How cops can use the 1-2-3 Approach to secure a confession

Asking a series of three hypothetical questions many times will result in obtaining the initial admissions of guilt to the commission of a crime

Many different approaches exist in the field of interrogation — some being more effective than others. One very simple yet extremely successful tactic to be considered is the 1-2-3 Approach. It has proven to be particularly valuable in obtaining initial admissions from the offender in a very subtle manner. 

If you ask most offenders, “Did you do it?” the answer most often will be “no.” Asking a question in this manner provides the offender no face saving reason to acknowledge the crime, but if during the interrogation, the subject appears passive — offering little resistance — you may consider trying the 1-2-3 Approach. This method is very similar to asking an alternative question in which the subject is presented a two-sided question. One side of the question offers a more socially acceptable reason for committing the crime while the other option appears more socially unacceptable. 

“Did you start the fire out of frustration or were you trying to kill someone? It was out of frustration, right?” If the subject accepts either option, he/she has made an initial admission to the crime but will more likely accept the more positive side of the alternative. 

The 1-2-3 Approach in Brief
Similarly, the 1-2-3 Approach asks the subject three hypothetical questions in which the subject can easily answer in the affirmative. This approach addresses the fundamental premise of making it easy for the subject to tell the truth about his/her commission of the crime. These three questions are basically formulated by considering the type of crime, motive, case facts, or evidence and prior experience of the investigator. 

As an example, Rick — a janitor at the local high school — sets the gym on fire (no one was injured but there was $20,000 in damage). The three hypothetical questions could be presented in such a manner that Rick can easily answer “yes” to each of them. 

In fact, to Rick’s way of thinking, being able to answer “yes” gives him the feeling that he is gaining control in the interrogation and also is cooperating with the victim — in this case the high school — as well as the police. 

Rick is also thinking that his responses to the 1-2-3 Approach may become a positive factor for the police and his employer’s decision as to how to handle the situation. More importantly, no promise has been offered. 

The subject also has the opportunity to challenge the 1-2-3 Approach which validates this as a non-coercive process. 

Beginning the 1-2-3 Approach
In this case, the dialogue in the interrogation may proceed as follows: 

“Rick, I know that you are basically an honest person because you have worked for the high school for a solid year without any problems or concerns. Your integrity and motivation is now coming into question. The administration at the high school as well as we (police) need to know that you are a good person that simply did a bad thing. 

“A mistake in judgment probably caused you to set the fire because we know that you were passed over for promotion. Sometimes good people act out of frustration and make one mistake in life. Don’t let one mistake define your life — you’re too good of a person. 

“You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were really trying to bring the problems with the other staff members to the attention of the school officials — the fact that some of them leave bags of trash in the back storage room next to the gym overnight because they are too lazy to bring them out to the trash containers like they are supposed to before leaving for the day.”

Employing the 1-2-3 Approach
Here is how you might continue in this example. 

“There are three questions that we and the high school need answers to and only you can provide those answers. Don’t answer these questions right away – just think about them.

1.    Are you sorry you caused the fire?
2.    Was your intent to be a good and dedicated employee? 
3.    If asked, would you be willing to assist in some manner in the repairs?

“Rick, let’s consider these questions one at a time. First, I think you are sorry, right?” 

If the subject responds “yes” to the question, the first admission of guilt has been acknowledged. If the subject hesitates and become somewhat challenging, the interrogator should respond: “You aren’t glad you set the fire, are you?” 

Again, if the subject responds “no,” an admission has been obtained. Immediately proceed to the second hypothetical question asked in an assumptive manner: “Your intent was to be a good employee, right?” 

If the subject responds “yes,” proceed to the final question. 

“If asked, you would be willing in some way to assist in the school repairs, right?” 

If the subject responds “yes,” three initial admissions have been obtained. Interestingly, the subject has implicated himself without directly stating he has committed the crime. Asking a series of three hypothetical questions many times will result in obtaining the initial admissions of guilt to the commission of a crime.

The initial admission should immediately be converted into a confession in which corroborative details are obtained. Details should then be obtained such as the type of accelerant that was used, where it was obtained, where the fire was set, at what time of day, how long the subject stayed onsite after he started the fire, etc. 

Remember to base the three hypothetical questions on the case facts, motive, evidence, and the investigator’s prior experience. As an example, if in the above case, Rick had injured or killed any individuals in the fire, the same questions may still be viable with the appropriate modifications. 

Most subjects need to save face — dignity — in order to acknowledge a wrongdoing. Additionally they need to have the perception that if they did the crime for a good reason and are willing to cooperate, this may be factored into the decision of the punishment they are to receive. The 1-2-3 Approach accomplishes those goals.

Some additional questions — depending on case facts, evidence, etc. — for the 1-2-3 Approach may be:

1.    This was done more spontaneously than planned out, right?
2.    You really didn’t want to hurt anyone, did you?
3.    Was this a situational decision?
4.    In hindsight, this was a bad decision, right?
5.    This was the first time you did something like this wasn’t it?
6.    You were acting out of frustration?
7.    Have you learned a lesson from this experience?

Hopefully, this approach may provide additional dialogue for the investigator to consider during the interrogation.

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