Establishing intellectually impaired victims’ understanding about ‘truth’ and ‘lies’: Police interview guidance and practice in cases of sexual assault

Effective police interviews are central to the justice process for sexual assault victims, but little is known about actual communication between police officers and witnesses, nor about the alignment between guidance and real practice. This study investigated how police officers, in formal interviews, follow ‘best evidence’ guidance to obtain victims’ demonstrable understandings of ‘truth and lies’. We conducted qualitative conversation analysis of 20 evidentiary interviews between police officers and victims who were ‘vulnerable’ adults, or children. Analysis revealed that interviewers initiated conversation about truth and lies inappropriately in three ways: 1) by eliciting confirmations rather than demonstrations of understanding; 2) by eliciting multiple demonstrations and confirmations of understanding, or 3) by re-introducing ‘truth and lies’ conversations at incorrect points in the interview. Both 2) and 3) imply prior or forthcoming dishonesty on the part of the victim. In the context of encouraging victims to report sexual assault, and achieve justice, the paper reveals potential communicative barriers in which victims – or their evidence – may be discredited right at the start of the process.