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How investigators can overcome the challenges of a phone interview

In a telephone interview, an officer or investigator can ask pointed questions, direct the interview as needed, address ambivalence and elicit as much information as possible

While it’s always preferable to conduct an interview in person, there are times when this just isn’t possible. Telephone interviews present some interesting challenges because we lack opportunities for the visual cues of non-verbal communication and control of the interview environment.

However, if one is well-prepared, telephone interviews can still be very effective. By conducting a structured or prepared telephone interview, an officer or investigator will be able to ask pointed questions, direct the interview as needed, address ambivalence and elicit as much information as possible.

The goal of a telephone interview should be to uncover the who, what, when, where, why and how of an incident, as well as develop additional suspect/vehicle information and/or establish a motive/alibi.

A Different Tone
The tone of the telephone interview is completely different than an interrogation. It should be conversational, not authoritarian (or at least use the authoritative tone as a last resort). The tone should establish the officer or investigator’s need for assistance and interest in cooperation. In a time when cooperation with the police is somewhat scarce, a congenial tone is the likeliest to elicit it.

As I mentioned, a face-to-face interview is always preferred. I would encourage anyone attempting to conduct a telephone interview to use it as an opportunity to set up a face-to-face appointment. Try suggesting the need to do things that can’t be accomplished over the telephone, such as reviewing documents, photographs, or surveillance video.

Time and Place
When conducting a phone interview, be cognizant of an interviewee’s ability to discuss the matter at hand. Just like at a crime scene or other situation with people around, your interviewee may be reluctant to talk unless he or she has some privacy.

When you make or receive a call, be sure that he or she is comfortable talking at that time/place. Also, be aware of the approximate time you’ll need. By establishing an appointed time to talk, even if it means you have to call them back, you’re more likely to get the time necessary rather than a litany of “I have to go…” excuses.

Establishing Rapport
Establish the tone of the interview almost immediately. Remember to keep things conversational. While it is important to get the information you desire, it can be very off-putting if you come off as an authoritarian.

I recommend introducing yourself by your first name. You can say you are with the police department and explain why you are calling, but note the difference between these two approaches:

“Hello, my name is Detective Greenberg with the Austin Police Department and I am conducting an investigation into…” versus “Hi, my name is Moe. I’m with the police department and I was hoping you could help me with…”

By asking for help or clarity, an officer or investigator obtains a certain level of “buy-in” from their interviewee rather than the off-putting nature of “I need you to answer some questions.” A proper tone leads to building rapport and this is critical to the success of the interview.

Choose Words Carefully
Next, phrase or frame your questions carefully. This helps to both maintain the tone of the interview and secure the cooperation you seek. Just like in any interview, asking open-ended questions is important.

Avoid the “yes/no” format in favor of asking questions that will garner more detailed responses. Ask questions that seek help or assistance.

“Could you help me understand why…” or “I would appreciate it if you could help explain…” are good approaches.

Avoid negativity. Negativity is not something you want to introduce into the conversation. Don’t begin your questions with “I know this is hard but…” or “You probably don’t remember this but…” It is okay however, once a good rapport is established, to acknowledge the emotions of your interviewee should he or she find a matter difficult to discuss. Minimal encouragers that express compassion or empathy like “I can tell this is upsetting for you, but you’re doing great…” or “If it helps, we’re almost done…” can help to maintain the momentum of the interview.

Establish a Baseline
A telephone interview is not optimal for determining deception. Knowing the emotion/cadence of speech of your interviewee is helpful in overcoming the void of non-verbal communication cues of this format.

By establishing tone and asking some basic questions (typical background information) early in the conversation, an officer or investigator can establish a “baseline sense” of how the interviewee feels about answering questions and the sincerity or credibility of his or her responses.

In an effort to measure truthfulness, try to ask a question or two that you already know the answer to and carefully consider the responses you get. The timeliness of a response, their ability to recall information, the level of detail included or omitted, and the inclusion or lack of emotional descriptors are helpful in determining truth versus deception.

Also, craft your questions such that the answers are reasonable and allow your interviewee time to answer without interrupting - remember the “two ears/one mouth” concept.

Confronting Challenges
If your interviewee is ambivalent or provides deceptive responses, there are a couple things you can try. An ambivalent or evasive interviewee will likely reveal themselves early in the conversation. In such circumstances, it’s best to focus on rapport building. Consider asking questions or discussing matters unrelated to the investigation. While it may not get you the information you seek right away, it may get them talking and more importantly, comfortable talking to you. Then ease into your questions.

For the deceptive interviewee, avoid being confrontational - this usually doesn’t end well. Instead, try rephrasing or revisiting a probative question: “Can you tell me more about…” or “I’m still trying to understand how…” Or, try asking a direct question: “What will Jennifer say if asked if you were ever in her apartment?”

Measuring truthfulness in a face-to-face interview can be difficult sometimes - even more so over the telephone. Document all of your interviews carefully and don’t hesitate to follow-up as needed.

The skills and abilities of the interviewer determine the success or failure of the interview. The interviewer who prepares well by structuring his or her interview avoids many of the common pitfalls of a telephone interview. A well-prepared interview maintains focus and direction, and anticipates the challenges presented by the format. Being prepared, patient, persistent, compassionate, confident, and respectful are keys to the success of any telephone interview.

Detective Morris Greenberg serves as a proud member of the Baltimore County Police in Baltimore, Maryland. Most of his career has been spent conducting criminal investigation in specialized units including Robbery, Violent Crimes and Homicide. He has also served on the department’s Hostage Negotiation Team. Detective Greenberg possesses a Master’s Degree from the Johns Hopkins University, Division of Public Safety Leadership and teaches within the Criminal Justice Programs at two local colleges.

Contact Moe Greenberg.