How To Score Confessions Like Touchdowns

As professionals in law enforcement, we have to raise our game and consistently seek out training throughout our careers to keep improving our skill level and effectiveness at conducting interviews and interrogations.

Photo via joebiologyuni/Flickr.Photo via joebiologyuni/Flickr.

Nobody makes it to the NFL without practice and training, and for the few that do make it to that level, the practice and training continues throughout their career. How many hours of training on interviews and interrogations does the average police officer get in his or her career?

In most police academies, they will be lucky to get two or three hours, and if they get promoted to detective (kind of like the NFL for cops), they will probably be sent to a three- or five-day interview and interrogation course. As professionals in law enforcement, we have to raise our game and consistently seek out training throughout our careers to keep improving our skill level and effectiveness at conducting interviews and interrogations.

Players on the field must know the rules of the game, just as players in the interview room must know the rules of their game. In football, once the line is set, if one of the offensive linemen move before the football is hiked a false start is called and there is a penalty of five yards. If an officer interrogates a suspect who is in custody without first issuing his or her Miranda warnings, it's similar to a false start because custodial interrogation began before the individual was advised of his Constitutional rights to remain silent and have an attorney present.

Another rule in football involves a called "timeout." If the players continue the play, that play doesn't count, even if it's a touchdown. The same is true during an interrogation when a suspect calls a "timeout" in a sense by asking for an attorney. If the officer disregards the request and continues the interrogation, any information, even if it is a confession, doesn't count and will be suppressed in court. It is important that you know and follow the rules of the game when conducting interviews and interrogations.

Several years ago, "instant replay" was added to review the call made on the field by referees. In many circumstances, this review process reverses the ruling on the field and changes the course of the game. The same is true in our profession, especially with the increasing use of audio and video recording of interrogations. Whether we record the interrogation as part of our departmental policy or statutory requirement, or if one of our fellow citizens records our actions on the street, the recording can be reviewed by the court, media, and your department.

In football, the quarterback controls the movement of the ball. It is not a free-for-all where each player takes a shot at throwing the ball down the field. When conducting interviews and interrogations, we should apply the same principle. There should be a primary or lead interviewer conducting the interview or interrogation, and when there is a second person in the room, they should be listening intently and taking good notes. When the quarterback (lead interviewer) is done calling the shots, he or she may then throw you the ball by asking you if you have anything further. That's your cue to engage the suspect with your questions.

The football players on the field don't start the game without having a game plan. Having a well-thought-out game plan, taking into consideration the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent, and executing that plan, is what wins games. Many investigators fail with this one and go into "wing it" mode.

Remember, failing to plan is planning to fail. We should plan and prepare as much as possible for each interview or interrogation. Knowing the facts of the case, available evidence, witness information, snf suspect background helps establish rapport with the individual and adds to our credibility, which will help us better plan and prepare our approach.

There are certain teams where the quarterback will run the ball more and others where it will be a passing game. It can depend on who they're facing. Interrogations are no different. If you have a timid suspect charged with child sexual abuse for instance, and you use an aggressive "running game," he may withdraw and not tell you the truth about what happened. In this case, you may have to execute a lateral pass instead. I'm not exactly sure if that translates precisely as it was in my head, but you get the picture. Adjust your approach and style to effectively match the subject.

How often do you see a touchdown with only one play? It does happen on occasion, when a receiver catches the ball on a kick-off and runs 98 yards for a touchdown. That would be the interrogation equivalent of a homicide suspect walking into the interrogation room with a dead body; saying, "I did it;" and handing you the murder weapon. Again, it doesn't happen too often so we shouldn't expect it.

What we see most in football and with interrogations is the strategy of positive movement and small wins, or yardage gained. In football, this means moving the ball toward the goal line a few yards at a time rather than striving to hit the goal on each play. The strategy of an interrogation is the same. We should not go for a touchdown, or rather a confession, on one play.

We gain yardage during the interrogation by establishing rapport with the individual and building trust. We get a first down when we establish a baseline of verbal and behavioral characteristics of the individual. We get closer to the end zone and see changes in their baseline. We then utilize an effective questioning strategy to further move us down field toward our goal of getting a confession and reaching the truth.

Also, football teams keep improving, not only through consistent training  and practice as mentioned above, but by learning new plays. The interview and interrogation equivalent of this is learning new techniques and strategies that will make you a better player (investigator) for your team (department or agency).

This includes learning techniques such as Investigative Statement Analysis, which will improve your ability to distinguish between truthful information and lies, or Cognitive Interviewing, which will help you effectively interview victims and witnesses while significantly improving the quality and quantity of information you gather from them. Learning new plays may also include taking public speaking courses through groups such as Toastmasters to improve your communication and leadership skills, or studying academic research on psychology, persuasion, influence, rapport, and trust building. The key is to keep learning, growing, and improving.

I've compared a touchdown to obtaining a confession. It's important to remember that the goal of an interview or interrogation is not to obtain a confession; it is to obtain the truth.

The truth may not be getting a touchdown (confession), but you can still win the game with a field goal. In football, a field goal does not carry the same point value as a touchdown but it often wins games. Within the field of interview and interrogation, a field goal does carry the same value as a confession.

Our goal is to win the game, not just get a confession, and getting the truth is winning. A field goal within an interview or interrogation may come, for instance, when a suspect is arrested for a robbery, but by being thorough and objective, you were able to prove that he didn't commit the crime but was falsely identified by the victim, which sadly is the basis for about 75% of wrongfully convicted people who were later exonerated.

It may be proving that a sexual encounter did occur, but our compassionate and professional approach to the interview proved that the incident was in fact consensual and not a criminal act. You see, in these cases, we did not get a "confession" from the robbery suspect nor did we arrest and get a "confession" from the suspect in a sexual assault, but we did get the truth.

Wes Clark is a retired Connecticut State Police sergeant who served as a detective sergeant with the major crime squad. He also served with the internal affairs unit.

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