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Blood from a Turnip

Interviewing is your most important investigative tool.

October 19, 2009  |  by Ramesh Nyberg

Who knows exactly when it happened or where, but at some point in human history one person confronted another over a missing club, a bear hide, or maybe some stolen meat. Perhaps in that same clan the group began to " investigate" the death of one of their own and suspected a certain clan member. Maybe the biggest and baddest in the group grunted and growled at the accused in whatever rudimentary language they had and behold: the birth of the criminal investigation and the crude origins of interrogation.

Thousands of years later, much has changed (though we still grunt and growl at suspects in different ways) and we've certainly refined the whole process. However, with even the exponential growth of technology the face-to-face interview remains a critical and indispensable police skill.

No one could have predicted the discovery of the fingerprint, and it revolutionized law enforcement. Fingerprint evidence-and later, blood typing-still did not replace the strength brought to a case by a solid witness statement or, for that matter, a confession. No one could likewise have predicted the amazing discovery of DNA and the levels of intricacy we continue to explore in human identification.

Still, nothing can captivate a jury with such magnetic power as the live testimony of another human being, or even the reading of a confession in the courtroom. While it is one of the most difficult things to master, knowing and practicing the skills and techniques of good interviewing results in better case information and more convictions in the courtroom.


If you've ever attended an interview training class, like the Reid school, or Kinesics, or something similar, you will find a lot of commonalities in the approach to a successful interview. The first things to identify are the goals of the interview-what are we trying to accomplish? It's easy to just say "the truth." That's obvious. A parent who finds a broken vase and has more than one child in the house has to  do some investigation and interviewing to find out who was responsible (unless a forthcoming child blurts out a confession), but we in law enforcement have more objectives to meet:

1) Determine the type of crime that was committed-Many times we don't know, do we? If it is a death case, very often the investigators don't know whether they are dealing with an accidental, a suicide, or a homicide. Are you dealing with an armed robbery of an innocent victim, or is this a drug-related home invasion?

2) Identify additional victims, witnesses, and suspects-Initial on-scene interviews almost invariably uncover additional people you need to talk to or target.

3) Recover property/identify evidence-The empty beer can in the field near the body might be evidence or just trash from a previous visitor. Interviews might shed more light on which is the case.

4) Obtain a confession

Listing these objectives might seem basic, but when you outline them like this and remind yourself of what you are trying to accomplish, your interviews will be more effective and you'll move with more confidence. It's like a football team progressing down the field, getting first downs, and finally, crossing the goal line.

Our natural tendency is to want to get right to the meat of the matter and ask the traditional Hollywood "Where were you on the night of...?" question. What we really need to do is establish some sort of rapport first, and try to get the subject of the interview-whether a witness or an offender-to trust us. That's not always easy, of course. Most often, we are in neighborhoods where the police are hated and mistrusted. But there are a few things we can do to get the upper hand and try to win them over. Let's start with the three P's.

Preparation, Patience, Persistence

It's not always possible, but preparing for the interview as much as you can makes a huge difference in how you come across to the person you are interviewing. With a suspect, for sure, you want to at least know the following: criminal past, household situation, recent crimes or events (break-up with girlfriend, lost job, etc). In short, background the suspect as deeply as you can. You want to know not just where he lives, but where he used to live, what his favorite hangout spot is, if he likes sports, if he is religious, and so on. Why? For one thing, it gives you more to talk about and provides a nice way to slide into normal, non-confrontational conversation in the beginning.

Patience is something very hard to teach, but it can be practiced and learned. Sometimes a good, thorough interview can take a long time. If you can't go longer than a couple of hours with someone (especially someone who has their defenses ready and doesn't want to give it up), you might consider assigning the interview to another squad member, someone with more staying power. An interview should last until the confession is obtained or the suspect says, "I don't want to talk to you anymore-let me go." Successful interviews in homicide cases have been known to go over 12 hours. Yes, it can be exhausting, but when you get that confession, you won't feel the exhaustion until later.

Persistence is related to patience. In a fact finding (witness) mission, ask the question a few different ways. With the subject of your crime, don't stop telling the subject why you know she is the one. Keep working on her, kind of like waves that keep hitting rocks and slowly eroding them.

Both patience and persistence are related to preparation. The better prepared you are, the more patient and persistent you are likely to be. If you're going in cold with little or no information on the person you are dealing with, there's not much you can do about someone who sits there shaking his head, saying, "It ain't me."

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