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Using Offender Interviews to Inform Police Problem Solving

Tool Guide No. 3 (2005)

by Scott H. Decker

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Usar as Entrevistas aos Ofensores na Resolução de Problemas Policiais (Portuguese)


There is a long tradition in criminal justice research of interviewing active offenders, but very little of this research has focused specifically on police problem solving. This is unfortunate because active offenders provide substantial amounts of information about each of the elements of the crime triangle: victims, offenders, and places. Such information should prove useful for strategic problem-solving interventions, because it yields information about crime patterns in general that may not be obvious when examining one case at a time. The information from such interviews may enhance existing problem-solving projects or generate new ones. The information can also improve officer safety.

The distinction between offenses and offenders is important because it highlights the two different kinds of knowledge—strategic and tactical—that can be gleaned from interviews of active offenders. You can learn about one important leg of the crime triangle by studying offenders. Information from such interviews provides important tactical information for responding to one specific individual or specific patterns of behavior. Such information is useful in responding to that individual and others who may behave like this person. Studying offenses provides information of strategic value for responding to patterns and trends in general. This guide attempts to bridge the gap between police and researchers by underscoring the common purposes both groups have, and pointing out the problem-solving value to be gained from interviewing active offenders.

Information from active offenders is particularly important because in some cases, it comes from offenders who have not been caught. In other cases, information from active offenders can inform you about offenses other than those for which the offender was arrested. Robbery provides an excellent example. Interviews with active armed robbers revealed that these offenders experienced a large number of victimizations that they did not report to the police.1 Often these victimizations were retaliation for earlier robberies and sometimes produced an escalating series of crime sprees. However, these victimizations have implications for the broader community because these offenders often "take matters into their own hands" and retaliate for their victimization, harming innocent members of the community, making the community less safe in general, and greatly increasing fear of crime. This is a key element of the SARA model as it more fully elaborates on the nature of crime problems and their genesis.

Active offenders can provide a wealth of information about crimes, motives, and techniques. This information extends well beyond the crimes for which offenders are arrested or under investigation. Such information can be valuable to the police in problem-solving approaches to crime.

This guide falls into two parts. The first part provides a summary of the most important findings from offender interviews, while the second provides concrete recommendations on how to set about conducting offender interviews for problem-oriented policing projects.

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