Talking With—And Not Interviewing—Suspects

I heard narratives that explained away less predictable catalysts for their actions. More than that, I was surprised at just how candid some could be when I wasn't just angling to nail them on something.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

Believe it or not, I am capable of getting along with people when I want to. Hell, I probably got along with the average arrestee better than I did the person approving his arrest.

That "there but for the grace of God go I" thing was no doubt at work. After all, the sociopathic activities of my childhood peers weren't so dissimilar from that for which many of my arrestees were culpable.

Of course, none of this background mitigated the guilt or legitimized the crimes of my arrestees. But knowing how much crap I'd been party to-vicariously, if not actively-at least kept my piety in check. A natural tendency towards pity didn't hurt, either. Some suspects-heroin addicts, in particular-were just pathetic. That, or the gambler in me could simply relate to the profitless pursuit of something that could only hurt you.

In any event, this empathy would find me picking arrestees' brains as to their personal histories. Of course I ended up entertaining all manner of sordid tales, especially self-aggrandizing stories that put their tellers in a better light and traced addictions and abusive natures back to apathetic mothers and molesting uncles. But I also heard other narratives that explained away less predictable catalysts for their actions. More than that, I was surprised at just how candid some could be when I wasn't just angling to nail them on something.

For one, I learned why they did the things they did. And whatever the reason given-peer pressure, a cry for attention, a need for some momentary means of escape or revenge-I learned that it could assert itself at any time in a person's life. And it wasn't just textbook archetypes that fell prey to such urges.

One day I found myself talking with a healthy businessman in his late 20s who'd just done his first heroin injection a half-hour before my contact with him. How was it that a guy who was employed and seemingly had his act together could go decades without touching the "hard stuff" and suddenly fall prey to it?

"My girlfriend broke up with me," he shrugged.

Now, some cops would probably laugh at his answer. But I couldn't help but be intrigued by the man's act. Did he suddenly decide to just not give a shit, one way or another? Did he have some sort of death wish, career-or-otherwise? Or was he simply seeking some chemical balm for the emotional pain that was tearing him apart from the inside?

The anti-drug side of me couldn't relate to the guy. But the side that'd been emotionally hurt readily did. And I found myself talking with him at length, not just about the incongruously named "fix" that he'd injected into his arm but about other things. Eventually, he even volunteered where he'd gotten the dope.

Through the years others opened up on a variety of fronts, as well, telling me not only where they got their ill-gotten goods, but where they stashed it themselves thereafter.

The funds for their vices proved equally varied. While fenced property was often present and accounted for (indeed, often the reason for our chat in the first place), I often found a whole interconnected network of ne'er-do-wells that saw one vice getting swapped for another. Strippers, gang members, and drug dealers bartered everything from counterfeit money, to chemical precursors, to sex, to guns, among themselves.

Many a back alley or jail cell confessional has found cops hearing similar stories. Much of our area's crime was so interconnected that a cop couldn't do a damn thing about any one aspect of it without running the risk of interfering with someone else's investigation (as confirmed via many an L.A. CLEAR check).

But even if a cop wasn't able to always act on the information-or even inclined to-it was good to have it at hand.

When it came to getting suspects to open up to them, some guys ran circles around me. I'd sit in unabashed admiration of their capacity to establish good C.I.s and their ability to immediately recognize just who in their memory Rolodex to call when the shit hit the fan: They always made it seem effortless.

Others, however, made me appreciate my own marginal skills. For them, subtlety was never a consideration: "All right, shit-for-brains, where'd you get your shit?"

Someone once noted that "A gentlemen is a patient wolf." Like most epigrams, the beauty of this statement lies in its brevity and its inherent truth. And just like any would-be seducer, a cop would be well advised to stock up on patience. Add a little tact and you'll grease the conversation wheels without even trying.

Make no mistake about it, seduction is part of a cop's skill set. Just as proficient interrogators can get some sexual predators to open up to them by projecting themselves to be of like minds, so, too, can you ingratiate yourself to your subject. Hell, even if you hit a conversational wall you can say something that will at least get them wondering such as: "You know, you can make someone rethink their posture on capital punishment." Think about it.

Obviously, I'm not addressing custodial interrogations or Miranda or anything else that proves of ever diminishing import. I'm just talking talk.

And I'll be the first to admit that it doesn't always work. Some suspects have been burned by cops, are natural born assholes, or inveterate liars incapable of telling the truth.

But it's usually worth making the requisite niceties, and when it comes to conversational rhetoric and tone, it's always easier to escalate than to de-escalate.

Besides, even if they don't want to talk with you, maybe they'll be less inclined to spit on you.

(Obligatory disclaimer: I'm as human as the next poor schmuck, and have been known to be tactless and humorless and impatient and fully capable of pissing suspects off. Also, there are times when you don't have the luxury to "finesse" some bozo when somebody's life is on the line. Let your judgment be your guide.)

This Week's Extra:

PLEASE read this. If ever there was ever a story that, if credible, validates the justification for someone being granted political asylum, it is this Juarez police officer.

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