Empathy and Police Work – How Ron Iddles changed policing for the better

Empathy and respect when dealing with criminals is not something the public would normally expect of a police officer. Hardly a week goes by with some public figure is claiming the government is “soft on crime” and demanding a get-tough response. And, spurred on by sections of the media, the majority of the public would seem to agree.

Homicide Detective Ron Iddles shows empathy

Detective Senior Sergeant Ron Iddles OAM

It turns out that empathy is now looked upon as an essential requirement for effective police work when in contact with citizens. It is especially the case when interviewing victims or suspects of serious crimes. Why? Because it works whereas traditional methods of policing have been shown to be deficient.

What is empathy?

Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This principle is the key to effective interpersonal communication.
— Stephen Covey

The first thing to note is that the definitions of empathy are not always consistent across disciplines.

For example, a definition of empathy commonly used in the medical profession—where doctor-patient communication is vital—is described as “the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s shoes.”[1]

In relation to police work, researcher Miguel Inzunza describes empathy as “the attempt of a self-aware person to comprehend without making judgements on both the positive and negative experiences of another.”[2]

Research now shows that when police listen empathetically during their interactions with citizens, they are more likely to be trusted and considered effective as police officers. Cooperation is a more likely outcome and even those individuals who have committed an offence will often admit they were treated fairly.

Empathy is not the same as sympathy or pity. While empathy is an active process of engagement, sympathy is passive. Sympathy is a form of judgement and an agreement without trying to understand the other person’s point of view. As Stephen Covey suggests, “The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually.”[3]

Coercion in police interrogations

The interview of victims, witnesses and persons of interest is vitally important for eliciting information to take forward criminal investigations. There are strict rules as to how this information can be obtained and used in a court of law. For example, suspects must be issued a caution starting with the words, “I must inform you that you do not have to say or do anything but anything you say or do may be given in evidence.” These days the focus of interviews is to elicit the truth and not necessarily to obtain a confession from a suspect.

It wasn’t always like this in Victoria. Traditional methods of interrogation of suspects relied heavily on coercion to extract a confession of guilt.

It has always been assumed that a police officer’s testimony in court will be the truth. But in reality it isn’t always the case. In the autobiography of noted Melbourne criminal defence lawyer Frank Galbally, he gives a graphic account of the bashing of a suspect by police to gain a confession. Billy Longley, who had a criminal history, was accused of murdering his wife. Galbally was astounded by the lies told under oath by Homicide Detective ‘Bluey’ Adams during the court case that followed. Longley was convicted of manslaughter but after a retrial he was acquitted. He was later jailed for life for the murder of a union leader.[4]

A series of government inquiries would later expose some of the corruption in the Victoria Police force. The 1971 report from the Kaye Inquiry focused on members of the Homicide Squad and the manner they were bribed.[5] As a result, four senior police officers were charged and three were jailed. Only the notorious Detective ‘Bluey’ Adams escaped being convicted.

This inquiry was followed by the Beach Inquiry which, in 1978, reported further cases of the abuse of police powers in the interrogations of suspects. Some 55 police were identified, 33 were eventually charged and all were acquitted.[6]

According to investigations by journalists Skelton and Shiel, that wasn’t the end of incidents of corruption or their seriousness.[7] A more complete history of police corruption up to recent times can be found in an Office of Police Integrity (OPI) report.[8]

Empathy in police work

Developments in forensic science has made enormous improvements to police investigations in recent decades. In 1989 the use of tape recorders was introduced and this greatly improved the credibility of police interviews. By the mid-1990s DNA profiling was in regular use to assist police investigations in solving crimes, with some cold cases going back years.

But even with these technological advances, interviews with victims, witnesses and people of interest are still an essential part of police investigations. These days the aim of an interview is to elicit information to find the truth without the use of coercion or deception. Otherwise the evidence is likely to be rejected by the courts.

Conducting interviews is a complex matter and stressful for both parties. According to Sedat, et al. from RMIT University, it requires four core skills for interviewers to be successful:

1. The ability to plan and prepare for interviews
2. The ability to establish rapport
3. Effective listening
4. Effective questioning.[9]

Empathy is a critical element for establishing rapport and for effective listening. Not everyone has what it takes. One person who has all these skills is Ron Iddles.

Police forces in a number of countries are now recognising the value of empathy training for their front-line personnel. In the case of the Victoria Police, ex-Homicide detective Ron Iddles worked this out years ago. That’s one of the reasons he’s described as Australia’s greatest detective.

Ron Iddles — His upbringing and formation

Ever since Ron had viewed the Homicide TV series in the 1960s as a young boy he wanted to be a detective.

Ron was born on 10 March 1955 in Rochester, a small country town 180km north of Melbourne. He had a twin brother and a sister three years his senior. In his teen years the family moved from the town to a dairy farm at Lockington, a short distance away. All helped in running the farm. When it was Ron’s turn he would be up at 4.30 in the morning to milk 120 cows before breakfast and then ride on his bike to catch the school bus.

His parents were regular church goers and were always helping others in need even though they were not well off themselves. Ron explains:

Growing up in the country gave me values, shaped my character and gave me a work ethic. And watching the TV show, Homicide, made me think, I want to be a policeman.’[10]

A diligent student, he completed his last year of schooling at Echuca Technical School as dux of Year 11. By now he was a tall, well-built, sports all-rounder who could have gone on for a career as a footballer. Instead he applied to be a cadet with the Victoria Police and was accepted.

First Experiences of Victoria Police Force

Starting in February 1972, Ron’s first year as a 17-year-old cadet did not inspire him. The program was run on military lines and the practical work was spent doing mundane jobs, such as filing records at police stations.

After year of this he quit and waited until October 1973 to enter the Police Academy, the standard entry path for recruits. Even though he was one of the youngest in his class, he impressed everyone with his dedication, maturity and humility.

After his graduation in February 1974 he was now a fully-fledged, general duties police officer. He soon found himself with the uninspiring job of being on guard duty at Government House. Again he wondered what he had got himself into.

That posting didn’t last long and he was soon policing in some rough areas of Melbourne. It was during this time he became aware of cops on the take and he refused to be involved. Otherwise he could have become corrupt himself. He says, “If you compromise your integrity you can’t get it back.”[11]

He was very observant of his surroundings and soon gained a reputation as a thief catcher. After five years of this uniformed policing, Ron’s application to become a detective was accepted. After attending the three-month course at the Detective Training School, where he was again dux of the class, he was assigned to detective duties in the suburbs of Melbourne.

Succeeding in the Homicide Squad

In June 1980 he was successful in applying to join the elite Homicide Squad. By now he was married and father of two children. Their third child was born in 1991.

Under the leadership of Detective Senior Sergeant Brian McCarthy, Ron’s first case was that of the murder of Maria James who owned a book shop in Thornbury, an inner suburb of Melbourne. To this day, the case is unsolved and it has only just come to light that DNA material from the scene was contaminated due to the mishandling of stored DNA evidence material. It means that suspects were cleared because their DNA did not match.

Brian McCarthy was totally unlike his predecessors in the Homicide Squad. Iddles describes him as “a dedicated, methodical and sympathetic investigator, whose very nature proved an inspiration.”[12] Ron was fortunate to have McCarthy as a model.

McCarthy also recognised Ron’s talents:

Right from the start Ron was a good operator, very conscientious and meticulous. He was just a very good crew member. He’s probably the best operator I’ve ever struck, and I was in the police force for thirty years.[13]

Ron particularly noted the interview style used by McCarthy. Rather than the cold, formal question-answer approach between a police officer and an interviewee, McCarthy had a different approach. Ron explains:

Brian had a good manner in the way he spoke to suspects . . . it was like someone coming to a priest for a conversation. He’d have a fairly relaxed manner. He showed me that if you were authentic and straightforward, you had a better connection with them.[14]

Over the years that followed Iddles developed his own empathetic interviewing style where he would quickly initiate rapport with suspects and show them respect.

Ron also used empathy to recreate what happened at a crime scene as he viewed the physical evidence:

What I’m doing within that scene and doing it in conjunction with the crime scene examiner is to recreate what happened, like a video. I want to put myself in the mind of the killer and the skin of the victim. If I can do that I can recreate it.[15]

One of Ron’s colleagues, Detective Sergeant Tim Peck says, “You could go to any crime scene and a lot of investigators would have trouble putting aside what a person had done.” He says Ron wasn’t like that and even though the crime might have been horrible in nature he was able to gain the trust and build a bond with a suspect. He adds, “The number of offenders who confessed to him was unparalleled.”[16]

It’s this respect and empathy shown to all, victims, perpetrators or colleagues that has gained everyone’s respect and admiration. Even criminals who have served time in jail have thanked Ron for being fair to them. Ron explains, “I’ve always had the view that most people aren’t born bad but they make bad choices.” [17]

The results have been remarkable. In the period from 1980 when he joined the Homicide Squad until be finally left in 2014 he has been to 1,000 crime scenes, has investigated 320 homicides and has had a 99 percent success rate in solving the crimes. No one else has come anywhere near this success rate.

These results didn’t come about without a cost. The work was demanding and involved a lot of emotional stress as well as time away from his family. Ron’s way of dealing with it was a little different to what most people would do. In 1998 he took a four year break driving trucks before returning to the job that was his passion. Later he could be found on his days off driving a $700,000 state-of-the-art coach from Melbourne to Adelaide overnight and return the next night. Ron explains, “That was like a release, so as I would leave Melbourne I would leave the world behind.” [18] Once he got back to Melbourne the weight would come back on his shoulders with all the investigations he had on his plate. That was his way of coping.

Improving Police Interview Training

Ron was concerned that there was no formal interview training for detectives other than the question-answer style that had been is use for decades. Ron was able to share his technique with others he worked with but he believed the Victoria Police could do with better training.

From 2007 Ron had been studying overseas techniques. After visiting the UK he worked with Detective Senior Sergeant Chris O’Connor to develop a training program for their teams. This training was based on the UK PEACE model combined with a Canadian approach to questioning. PEACE (Plan and Prepare; Engage and Explain; Account; Closure; Evaluation) was developed as a result of the scandal of wrongful convictions of the Birmingham Six (1974), the Guilford Four (1975), and the Maguire Seven (1976).

In 2010 Ron became part of a team to train officers from the Crime Department in these techniques. Over the four years he trained 386 detectives.[19]

In 2014 he reluctantly finished up at the Homicide Squad and was appointed Secretary of the Police Association. There he made a big impact on behalf of Victoria Police members, particularly in regard to the mental health and resilience of current and retired police.

In February 2016 Ron retired after a stellar career as a policeman. In many people’s eyes he is Australia’s greatest detective and an inspiration for the thousands of police that serve the community each day. Over many years he has been active in explaining his work in community forums and raising money for charities. Among the many awards he received over the years, the highest one was the Order of Australia Medal for “service to the community of Victoria through representational roles with service organisations.”

Ron has the last word on empathy when he says, “I’d also like to be remembered for treating criminals with respect—for trying to understand things from their point of view.”[20]

End Notes

  1. Paul S. Bellet, and Michael J. Maloney, “The Importance of Empathy as an Interviewing Skill in Medicine,” JAMA 266, no.13 (1991): 1831-2.
  2. Miguel Inzunza, “Empathy from a police work perspective,” Journal of Scandinavian Studies in Criminology and Crime Prevention 16, no.1 (2015): 60–75.
  3. Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Melbourne, Australia: The Business Library, 1994), 240.
  4. Frank Galbally, Galbally!: The autobiography of Australia’s leading criminal lawyer (Ringwood, Australia: Viking, 1989), 98.
  5. Victoria. Board of Inquiry into Allegations of Corruption in the Police Force in Connection with Illegal Abortion Practices in the State of Victoria, Report of the Board of Inquiry into Allegations of Corruption in the Police Force in Connection with Illegal Abortion Practices in the State of Victoria (Victorian Parliament, 1971). http://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/papers/govpub/VPARL1971-72No3.pdf
  6. Victoria. Board of Inquiry into Allegations against Members of the Victoria Police Force, Report of the Board of Inquiry into Allegations against Members of the Victoria Police Force (Victorian Parliament, 1976). http://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/vufind/Record/13136
  7. Russell Skelton and Fergus Shiel, “The myth of the clean police force,” The Age, June 12, 2004, http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/06/11/1086749893570.html.
  8. Office of Police Integrity Victoria, Past patterns – future directions: Victoria Police and the problems of corruption and serious misconduct (Victorian Government, 2007). http://www.ibac.vic.gov.au/docs/default-source/reports/opi-report/past-patterns-future-directions—feb-2007.pdf?sfvrsn=8
  9. Sedat Mulayim, Miranda Lai and Caroline Norma, Police Investigative Interviews and Interpreting: Context, Challenges, and Strategies (Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, 2015), 23.
  10. Justine Ford, The Good Cop: The true story of Ron Iddles, Australia’s greatest detective (Sydney: Macmillan), 15.
  11. “Great Australian homicide detective Ron Iddles,” Conversations with Richard Fidler (Sydney, ABC Radio National, August 23, 2016), Podcast. http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2016/08/23/4524861.htm
  12. Ford, The Good Cop, 85.
  13. Ford, The Good Cop, 86.
  14. Ford, The Good Cop, 309.
  15. Conversations with Richard Fidler, “Great Australian homicide detective Ron Iddles”.
  16. 16. Ford, The Good Cop, 241.
  17. Ford, The Good Cop, 168.
  18. Conversations with Richard Fidler, “Great Australian homicide detective Ron Iddles”.
  19. John Silvester, “Police learn the art of gentler persuasion,” The Age, Sept. 7, 2010, http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/police-learn-the-art-of-gentler-persuasion-20100906-14y02.html
  20. Ford, The Good Cop, 334.
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