Interviews & interrogations: The delicate process of extracting information
Tips and rules for tailoring your approach whether handling witnesses or suspects
This article is the second in a series that provides new detectives with an overview of criminal investigations. Click here for part one.
“No! Please! I’ll tell you whatever you want to know!” the suspect exclaimed. “Really?” asked the interrogator. “What’s the orbital velocity of the moon?” “What?” retorted the suspect. “Oh,” rebutted the interrogator, “So you’d like something simpler?” ― “Night Watch” by Terry Pratchett
Many of you have heard that the ability to conduct a good interview or interrogation is an art form. I would respectfully disagree. To be an artist requires God-given talent. I could never become a professional singer or a marketable artist no matter how hard I practiced.
However, to be an effective interrogator requires only skill, patience and subtle discernment. The one immutable fact about interviews or interrogations is that if the person being queried stops talking, the interview or interrogation is over. Therefore, the key to success is to find ways of keeping your subject talking…about anything.
CREATE KINDRED BOND WITH YOUR SUBJECT
Building rapport with the person you are interviewing is a key factor in keeping them talking and in inducing trust; human nature is such that a person is more likely to be open and honest with someone they view as a kindred spirit as opposed to someone they view as an adversary. This, as a police interrogator, is the first hurdle you have to overcome.
The “good cop/bad cop” routine was originally designed to allow one of the two investigators to create a bond with the suspect or subject by distinction. Lamentably, the banality of this technique has rendered it somewhat archaic and rather ineffective.
Over the years, largely as a result of how it has been portrayed in television shows and cinema, the word “interrogation” has developed a negative connotation. Therefore, when testifying in front of a jury or in a deposition, I tend to avoid using it. To a civilian, the word likely conjures up visions of hot lights and a smoke-filled room with an inquisitive and accusatory man angrily hovering over the suspect. In order to soften that misconception, I am more inclined to use terms like witness or suspect interview.
KEEP WITNESS INTERVIEWS ON-TOPIC AND DIRECT
In a witness interview, the investigator can be more rigid in the Q&A because you want to maintain control of the dialogue and avoid wandering off-topic, which an excited civilian who has just witnessed a traumatic or frightening event may naturally tend to do. The key to a successful witness interview is to ensure minimal contact between the witness and other civilians who may influence the person’s recollection of events and to extract as much information about the incident or offense under investigation as possible.
Many investigators dance around the core issues for far too long; it is important to ask direct and probing questions that establish the elements of the crime. A favorite practice of mine is to look up or acquire a copy of the jury instructions for the particular crime I am investigating. It is a good example of what I call “Elements of a Crime for Dummies” because those instructions are designed to communicate to a group of laypeople what they must identify in the evidence in order to convict.
Clearly, the more elements you are able to hit on when conducting your interviews, the more likely you are to convince the prosecutor, a jury and a judge that a statutory violation occurred and that your defendant violated it.
APPROACH SUSPECTS WITH DIFFERENT RULES
In a suspect interview, however, the rules change. I am quite certain that most of you will have heard some of this from basic training. Notwithstanding, I will refresh your memory on some of these rudimentary points in the interest of being thorough.
A room used to interview a suspect should be void of as many distractions as possible: it should be austere, preferably without windows, and give the suspect little to focus on. It should have no wall hangings or artwork that the suspect may concentrate on during the inquiry.
In today’s environment, you would probably be well-advised to have audio/video recording throughout the interview. Any prosecutor will tell you that a recorded confession is one of the most valuable pieces of evidence in any case, second only to a clear video of the defendant actually committing the crime.
CREATE THE ILLUSION OF TRUST
The key to making a suspect feel comfortable is to begin with innocuous, non-threatening questions designed to elicit simple, comfortable responses. The more the investigator can find in common with the suspect the better. Again, become a kindred spirit.
Patience is critical: Much like a hunter must wait until their prey is well in sight, vulnerable and unthreatened, the investigator must create the framework within which absolution becomes desirable. The suspect must come to identify with you, trust you to some degree. It is an innate desire in humans to expiate their sins. Give the suspect space to do so.
The courts have said that an investigator can lie to a suspect about certain things in order to induce them to confess truthfully; however, that can be a two-edged sword. If the suspect catches you in a blatant lie, you may never be able to establish or restore even a modicum of trust, and it may become necessary to turn the interview over to another person. But, most likely, the damage of getting caught in a lie is a game-changer.
Consequently, when you lie to a suspect, be certain the lie is plausible given the totality of the circumstances. A common error investigators make, for example, is to tell a suspect that their prints were found inside the crime scene. If that suspect knows that they wore gloves the entire time, you have lost them.
It is also important, however, never to lie about certain things like saying what will happen if the suspect confesses or offering a grant of immunity in exchange for the truth. This is outside the scope of the investigator’s authority and will not be acceptable to the courts.
DON’T GIVE UP TOO SOON
Another mistake many investigators make when questioning a suspect is to assume that if the suspect asks to terminate the interview or invokes their right to remain silent or to have counsel present, that the interview is irreparably over. Never assume it is over.
While any statements obtained after such an invocation by the suspect will almost assuredly be suppressed, those same statements will be and will remain part of the official record. You should always respect the suspect’s invocation of rights and immediately terminate the interview, but you should never ignore a suspect’s request to speak with you later. An unprovoked renewal of dialogue by the suspect should always be a welcomed development.
Another mistake young investigators make is to feel the need to talk incessantly during the interview…listen! Do not be afraid to allow pregnant pauses in the interview. A former homicide supervisor of mine once said that during any moment of silence amid a suspect interview, the first side to break the silence typically loses the round.
A CONFESSION ISN’T ONLY PATH TO SUCCESS
Anytime a defendant takes the stand in their own defense at trial, they are confined to the four corners of whatever they told you. And if the suspect deviates from what they told you, even if the statement was suppressed, it is highly probable that the prosecutor can still use a suppressed statement for impeachment purposes. The prosecutor will typically be allowed to challenge the suspect based on what they previously told you. This can be highly damaging to the suspect’s overall credibility with the jury.
Moreover, investigators should never feel defeated if they simply locked the suspect into a denial statement; however, make the denial statement as detailed as possible. If you now have or later uncover evidence that undermines the veracity of what the suspect told you, you possess damaging evidence that can be used to discredit the defendant in front of the jury. Sometimes a strong, detailed denial statement can be more incriminating than a weak or vague confession.
THE POWER OF COMFORT AND CIVILITY
It has been my experience that suspects are more likely to remain talkative if they are kept comfortable: Asking if they are thirsty or in need of a bathroom should be practiced with some regularity. Depending on how long the interview goes on, it may require that you ask about a meal. Send out for it; do not break the rhythm of the interview.
Lastly, I have never conducted what I believed to be a successful suspect interview by threatening harm, yelling, disparaging the suspect, or attempting to intimidate. You would be well-advised to remember the old adage, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
There is no magic trick or fail-safe strategy that will guarantee a solid confession each and every time from each and every suspect; however, patience, preparedness and focus will increase your chances exponentially. Moreover, exercising these characteristics will probably result in better, more-detailed statements. The more complete you are in your knowledge of the facts and the elements of the crime(s) about which you are questioning a suspect, the greater your mastery over the subject matter. This has a tendency to earn you a modicum of respect and has the effect of building trust between you and the person you are questioning.
In my next article, I will focus on report writing. Until then, continue to protect and serve by marching along the thin blue line. Be safe and Godspeed!