Why 'Tell me why you did it' is a failed technique

Rather than ask the suspect why he committed the crime, tell him you believe you know why he did it — and offer your theme that psychologically (not legally) justifies, rationalizes, or minimizes the conduct


Saying “tell me why you did it” to a criminal suspect during an interrogation is a major mistake by the investigator. Unfortunately, many interrogators, as a matter of training or lack thereof, routinely pose this question to their suspects. 

The first problem with this question is that it reinforces the suspect to further deny his criminal involvement. It becomes too difficult for the burglar to respond — in many cases, truthfully — “Because I am addicted to drugs.” Such a statement causes the suspect to admit to another illegal activity — not an appealing option for the subject. 

The second problem with simply asking the pedophile, “Tell me why you sexually touched that five-year old?” offers no interrogation theme — as in, the suspect’s face-saver for committing such a heinous crime. Do we really expect this person to respond, “Because I’m a sexual predator?” Of course not.

An Alternate Interrogation Technique
Rather than ask the suspect why he committed the crime, tell him you believe you know why he did it — and offer your theme that psychologically (not legally) justifies, rationalizes, or minimizes the conduct. 

For example, rather than ask the burglar to “Tell me why you did it” the investigator might suggest the following theme to psychologically justify, rationalize, or minimize the suspect’s behavior.

“The reason I think you broke into that house was because you are out of a job, can’t get a decent job because of your past mistakes [prior convictions and spending time in jail] and simply needed a few bucks to put food on the table and merely needed to get by in life. 

“Look, you’re not driving a Mercedes and don’t live in a million dollar house. You’re not a bad guy, you just did a bad thing. You know why? Because you saw no other options in life and simply did what you had to do. I also think you chose that house because you knew no one was inside knowing you wouldn’t need to hurt anyone to solve your problems. That speaks volumes about why you’re not a bad guy. You simply needed a few bucks right? Talk to me, don’t lie to me. You simply needed to make a few bucks to put food on the table, right?”

When the suspect replies, “Yes, it was to make a few bucks” the investigator is rewarded with the truth by allowing him the opportunity to save face and dignity. 

In doing so, the investigator affirmatively demonstrates an empathetic understanding of the suspect’s “motives” without having to implore the suspect to “Tell me why you did it”. Instead, the truth is elicited by encouraging that suspect to “Talk to me, don’t lie to me.”

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