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Asking the Right Questions

Every law enforcement officer needs to know how to conduct a criminal interview and interrogation.

October 01, 2008  |  by Shane G. Sturman


Regardless of your assignment, as an American law enforcement officer you need to know how and when to ask the right questions of criminal suspects.

Quickly gaining rapport and eliciting information from individuals is one of the most valuable tools in law enforcement. Obtaining admissions from suspects solves more cases than all the forensic evidence techniques combined.

Let's begin by briefly distinguishing between interviewing and interrogations, although this article will address both:

An interview is a broad-based inquiry using open-ended questions to obtain facts, sequence of events, or alibis, which may or may not be true.

An interrogation is an attempt to obtain a statement or admission against the individual's interest when it is believed he is withholding information. It is to be conducted without the use of threats or promises.

OK, let's talk about how you can gain the advantage when conducting an interview or an interrogation.

Setting the Stage

Finding the ideal room setting requires many considerations and can get very specific, but the main idea is to keep the room simple and free of distractions. The room should be smaller, such as 10 feet by 10 feet, and away from outside distractions. If there is a window, the suspect should be seated to face away from it.

Remove any excess furniture, phones, wall clocks, or reading material. There should be no barriers such as a desk or table between the interviewer and the subject. Eliminating barriers between the officer and the suspect creates a more neutral environment and allows a clear observation of the subject.

Also, limit the number of people in the room. Ideally, it should just be two or three people including the subject. It is easier for a suspect to say something negative about himself in front of one person vs. an audience. If there must be another person present, have him blend into the woodwork—seated further back and off to the side so as not cause a distraction.

Tip: Avoid distractions in your interrogation room—keep it as empty as possible, remove unnecessary furniture and people. Use a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door.

Establishing a Baseline

The easiest way to interpret a suspect's behavior is to first establish a behavioral norm for that particular suspect.

Verbal and nonverbal behaviors are very individualized and, although generalizations can be made about behavior, individuals can be unique when trying to deceive. Observing the subject while gathering background information and during the rapport-building phase will give you an average behavior baseline that you can use as a reference point for comparison. This comparison will be made when you later discuss the crime.

Be aware that any situation that is unusual or threatening may cause the suspect's stress level to rise. For example, consider the reaction of most people when stopped for a traffic violation. Simply being in an interrogation situation will cause some behavioral changes.

The goal of the observant investigator is to recognize that people who are being interviewed may be nervous; this nervousness may have nothing whatsoever to do with deception. It may be simply caused by the situation. Evaluate the suspect's behavior in light of his behavioral norm, the population's average response, and the context of the situation.

Behavioral Clusters

The behavior observed during the course of an interview/interrogation is more likely to be valid when clusters of different types of behavior occur together.

For example, in a deceptive individual, you could observe a lack of eye contact, closed body posture, and grooming gestures. At the same time, there may be deceptive verbal behavior with delays in the speech pattern. The clustering of similar behaviors when evaluated globally assists you in determining whether the individual is truthful or deceptive.

Rarely is a single behavior to be interpreted as the truth or deception. The accuracy of the decision is enhanced when the behavior can be read in clusters that support each other, leading to the conclusion of truthfulness. Much like deception, truthful behavior can be read using clusters of behavior such as direct spontaneous responses, good eye contact, open posture, and related fluid movements.

Cautions in Evaluating Behavior

In addition to keeping in mind any environmental distractions, you must consider any personal biases against the suspect, which can allow you to overlook information and behavior indicative of guilt or innocence. People remind us either positively or negatively of someone we know and you must be aware of these biases.

Also be aware that cultural, ethnic, and geographic differences can cause behavior variations in people. In some Asian cultures, eye contact may be significantly less than among other populations because it may be inappropriate to make eye contact with an authority figure. Gestures and behaviors may also be typical for specific cultures and very appropriate for their ethnic group.

You must also take into account the attitude of the suspect when assessing behavior. When you are dealing with someone who does not like law enforcement, you will receive negative feedback from that individual.

Tags: suspect interview techniques, Investigations, Interrogation Techniques

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