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"Reconstruct the narrative and recognise your cognitive pitfalls faster"

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Reconstruct the narrative and recognise your cognitive pitfalls faster

Criminologist Chantal Epskamp-Dudink favours an open mind and lateral thinking in criminal investigations. Thinking in terms of scenarios is crucial for criminal investigation. But criminal investigators were previously insufficiently aware of the pitfalls they might encounter in the process. Commissioned by the Netherlands Police Academy, Epskamp wrote "Van watskeburt tot whodunit", a book that contributes to improving thinking in terms of scenario’s in crime investigation. 

Trust in the government and law enforcement is essential. This calls for criminal investigations that leave no room for doubt. Investigations that conclusively clarify what happened in a case. Epskamp's book combines scientific theories with insights from criminal law and investigative practice. She translates this into practical thinking frameworks, tools, and tips for criminal investigation. 

Pitfalls in criminal investigation 

Thinking in scenarios in investigations should ensure that the police consider what has happened and who is involved in a crime with an open mind. But we must be aware of the pitfalls it involves, such as tunnel vision and what we call 'confirmation bias'. "Tunnel vision is preceded by a number of psychological processes that every person uses. Those processes help you function in everyday life. You need the strength of your convictions and a certain self-assurance to do what you need to do. Confirmation bias means you are so convinced of your rightness that you are no longer open to other views and angles," Epskamp explains. 

Miscarriages of justice 

High workload, the idea that a confession is always evidence, and pressure from the public, politicians and the press have also led to miscarriages of justice or doubts about completed investigations. Epskamp: "We had a different investigative climate in the late 1990s. There was less room for critical reflection. People thought differently about how you reconstruct and anchor a narrative. A confession, often made under extreme pressure, was seen as the strongest piece of evidence. In the case of a miscarriage of justice, you do not anchor a narrative properly in evidence. You build the narrative on incorrect information or on evidence you cannot treat as evidence. But you can also reconstruct the narrative from different perspectives. That is why you must always ask yourself if another option is also possible when looking at the information." 

New way of reconstruction 

The book provides a practical paradigm for building that narrative and seeing the separate pieces of information in context. "Under to the new way of reconstruction, we map out the whole narrative and test a confession with the reconstruction. Is that confession right in the context of the big picture? That should reveal whether other parts of the narrative do not hold water or lack cohesion. The culture has changed in recent years. Teams are also structured differently. There is room for scientific insights and critical reflection. Where people work, errors are made. But we did manage to reduce the chances of miscarriages of justice to some extent by following these steps," Epskamp adds. 

Dedicated to the van Doorn family

Epskamp dedicated the book to the van Doorn family. Milica van Doorn's death caused a shock to society in 1992. After years of investigations, no progress was made. Only when all the investigations from all these years were examined in context did the police arrive at the most likely scenario. Epskamp herself was partly involved in the investigation: "We possessed forensic traces in the Milica van Doorn case. When DNA testing was sufficiently developed, we launched a DNA match search, which found the culprit and allowed us to solve the case after 25 years. The preceding scenario reconstruction helped us deploy DNA match testing effectively. We only had to ask 133 men to donate their DNA. It also helped us during the court hearing. The defendant came up with an alternative scenario, which we had previously examined in the context of the scenario construction and were able to rule out in a substantiated fashion. The context of a narrative is therefore even more important. This case has shown the power of scenario reconstruction." 

Van watskeburt tot whodunit 

The book was written for use by detectives and other police staff, the Public Prosecution Service, students/teachers at the Netherlands Police Academy and universities, policymakers, and academics. The preface was provided by Lecturer in Forensic Science Christianne de Poot, Lecturer in Intelligence Ana Isabel Barros, and Lecturer in Crime Management and Criminal Investigation Nicolien Kop. 

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