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Blood from a Turnip

Interviewing is your most important investigative tool.

October 19, 2009  |  by Ramesh Nyberg

Setting

Without a doubt, the location of the interview is paramount. Try to have the interview in your office or another room with as few distractions as possible. Interviewing someone in her home is the worst possible location if you are targeting her as any kind of suspect. The phone rings, family members pass through, and more than anything else the suspect is in her natural comfort zone. Get the home field advantage and get her away from all her mental escape routes.

You're going to be contacting most of these people out in the field, so how do you get them back to the station? One effective way is to tell them you have some pictures you'd like to show them of people in the neighborhood. For some reason, most people can't resist the temptation.

If it's not an arrest situation and it is strictly voluntary this is a challenging but critical part of the investigation and it has to be handled right. Try telling the subject, "This is really important-it has to do with you, and we need to talk where there are no distractions, and no one hearing who doesn't need to hear."

How Do I Start?

The suspect is in the interview room and you've offered him coffee, water, or soda. Be hospitable, but be professional. When you're doing the interview you should look like you mean business-not necessarily all decked out with badge and gun, but professional, like the person in charge, the person in the know. The idea is to convince the suspect, with your demeanor and your level of preparation, that trying to hide the truth is a lost cause.

Emphasize that theme later, but start out trying to get on the same page. Look at what the subject is wearing-make an "ice-breaking" comment on the T-shirt, cap, tattoo, or jewelry he is wearing, especially if it is something you can talk about: "Hey I see you're a fisherman... where do you like to go? You know that lake near your apartment building? I had good luck working the north edge of that lake a couple times..." You are establishing yourself as easy to talk to and someone who knows the area where he lives at the same time.

Sports, religion, a hobby, club, or idea can always get the conversation rolling. So can your knowledge of the neighborhood and what is going on there. If he's on the street doing burglaries or robberies or selling dope he knows the others that are doing it too. Casually mentioning one of the people in the neighborhood who just got arrested or talking about the shooting in his apartment complex lets him know that you know his area, and you know what is going on. Then, as your discussion evolves, you inject comments about him, his past, the people he has run with, and minute by minute his subconscious is telling him, "I'm not going to be able to lie my way out with this guy!"

Don't take out a pad and pen just yet. Once you start taking notes, you are breaking eye contact to look down and write. That puts a damper on establishing rapport. Later in the interview, taking notes could keep you from establishing that hopelessness in the suspect. By keeping your eyes locked on his, you are in command, and you are giving him nowhere to escape. Don't rush this segment of the interrogation. This could be the time you gain or lose the suspect's trust.

Body Language

We've been hearing about body language since the 1970s, but it's still a real and very viable tool for assessing someone's emotional state. First, observe and remember how the person looks when the conversation is non-threatening. Some people fold their arms even if they are not being defensive-they might be tired, cold, or just generally closed off to start with. The point is, observe "normal," unchallenged body behavior, so that when the confrontational questions start you can see if the person reacts differently. This is the same thing a polygraph examiner does with "control questions"-he charts the reactions to non-threatening questions, and that way can tell how that particular individual shows bodily reactions when a question stresses her out.

The most classic way we see body language manifested during a suspect interview is when a threatening question or comment causes the suspect to droop his head, turn away, fold his arms, gulp or stutter nervously, sweat, or break eye contact more frequently. Again, if you've gauged what is normal for that person at the beginning, then you'll recognize the "buy" or "surrender" signs more easily later.

Questions, Commentary, and Verbal Techniques

When you, the interviewer, get excited (it can and does happen, when the subject starts talking, or at least shows surrender signs) you have to remember not to abandon your skillful techniques. Avoid asking yes/no questions. Asking, "Did you hide the gun somewhere?" too easily invites a reply of "no." Instead, ask, "Where did you hide the gun? I know you hid it, now let's avoid some kid finding it and hurting himself and tell me where it is."

The double-edged sword question can be effective too: "Did you steal the car to strip it, or just to take it for a joy ride?" Again, and this cannot be stressed enough, knowing as much about the subject as possible is key. If the other witnesses have told you that your 16-year-old suspect is the leader of his little street gang, you know you've got an egotistical teen criminal on your hands. Capitalize on that. For example: "Hey, I know you're the leader, right? I mean, who else would have had the guts to do what you did?"

The experts categorize offenders into two types: emotional (first-time or inexperienced offenders) and non-emotional (street-hardened, perhaps ex-convicts). In general, emotional offenders can be reached by tapping into their "justification" of what they did: "I don't blame you for taking the car. Hell, the keys were sitting right there in the ignition. They deserved it!"

The non-emotional offender, on the other hand, needs a different tactic: "We have your prints on the steering wheel, and we have a guy from the business next door who already ID'd you. You know the judge will be more lenient on you if you give us a statement."

Try to stay away from words like "steal," "rob," and "kill." Instead say, "take" or "did that." In short, be non-threatening.

Tags: Interrogation


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