Police research series - The Alpha papers
affecting the reliability of Verbal Evidence in UK Courts.
Don't trust the evidence of your ears.
This series of investigations was aimed at exploring the
potential problems of automating Command and Control operations
in the Police and elsewhere. However this element of the
research touched a much more sensitive nerve, namely the
veracity of verbal evidence in our justice system.
The overall inquiry was designed to investigate the abilities
and requirements of Police Command and Control Operators.
It is part of a series of over 20 investigations into this
subject, prompted by the imminent introduction of computer
systems into this area of police work.
An important result was discovered which strikes at the
very heart of evidence in the British judicial system. This
is a matter which whilst generally important was peripheral
to the main thrust of this research effort. It is therefore
reported here as an ancillary report to the main work as
it has ramifications far beyond the design and operation
of Command and Control Systems
My research, well supported by psychological precedents
proves that no reliance can be placed upon recollections
of actual words spoken by witnesses at the time of an incident,
even when honest and diligent professional persons contemporaneously
record these matters.
The problem is that the human brain is not designed as a
tape recorder and it is easy to show that even professional
witnesses cannot provide an unaltered account of the real
words used (see Bibliography). This is an important finding
as frequently criminal cases can turn on the 'actual words
' spoken in a particular situation. These findings should
provoke a review of the rules relating to verbatim evidence
in UK courts.
This research was undertaken at the time when computers
were being designed for Police control room use. A control
room is invariably the first point of contact for the police
service with a violent or unlawful incident. Normally
the sequence of events are that such an incident is discovered
by a member of the public, very few are discovered by the
That member of the
public or another witness then contacts the police service.
Generally in this day and age that contact is by telephone,
the majority of which go into police emergency control rooms.
The personnel in
these control rooms are responsible for obtaining accurate
details of any incident from that witness and then deciding
on appropriate action. If that action involves the dispatching
of resources they are also responsible for briefing the
attending officers, assuring adequate resources and monitoring
the progress of the situation etc.
As noted in some other research monographs in this series
it must be emphasised that these operators regularly work
under high stress conditions involving often confused and
in some cases deliberately falsified information. They are
dealing with witnesses under emotional tension frequently
in less than optimal conditions for the easy comprehension
of the message being passed to them.
In most cases the police operators write down scrap notes
of the conversation with the emergency call witness during
the course of the telephone call. Later, usually within
15 minutes, they transpose those 'notes' onto an official
emergency incident log. That log then becomes the first
official record of the reporting of the incident, it is
customarily thereafter the basis of any subsequent police
As noted during the observational phase (see observational
research monograph) of this investigation the operators
wrote down the majority of the emergency message logs as
though they were verbatim reports of the actual words said
in the emergency call to the police. In other words the
written report purports to be an exact transcription of
the actual words used by the witnesses or sometimes offenders
during the emergency telephone calls.
This is crucially important in the wider context of criminal
evidence but not necessarily too important in the situation
of my investigation into the capture of meaning in an emergency
situation. In the latter case the police operators are simply
interested in getting enough accurate information to decide
upon the selection, allocation and briefing of the initial
emergency response personnel from their police agency or
from firefighters, ambulance, coastguards, lifeboats, military
or local authorities etc. The exact words do not matter
too much as long as the professional police emergency operator
captures the essential meaning. (Whether that is the case
is further investigated in another inquiry monograph in
In the former criminal evidence case the situation is entirely
different, here the actual words used, rather than the interpreted
meaning are often of vital importance. Largely because the
lawyers like to place their own meaning on the words used,
normally to press the probability of the interpretation
of the events that they are currently peddling.
QCs (lawyers, attorneys) will argue at length over the nuances
of a single reported word. A person's liberty or even life
could hang on whether a certain word was used or whether
it was another similar word that could be capable of an
alternative meaning. Frequently 'Incident Logs' and other
early incident recording forms end up in the courts as evidential
In view of the fact that the majority of the emergency logs
were written down as though they were such 'evidence' I
was interested to know how accurate that reporting might
be. Particularly as they often ended up in the higher courts
of the land, being minutely dissected by prosecution and
I once had a case where my pocket book was in the hands
of the judge and the defence lawyers for over 90% of the
time that I gave evidence. (Later I wrote all my pocket
books in an esoteric shorthand to prevent being hoist by
my own petard, but that is another story!)
secure a foundation are these 'accurate' notes made at the
time for evidential use in courts worldwide?
verbatim evidence recording is not capable of investigation.
It occurs in the street or at a scene of crime when a police
constable or a detective makes notes in his 'official' notebook.
At that point there is no way of checking the accuracy of
the words noted down versus the words actually uttered in
the situation. "It's a fair cop guv" has become
infamous in the annals of police reporting; leading to the
hypothesis that all criminals in London (UK) first undertook
a course at RADA.
how accurate is police reporting of the 'actual words' said
by a witness or suspect.
I took a random sample of 190 emergency call messages for
a much larger pool of about 2000 available messages. Each
of these calls had been audio recorded without the knowledge
of the operators. Each audio call was transcribed and the
transcription checked by three independent police officers
each of whom listened to the recording and checked the written
transcription. This was to ensure that the transcription
was as accurate as possible.
Every related 'Message Log'; that is the written record
of the emergency call; was secured and transcribed into
a computer system. Each of these written transcriptions
was checked by another (different) set of judges to ensure
Each message log was then placed alongside the related audio
transcription and two senior expert police judges working
in concert checked every call transcription against every
message log. Each of these logs purported to record the
exact information in the emergency call. (Although it is
not really relevant in the terms of research evidence, three
researchers also checked the logs and came to the same conclusion
as the expert judges)
judges rated the calls firstly on whether they were in a
verbatim (actual words used by the witness) or a reporting
for the verbatim style messages (180 of them) they rated
the accuracy of the reported surface structure, that is
to say the actual words used.
For the verbatim messages they rated
was an exact replication in total of the emergency call
any clause exactly in the call matched any clause in the
log purportedly recording the call
any clause in the call nearly matched a clause in the
message log. (Nearly being defined as no more than five
words being changed or transposed)
** A clause is a part of a
sentence that contains a significant assertion. In other words
it is a fragment of a sentence.
results of their findings are encapsulated in the following
Figure 1 Surface structure
comparison of '999' calls transcripts and message logs
of logs which contained a single clause which had:
It can be seen that of the 190
messages 180 or nearly 95% were in a verbatim style, purporting
to be the actual words used by the witness.Of these NOT
ONE of the logs exactly replicated the conversation
and only TWO replicated
even a small part of such conversations.The number of message
logs that contained a clause that exactly matched a clause
in the call was only two (in this case this amounted to
only two logs as there was only one identical clause in
each of these 'more accurate' logs)
The number of message logs, which contained just a single
clause, which was judged to be similar to the call according
the criteria above, was 46 or only 26%.
The majority (73%) of the message logs which purported to
be an exact reproduction of the words spoken by the witnesses
showed no appreciable relationship to the actual words used
in the emergency call conversation.
It would seem that the police operator transposes the information
that eventually reaches the message log from the information
that he/she received in the call, into some linguistic style
of his/her own.
In terms of the main focus of
this research this is not necessarily a problem, provided
that the essential meaning extracted from each caller is
accurately deposited into the computer database (or the
paper message log in a manual system) and then subsequently
used to effectively brief and deploy police and other emergency
resources. Whether this is the case is explored in another
of these research monographs, unfortunately with not too
happy a conclusions.
The reasons for changes in both surface structure, 'word'
recollection and as discussed elsewhere in 'recalled meaning'
do not lie in operator mendacity, but in the nature of human
cognitive processes and memory. The human brain is designed
to make sense of the inputs that it receives and this means
that what it experiences is not pure uncut sensory data,
but mediated knowledge, effected by existing expectations
and world models.
This goes further than saying
that we receive sensory input and the interpret it, what
I am saying is that the sensory input that we receive is
already effected by our current and existing expectations,
we see or hear what we expect to see and hear. A more in
depth discussion of this somewhat disturbing thesis is undertaken
in another of these monographs.
In this report I want to return
to the more practical aspects of our findings.
Traditionally a great deal of
weight has been placed upon records of this nature, which
are (supposedly at least) made at the time of an incident
or its report. When written in a verbatim style they are
generally regarded by all parties as being an accurate record
of the words actually used at the time, especially when
the veracity of the witness is not being called into question.
In most discourses it does not
matter very much if the surface structure of an utterance
is changed drastically as long as the essential meaning
of the dialogue is retained. However in many court cases
different interpretations are often placed upon minutely
dissimilar surface structures of words 'used at the time'.
Making the accurate recording of the exact words important
in such situations.
These findings confirm what
has been well understood by psychologists for a along time,
Human beings do not work well as tape recorders. However
I doubt if even psychologists realised how bad human beings
were at this task and how serious a spanner that throws
into British evidential procedures.
The irrevocable conclusion must
be that virtually no reliance can be placed upon a witness's
recollection of the 'actual words' spoken at any remembered
instance even if they made notes at the time. The psychological
theories underpinning these findings may be found in the
bibliography at (Evidence Bibliography) for those interested
enough to research these findings further.
It must be emphasised that I
am not talking about the position where witnesses are deliberately
lying. What this research concludes, well supported by previous
studies, is that even when an honest, sober and competent
witness tries to recall the exact words that are used in
a conversation they are generally in error. This is due
to the way that the brain works. It can be defined as an
'effort after meaning' rather than an audio or pictorial
recording of events.
Courts must not therefore accept, as
a matter of simple scientific fact, that human recollections
of actual words used in any incidents are in any way accurate
in so far as the surface structure is concerned. To do so
would be to potentially promulgate serious and unintended
miscarriages of justice.