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5 strategies for selecting interrogation themes

Identifying the most effective arguments to present to a suspect during an interrogation will help you elicit the truth

A frequent question I’m asked by cops during my interviewing and interrogation training programs is, “What if I’m using the wrong interrogation theme?” This is often followed by, “How do I change themes? And if I’m using the wrong theme, won’t the suspect know that I’m not sure that he committed the crime?”

In the course of an interrogation, the suspect’s responses will help you choose your themes. Strategies for interrogation theme selection include the case facts and motive, the suspect’s statements during the interview, common sense, prior similar case experiences and training and education.

Example case: assaulting Isabella
The following scenario is based on an actual case. Jacob, age 26, babysat his 25-year-old girlfriend Sophia’s 4-year-old daughter, Isabella. At the last minute, Sophia asked Jacob if he could watch Isabella that evening because her mother just called to say she couldn’t babysit. He agreed and arrived moments later at 1700 hours, and Sophia immediately left for work. She returned at about 2300 hours from waitressing, and Isabella was sleeping.

The next morning, Isabella told her that Jacob gave her a bath because she wanted to play with her toys in the bathtub.

Isabella then said, “Mommy, when Jacob gave me my bath, he kept putting his finger in and out of my pee-pee hole and asked me how it felt. It was a long , and it hurt. Why did he do that, Mommy?”

Sophia talked to Jacob, and he admitted giving Isabella a bath for the first time, but denied ever inserting his finger in Isabella’s vagina. Sophia reported this incident to the police.

Following the theme selection strategies listed above, there are more than 10 probable themes for the interrogation of Jacob. These theme approaches will be italicized in the following text.

Case facts theme analysis
A sexual act occurred between an adult and a 4-year-old girl. The victim knew the suspect and acknowledged that this was the only time he did this to her. We will use the one time vs. many times as a theme and also suggest that it was more spontaneous vs. planned, as the suspect was asked by the mother to babysit the child on short notice. Additionally, we could further minimize the behavior by acknowledging that the suspect did not initiate the act, since the victim asked for a bath.

Interview theme analysis
During his interview, Jacob denied committing the act – but when asked, the key Reid behavior-provoking questions his responses were as follows:

1. Did you insert your finger in Isabella’s vagina? “No way, I was careful about that.”
2. Is it possible your finger might have accidently slipped into her vagina when you were washing her? “Anything is possible, but I doubt it.”
3. Why would she be saying this? “Because I punished her by turning off the TV.”
4. What should happen to an adult if he did something like this? “I really don’t know. I’m not a psychologist or anything like that. Maybe find out why he did it.”
5. If an adult did this, do you think he would deserve a second chance? “I don’t know. No one is perfect, and we all deserve second chances.”
6. If an adult did something like this, why do you think he would have done it? “I don’t know, maybe just curious or something.”
7. Tell me why you wouldn’t do something like this? “Because it’s against the law.”
8. You mentioned earlier that we all deserve a second chance. If an adult did sexually touch a child, under what circumstances should he be given a second chance? “Maybe if it was the only time they did something like that.”

Jacob has given us a psychologically, not legally, acceptable motive to incorporate as a theme — curiosity. He has also provided a minimizing face-saver by saying that an offender in this case should be considered for a second chance if it was only one time. Isabella said he inserted his finger in her vagina, which could then be contrasted with sexual intercourse, further minimizing his behavior. We could further minimize his behavior by contrasting seconds vs. minutes, as well as suggesting that he stopped because he realized he was hurting her and that his behavior was improper.

Further, contrasting removing his finger within a minute when she said it began to hurt and not keeping it in for 30 minutes demonstrates that he realized his mistake. Also, the investigator can contrast the subject inserted his finger only partially vs. all the way.

Common sense theme analysis
In this case we could shift the blame to his girlfriend for asking him at the last moment to babysit. We could also blame the victim for asking him to bathe her — something he has never done before, thereby further suggesting the act was spontaneous and motivated by curiosity.

Prior similar case theme analysis
The investigator can establish his credibility by relating this situation to prior comparable cases. Ideally, the investigator should present similar but much more serious cases to the suspect. This serves to minimize the offender’s conduct and show that it is not unique.

Training and education
John E. Reid and Associates has been presenting this training throughout the world since 1974, and our text, “Criminal Interrogation and Confessions,” has been cited twice by the U.S. Supreme Court in the context of proper interrogation procedures.

Together with tactical training at the department level, the Reid educational protocol provides a level of competence to the law enforcement professional upon which each officer can confidently rely when formulating and executing an interrogation strategy, including theme selection.

At every training program I am approached by cops who say that after viewing our interrogations, “I now see where I made my mistakes and should have gone the other way.”

Another comment I always hear is, “I wish I had this training earlier in my career.”

It is generally not one theme that the suspect needs to hear but a variety— all of which tap into a collection of elements or unique circumstances relating to the crime. By following the theme selection strategies described above, the investigator is able to identify the most effective arguments to present to a suspect during an interrogation to elicit the truth.

We are always observing our suspect’s verbal, nonverbal and paralinguistic behavior to assist our evaluation of which among the themes seems to strike a positive chord with the suspect. That observation, in turn, guides the investigator to further develop that theme.

When transitioning from one theme to another, say to the suspect, “And another reason I’m talking to you is because I also think this happened because …”and introduce the next theme.

Presenting multiple relatable themes creates an emotional environment that simultaneously:

a. Validates the improper behavior, and
b. Suggests a variety of psychologically — yet not legally — acceptable rationalizations that allow a perpetrator to save face while admitting the truth.

In this case, the suspect admitted the act, and when asked, drew an outline of his hand on paper, identified what finger he used and drew a line on it to show how far it was inserted, then signed the sketch.

Louis C. Senese is VP of John E. Reid and Associates and has been employed for over 40 years. He’s conducted thousands of interrogations and volunteered assistance in cold cases. Listen to Lou interviewed on, podcast #4. He is the author of “Anatomy of Interrogation Themes” and has presented hundreds of specialized training programs to federal, state and local law enforcement, military, federal and NATO intelligence agencies. He has taught throughout the U.S., as well as in Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Puerto Rico, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea and the U.A.E. Contact him at