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The drowning man in the interview room

A genuine, truthful response should be respected and investigated more fully before charging in with guns-a-blazing, full speed ahead, to get the confession

In the interrogation, the “presentation of findings” is the revelation, to the subject, that the investigation has identified them as the person responsible for committing the crime. It occurs after we have completed our investigation and we have identified the subject as the perpetrator of the crime.

You must be confident in your conclusion. If you are not confident, that lack of confidence will bleed through to your behavior, indicating to the subject you are not sure of your determination.

The presentation of findings is not the presentation of evidence. It is where we advise the subject of the results of the investigation. This is the point where the interrogation begins. Until we actually accuse the subject of the crime, we have not begun. We have to let the subject know, that we know they have committed the crime. Until we do this, the subject may still be hoping they will not be discovered. This is where we are going to submit the findings of our investigation to the subject.

Do Not Pass Go
The “findings” is the “fact” that they did it — they committed the crime. We have to convince the subject we know they committed the crime. It is an emphatic statement, like the game of Monopoly, “Go straight to jail, do not pass GO, do not collect $200...” — a quick point here: do not say this to the subject.

The focus is to make sure it is presented as a fact that cannot be changed — we cannot go back, no refunds, no do-overs.

When you present your findings, be careful. A truthful person may become angry or lash out at you. A space of three to 5five feet, depending on the size of the subject, would insure a little distance protection if the subject does lash out at you.

When accused of the crime, innocent and truthful people have no place else to go after they have stated they did not do it. They do not have an alternative story they can tell. When you accuse the subject, the truthful person will respond immediately and generally with anger. They will lean forward, possibly point their finger, make good eye contact and state in a firm or loud angry voice, using clipped-word endings, “I DID NOT DO IT.”

The guilty person may respond that they did not do it also. However, their response is usually milder and slower on the comeback.

The truthful person will be mad. If you do not accept their denial, they will become angrier. Besides taking a swing at you, they may ask for an attorney or leave, if they are not in custody. The bottom line, you cannot successfully and properly interrogate an innocent person.

If you receive a response that reflects the demeanor of a truthful or innocent person, do not push forward, becoming verbally abusive or non-malleable. If your first accusation is one that accuses the subject of committing the offense, reduce the accusation one level, indicating they may not have been the primary offender, but they were involved. If they were involved, there should be a marked change in their demeanor, even if they state they did not “do it.”

If the demeanor remains forceful with truthful indicators, you can reduce the accusation again by one level, stating they knew about the offense, even if they were not directly involved. Again, if they had knowledge of the offense before, during or after, their behavior should change, becoming less rigid and unyielding. If they continue to be unbending, do not continue with the accusation.

This is where some investigators make the disastrous mistake of continuing the accusatory interrogation, unbending in what they claim is a fact that the subject committed the crime. This may result in the investigator mixing the accusation with theories of how the crime was committed, casually mentioning bits and pieces of evidence, part true, part not, and part conjecture. Using lies to bolster the theory of how the crime was committed, introducing the idea of fictitious evidence, facts or other information pointing to the subject. Although it is generally legal to lie, it is not a wise technique in this instance. In some cases the investigator may minimize the perception of the punishment, hinting the subject will receive a lesser punishment, be let go with counseling or other non-correctional reprimand.

Although not boldly stated, it is hinted at to appear that they will not receive a severe punishment. This may continue for hours slowly breaking down the subject, causing the “Othello Effect,” an effect that will make the subject appear guilty. As the hard interrogation continues, the subject will lose the will to fight. Some seasoned investigators, prosecutors or even citizens will boldly state, “I would never confess if I did not do it.”

The Drowning Man
They cannot see themselves in an emotional state where they would falsely confess. In fact, some people will not confess if they did not commit the offense; they would resist, refuse to talk or ask for an attorney. Each person and each case is different. However, there are many people that cannot withstand the onslaught of the high pressure interrogation. The tools we mention here can be used to force the false confession.

I call this the “Drowning Man Syndrome.”

The drowning man syndrome refers to a situation where a man falls into the ocean with nothing but small float, a gun, a knife, and his will to live. Each person has their own level of tolerance to survive — the mental strength, the will to live. Each person will reach their own level of tolerance. That level where they cannot go on. When this level is reached, they give up.

Each person will act differently. Some will use the gun or the knife to commit suicide. Some may let go, slide into the water and drown, while others may just lie down and die. Whatever their action, it is reaching that point where they cannot go on. In the interview room the truthful person has only one thing to give — the truth.

When falsely accused, they will exhibit the demeanor of a truthful person; loud denials, good eye contact, genuine anger, chopping motions of the hands, clipped word endings and so on. The demeanor will not quickly subside. They have nothing else to offer.

The perpetrator may try to Fein anger and the characteristics of the innocent person, but it will not have the force and realistic characteristics of the truthful person. Once convinced their denial is not working, the guilty subject will use other methods to try and convince the investigator they did not commit the offense. They will offer reasons and excuses why it is not them and that will lead the investigator into the interrogation strategies.

The mentally or emotionally susceptible person that did not commit the offense will reach the end of their level of tolerance. They believe there is no other way to escape the interrogation and the fact they are going to be prosecuted for the crime they did not commit. At this point, the subject will do or say whatever it takes to escape the interrogation; even if it is a false confession.

When they start to confess, it may start simple, similar to a valid confession.

The innocent subject will began to repeat back to the investigator the information that has been subtly delivered to them during the course of the marathon of questioning, cajoling, and convincing. As the false confession continues, the investigator may help the subject along by making suggestions such as, “Is that when you picked up the bat and hit her?” as opposed to an open question such as “What happened next that caused her to get hurt?”

In a valid confession the subject must supply the answers and information without any preparatory statements by the investigator and no hint as to what happened. The subject must come up with the correct story and circumstances of what happened. This will give validity to their confession. However, in the high pressure technique, the information has been delivered during the long accusatory interrogation and provides the subject the basis of their false confession. The suggested answer in the leading question provides the subject the correct information to admit to, even if they did not commit the offense.

In the cases of false confessions, the subject has reached their level of tolerance and given up. It is for this reason that torture is not a reliable method of obtaining valid information. Under torture, a person will confess or make up whatever information will make the pain stop.

It is like the drowning man letting go of the raft and sliding into the water.

We rarely hear of the long and agonizing ordeal where the person gives up and dies. We only hear the stories of the brave and persistent person that beats the odds by never giving up and survives.

Unfortunately, we do hear of the subjects that falsely confess to crimes. However, we only hear that they confessed — they provided the correct information that proved they were the guilty party. We rarely hear that the interrogation lasted five, 10, or 12 hours. We do not see and hear the methods used to overwhelm the subject, leading them to the confession. We do not hear the subtle hints, suggestions and theories that are delivered to the subject and are regurgitated in the confession.

The aggressive interrogation is a form of mental torture — the person gives up and will say whatever is needed to escape the onslaught from the investigator. In fact, the person may begin to believe they committed the offense. The mind is a powerful and malleable tool. Research in psychology has shown that a person can change or reframe memories and thoughts to meet their needs. When properly used, these techniques help patients to overcome fears and other mental distresses.

Unfortunately, the improper application of interrogation techniques is like bringing a chain saw to brain surgery. The subject’s metal sensitivities are pushed to a level where they will change their perceptions and memories to escape the mental onslaught.

In some cases, interrogations are required to be video recorded, preserving the techniques used and the truthful expressions of the subject as they deny they committed the offense, and tell the truth. In some of these cases, where the video has been presented to the jury or the judge, the confession has been excluded or the case has been defeated because of the high pressure techniques and the obvious false confessions.

This is why it is imperative that the investigator be attentively cognizant of the subject’s behavior during the accusation. A genuine, truthful response should be respected and investigated more fully before charging in with guns a blazing, full speed ahead, to get the confession regardless of the truth. You can always go back to the table with better information. It is true there are good liars that may be able to project truthful behavior; however, they are rare in the general population.

I have often quoted Paul Ekman, “If the subject is a good liar, you must be a better lie catcher.”

Remember, always be sensitive to — and aware of — the subject’s non-verbal communications. Their thoughts and emotions will be communicated to you by the silent signals of the body. When you are sure they are guilty but their body says differently, explore the underlying thoughts that gave impetus to the behavior you observe. Our goal is to find the truth wherever it may lead. Never conduct a hard interrogation of a subject who “might” be guilty, inducing a false confession.

If you do it will probably be overturned and shown on a TV news show. If it is, I will talk about you in my lectures, saying, “See, I told them.”

This article is derived from my new book, “Interview to Confession, The Art of the Gentle Interrogationnow available at our website.

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.