in my flat in East London, minding my own business, watching tv, there came a Tap, Tap … Tap Tap at my front door. There was a weird, proprietary air to the knock on the door. As I disentangled myself from the cushions on the sofa in order to answer the door there came a further Tap, Tap … Tap, Tap. It was, as most knocks are a call for attention, but interlaced into this knocking was something of authority, confidence, and impatience. It made me hesitate. Nervous. Alert. Ready for a confrontation, violence if needs be. When I opened the door there were police officers, a number, strategically placed at the portal, eying the locked security gate with suspicion. Nerves, fight or flight instincts began to kick in, until I noticed another set of officers at the door opposite. “Sorry to bother you sir, but there was an incident outside last night, and we’re just checking to see if you saw or heard anything”.

Routine. Breathe …


Crash. Splinter. Baton and boot.

“6 in the morning, police at my door, Fresh Adidas squeak across the bathroom floor, Out my back window I make an escape …”[7]

Except I didn’t escape from the flat. I barely made it out of bed before hands and boots were on me. Blurs of black and white. Pain, sharp, intense. Shouts ringing loud but incoherent. I had no idea why they were there but … that was nothing new. It was the last time though. There is nuance to the communicative, and symbolically communicative, actions of the knock. Here, by exploring just three forms of knock employed by police officers we can begin to see how the act of knocking on a door, with differing intents, can be discerned. We tend not to think about the sensory element of actions of, or performances by, those who wield power. Yet they are there. If we are to have a greater understanding of the interactivity of that power with the public then we need to begin to start taking these sensory elements more seriously. There are questions to explore and to be answered. This is what sensory criminology aims to do, revisit much of our criminological understanding and see if there are facets that we have, hitherto missed.

[1] Ice-T (1986) “6 ‘N the Morning”, Rhyme Pays, Techno Hop Records, Warner Bros, Los Angeles: California.

[2] Herrity, K. (2019). Rhythms and Routines: Sounding Order in a Local Men’s Prison Through Aural Ethnography., Doctoral Thesis., University of Leicester., Leicester

[3] For instance, von Wright, G. (1988). An essay on door-knocking. Rechtstheorie, 19(3), 275-288.

[4] Lemaitre, G. Pyles, J. A. Halpern, A. R. Navolio, N. Lehet, M. and Heller,L. M. (2018). Who’s that Knocking at My Door? Neural Bases of Sound Source Identification, Cerebral Cortex, Vol. 28(3): 805–818.

[5] See 3.

[6] See: Dolan, B. (2019). To knock or not to knock: No-knock warrants and confrontational policing. St. John’s Law Review, 93(1), 201-232.

Goddard, J. M. (1995). The destruction of evidence exception to the knock and announce rule: call for protection of fourth amendment rights. Boston University Law Review, 75(2), 449-476.

[7] See 1.