Trending Topics

The true secret of getting the confession

Question: What is the best method of getting a confession?

A. Torture
B. Proof
C. Trickery
D. Sales

Before I answer the question and then reveal the true secret of getting the confession, let me address the other three methods. First is torture. Torture is considered the infliction of pain or the threat of inflicting pain whether it is physical or psychological, to gain information. It is obviously not the correct answer. It is illegal, inadmissible, and unreliable. There have been many books written on the subject as well as many movies and documentaries about torture. Bottom line: NO.

Next is what I consider the most popular technique that I see (in real life as well as on TV and in the movies). It is what I consider the “overwhelming evidence” method. This is where we have completed our investigation and we have what is to be considered a “ton” of evidence. We actually have enough proof and evidence to charge and convict the person, but, a confession would be nice. So, we go in, sit down and begin our evidence presentation. We tell them “I have your finger prints, foot prints, DNA, blood, video pictures, pictures, cell phone records, your girlfriend, your mama, your papa, your grandma, and Mrs. Adkins – your 2nd grade teacher who always said you’d amount to no good…”

Of course, with this presentation replete with color glossies and scientific reports, we tell them they might as well give up, we’ve got them anyway. We hope they will hang their head and say “OK, you got me.” It works sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t. For example, one time I responded to an alarm call to a butcher shop at 2AM and found the front window shattered. There, inside the window, was Roger, a burglar well known to me and the rest of the force, standing with a full armload of meat. When we hit him with the lights, he raised his arms in surrender and defiantly said: “I didn’t do it.” I just looked at him and said, “Yeah, Roger, someone picked you up and threw you through the window and set off the alarm. When you stood up all that frozen meat stuck to your arms.”

“That’s right,” he said. He’s probably still in jail to this day – overwhelming evidence doesn’t get any better than that.

Then there is trickery. Basically, this is telling the poor person something that is untrue and hoping they will fall in our trap. Like the overwhelming evidence method, only you’re dealing in falsehoods coming from you, not coming at you, which is what we’re more accustomed to. This is legal, but it is watched very carefully by the courts, not to mention what a jury might think. It’s funny how juries will bring out their ruler of fair play when we use trickery. I am not saying don’t use it, only that trickery, on its own is, well…tricky.

So, what’s the answer? Obviously, it is to sell. Yes, salesmanship; selling the person on the idea that to confess is the best thing to do. Selling is a technique used everyday on every person in the world. The act of selling is used to move cars, medicine, houses, and every other commodity in the world. We are hit with sales pitches day-in and day-out no matter where we go. “Sales” is everywhere – on radio, TV, newspapers, billboards, the Internet and on and on and on… In using sales to get the confession, we are using a “tried and true” method with which everyone is familiar, even if they aren’t aware of it.

So how does it work? We use anxiety. Anxiety is fear, or a feeling of unease about a condition or a subject. In this case we address and contrast two sources of anxiety. The first is consequence anxiety (CA), the fear of – or the anxious feeling of – the consequences. If you’re late to work you feel that anxiety about the consequences (or the punishment) of being late – be it a “chewing out” or a more serious disciplinary action. Until you receive it, you dread it, and you feel anxious. In our business, people fear the punishment they might receive; a warning, a fine, or time in jail. The punishment is usually well-defined. To the perpetrator it is fixed in their mind what the punishment may be, even if they are not correct. Some interrogators try to reduce the fear of punishment by telling them they may get less punishment if they confess. This is dangerous territory. For one, we rarely (if ever) have the authority to make that bargain, unless you are the prosecutor. If you do not have the authority, you have just stepped outside your boundaries and handicapped the next person in line. Another consideration is that the person may falsely confess out of fear of what the ultimate consequences may be. This too, is not a good strategy.

Confession ChartThe second source of anxiety is deception anxiety (DA): how a person feels about not telling us. Generally, they have no anxiety about not telling us what happened, as in not giving us a confession. Our job is to create that anxiety, unease or feeling of concern to the point that the anxiety they feel about not telling us is greater than their anxiety over the consequences. We call the anxiety over not telling us deception anxiety (DA). When their deception anxiety (DA) is greater than their consequence anxiety (CA), they have reached what we call the confession point (CP). (See Diagram) This is where they want to tell us what happened, their side of the story.

Okay, that sounds good, but what does it mean, how does it feel, and how do you know?

DA > CA = CP

Here’s an example I use in class to help my students understand the feeling that is going on and why it would make a person want to talk. Imagine you have just arrived at a police function in a major city far from home. You’ve walked into the hotel where the function will take place and you are approaching the desk to sign in. You look up and you see your best friend’s spouse across the giant lobby. You are about to shout a “hello” when you see another person – decidedly not your best friend – walk up and engage your best friend’s spouse in an embrace and a long, passionate kiss. You freeze and watch from afar.

Now how do you feel? Keep that feeling in mind.

You don’t say or do anything. You sign into your room and head up with your bags. While some people tell me they would call their best friend at this point, let’s agree that you don’t do this. Later at dinner, you look across the dining room and see your best friend’s spouse again. They are at a table off to the side, laughing, hugging, and kissing. You stay away and do nothing. That evening you enter the lobby and see them again in the elevator, falling into a kissing embrace as the door closes. You still do nothing. You do not call your best friend (would you like to?). The next morning you are checking out of the hotel to go home and guess who you see. Your best friends spouse, heading out of the elevator, towards the front door, in the same clothes they were in last night, just a little more rumpled. Their companion goes to the desk and turns in the room key card.

How do you feel? Once again, hold that thought.

Now you are home and back at work and you’re faced with the big question: would you tell your best friend about seeing their spouse at the function? Would you bring it up? Would you mention it at all? (Most of my classes are split here. Some would, some would not.) Your best friend is there talking to a group of officers, telling them about the weekend. You cannot talk to your friend because of all the other people there. As you listen, your friend tells them how the spouse went away to a church retreat (not where you were) and brought back this wonderful gift. Your friend goes on and on bragging about the errant spouse and how great they are and so on. At what point would you finally break down tell your friend what a cheating jerk their spouse is and tell the story of what you’d seen over the weekend? Would you drag them into another room or just blurt it out in front of the other people present? If you have been following this story and putting yourself in this position of to tell or not to tell, I’m sure you have some ideas about how you feel and what you should do.

This feeling you have is the conflict between consequence anxiety and deception anxiety. The consequences of what will happen when you tell your friend include: 1.) they get a divorce, 2.) they hate you, or 3.) both of the above. How you feel about those consequences is your consequence anxiety. Not telling your friend causes you anxiety. You want to tell your friend, but you do not want to wreck your friend’s life or your friendship. As the story goes on, you will eventually decide to tell your friend. When you feel so bad about not telling your friend about what you saw that you do not care about the consequences, this is the confession point. Your deception anxiety (DA) is greater than your consequence anxiety (CA), which takes you to the confession point (CP) and you tell what happened. This takes us to the formula “DA > CA = CP.” When Deception Anxiety is greater than Consequence Anxiety, you are at the Confession Point.

To apply this to our interrogation, we begin our conversation with the person. Most people that have committed a crime want people to believe that what they did was ‘right and just’ under the circumstances. It is our job to determine their reasoning that made the commission of the crime OK, not OK, understandable, or justified. A guy hits his wife; he thinks she deserved it. A shoplifter takes some merchandise from a store; it’s the store’s fault for making it too easy. A child molester thinks the kids enjoy the encounter. The reasons are endless and there is not enough room to list them here. The point is, we identify the reason they like and we sell it. We tell them we understand, we would have done the same thing under the same circumstances.

Watch the subject. If they’re leaning forward and nodding as you speak, you have their attention. They may even agree with you. In you, they recognize an understanding soul mate. As you speak and they listen, their deception anxiety is rising; you will notice their head start to drop. As they lean forward we call this the confession position. This indicates to us they are ready to talk, to tell us their side of the story; they are at the confession point (CP). This is where they will tell us their side of the story.

At first, they will not tell the whole story. They will tell only a small part. They will watch you to determine your reaction. Do you recoil or do you nod in agreement. If you recoil they will back off and quit talking, knowing you do not approve. However, if you nod and respond in an understanding way they will continue to talk, thinking you understand, even if you do not approve. As they speak they will feel better, a sense of relief. This relief is the release of the stress associated with deception anxiety and consequence anxiety. The better they feel, the more they talk. Just like us, when we tell our friend that their spouse was fooling around, we feel better from that release of stress generated by the deception anxiety.

Does it work? You bet it does. The secret is finding the person’s reason for doing what they did. Once you find it, you show understanding.

In one interrogation a fellow had killed his girlfriend. They were about to have sex when she asked if he had “protection”. When he said no, she told him to stop. He had actually inserted himself into her when she said stop. He picked up a 2x4, hit her in the head, and disposed of her body in a nearby lake. The investigator just looked at him and with great believability said, “You mean she waited until then to say no? Well I understand now.” The killer continued to confess as if he was talking to his best friend.

In another case a Highway Patrol Trooper was investigating a vehicular homicide. The fellow was extremely large, mean, and obnoxious. He had dealt with the police many times and had served hard time. The investigator did not have a great case, but a confession would seal the deal. Others who knew this aspiring felon said it could not be done. The investigator started with a warm up conversation to break the ice. When he eased into his sales pitch, he just looked at the hulking monster of a man, and with great sadness in his eyes, said “What would your mama think about this.” The man leaned forward, his eyes welled up and his head sunk. As he began to cry, the investigator sold the idea that mama would understand, it was just an accident. He confessed and is in prison today.

Another one of my former students with the N.C Wildlife commission was investigating the poaching of game. Others had tried to talk to the man, he would not open up. The investigator tried the sales pitch. He tried the ‘mama’ approach but it didn’t work. He said if you met mama you would understand. However, the man did respond to the necessity of providing for his family, a family that had hunted these hills forever. He opened up and confessed. He felt so good he gave the investigator information that resulted in the clearance of 98 cases implicating numerous others, who also responded to this sales pitch.

It works. I have many success stories along these lines. I am not saying that everyone will confess, but most will. You use this “sales” technique in everyday life (when was the last time you wanted something and had to sell someone on the idea?). It’s the same thing.

Try it. Just think how you’ll look to the boss when you’re solving all those cases. You can do it. I know you know you can.

About the author

John Bowden is the founder and director of Applied Police Training and Certification (APTAC). 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.

As the director of APTAC, John is responsible for coordinating operations and conducting training for law enforcement organizations across the United States. APTAC clients include law enforcement agencies, state police academies, sheriff departments, correctional institutions, military law enforcement, as well as colleges and universities across the United States. John has written numerous books, including Report Writing for Law Enforcement & Corrections, Management Techniques For Criminal Justice, Today’s Field Training Officer, and others.

Contact John Bowden via email by clicking here or visit the APTAC 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.