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How to get more suspect confessions by being a ‘car salesman’

A physical trigger can be all it takes to convince a suspect to tell us their story

Editor’s Note: John Bowden’s book “Interview to Confession, The Art of the Gentle Interrogation” goes into great detail on the use of nonverbal communications in interviews, investigations, and interrogations. It is available on and on our website

In the interrogation of a suspect, the ultimate goal is getting a confession. Once we’ve established a rapport, we look for the body language that tells us the subject is ready to confess, and all they need is that nudge. We call it the “confession position”, where the person assumes a head and body slump.

All we need is for them to make that final decision to confess — or as we say, “tell their side of the story”. We do not ask the person to confess – we simply encourage them to give their account.

Often, the key to getting them to do just that involves luring them into a physical show of commitment. Here is how you can do it.

The Car Salesman
Let’s think briefly about how a car salesperson closes a deal. When you arrive at the car lot, you may or may not be looking to buy a car. You stop to look — not intending to buy — and the salesperson watches and moves in when you look up and starts searching the lot.

This is the cue that the person you have a question. A good salesperson sees this and moves in to help. They establish a rapport and help you to pick the car you like, all along making it clear you “do not have to buy” – he knows you’re “just looking”. Pretty soon, you’re in the sales office and the sales person takes out a piece of paper – writing down the sticker price, then applying some “special discounts” to bring the price down.

The salesperson tells you they’re not sure the boss will go for the deal but would be happy to ask, as they draw a line at the bottom of the page and explain that they need your initials to get the approval.

You think, “Initials do not commit me. I don’t have to buy. I just would like to know if I can get the deal.”

And you initial the page.

Whether you know it or not, you’ve just committed to buying the car, cemented by the physical act of initialing the page.

The Bridge Over the River
In the interrogation we use the same techniques to reach this final decision point. What we need to get the person over the hump is a physical action that mentally commits the subject to confess, to tell their story.

The first technique is one I call the “bridge over the river”. I tell the subject to compare what is happening to a group of friends playing catch on the edge of a river. I go to great lengths to describe the scene.

After the setup, I tell the subject that someone threw the ball too far out into the water and when they splashed down, they couldn’t touch the bottom. They’re being swept by the current towards a waterfall. Their friends can’t help them. Up ahead is a foot bridge, just out of reach.

They see me reaching out for them. As I describe what is happening, I tell the subject to take my hand and let me help them. When the subject takes my hand, they have committed to talk to me, to let me help them to tell their story.

It sounds theatrical – and perhaps it is – but it gets results.

The first time I used this technique, the subject grabbed my hand with both hands and started crying, “Yes, yes, help me.”

I believe it is the physical act of making that choice that brings them over the hump and helps them tell their story.

The Coin Flip
A second strategy involves the use of a coin, a quarter or larger. Pull out the quarter, place it in front of you and tell the subject that what they’re currently facing is like the two sides of that coin.

Point to the heads side and tell them, “This is the police side of the story.” Tell them it is based on what other people have said. Turn the coin over and point to the tails side and say, “This is your side.”

Point out that this is their story about what really happened. Turn to the heads side and say, “All I have is this side.”

Tell them that you know the police side is not the true or whole story, assuring them that their story is the truth and what really happened. Go back and forth several times, ensuring you have their attention.

When you’re ready, put the coin on the table, heads side up. Push the coin slowly across the table and ask the subject, “What side do you want us to use – your side or the police side?”

Again, when the subject makes the physical act of reaching out and turning the coin over to the tails side, they have mentally committed to tell their side of the story.

These are just a couple examples where we get the subject to make a decision that leads to a confession. And taking physical action is the key factor in their decision-making process.

It has sold an untold number of cars and it will get you your confession.

These and other interrogation strategies are more fully discussed in John Bowden’s book “Interview to Interrogation, The Art of the Gentle interrogation.” Pick up a copy here.

John Bowden is the founder and director of Applied Police Training and Certification. John retired from the Orlando Police Department as a Master Police Officer In 1994. His career spans a period of 21 years in law enforcement overlapping 25 years of law enforcement instruction. His total of more than 37 years of experience includes all aspects of law enforcement to include: uniform crime scene technician, patrol operations, investigations, undercover operations, planning and research for departmental development, academy coordinator, field training officer and field training supervisor.