Fashioning Your Interview and Interrogation Style

Interviews and interrogations are two separate procedural communication techniques used in law enforcement. Both are valuable in extracting information. Interviews are conducted in a non-accusatory tone while interrogations tend to be an aggressive monologue. Interviews often allow for the suspect to do most of the talking with open ended questions designed to elicit a narrative whereas interrogations traditionally are geared to pinpointing lies and omissions, attacking the credibility of the suspect’s communique at attempts to get a confession. During an interrogation, investigators key in on confronting deception and putting verbal pressure on a suspect. The communication is directed and dominated by the officer. During this time, investigators often make statements designed to persuade the suspect(s) to confess or admit details of criminal involvement.

Law enforcement experts will vary on their opinions of the two strategies. Both are designed to extract truth and information. Many pundits will say you can’t mix the two in order to be effective, while others believe an interview can turn into an interrogation at any given time. Both styles of questioning must be legally binding by informing a suspect of his or her Miranda warnings at the proper time. Suspect statements must also be voluntary. Police officers know when those parameters apply.

With all the differing positions on law enforcement interview and interrogation tactics, some questions arise for police officers. What is the best interview style? What interrogation method is the most successful? The easy answer to both of these questions is: your style. But what does that mean? Are there aficionados who would argue with me on this answer? Yes, probably. Is one way the only way? I don’t believe so.

For instance, nationally known police trainers like John Reid and Stan Walters, among others, will pitch their styles to thousands of officers every year, toting their methods. They will promote their technique as another tool for an officer to put in their repertoire. Are they wrong? No. It is important for an officer not to get tunnel vision and set on one method, but to learn from several variants and apply the components which work for them in a real setting.

In the beginning stages of interview and interrogation training, officers are given basic skills which have proven records in the field. As they receive more education and experience, they are introduced to many styles and methods used to hone their abilities. Trainers are not without their critics. There is not one style which works for everyone. Most trainers also encourage officers to develop their own styles, using some or all of their techniques. Perhaps one approach used by an officer is not a cogent method because it sounds forced or practiced, rather than natural speech, yet, it works successfully for another.

I spent years in the field on patrol and then in investigations learning and practicing several methodologies which became effective for me both on the street and in an interrogation room. It took time to develop my skills. I think individual style needs to be comfortable like a conversation. You have to build rapport, have active listening skills, command presence, and develop the ability to adapt. You must read people and adjust your style to meet a suspect’s personality and perspective. It doesn’t mean my style is the best practice, but it works for me.

From my experience, appearing to understand a suspect can be very effective and placing blame seems to shut down communication efforts, although there may be a time and place those strategies work. An investigator needs to be careful not to give away too much information during questioning and conversations with a suspect. Additionally, you don’t want to talk “over or under” a person’s intellect level.

Some of the most useful language I used: (1) “Tell me more.” (2) “What happened after that?”(3) “Go on.” (4)”What can you tell me about that?” These open ended questions or “conversation encouragers” (as I call them), develop the dialogue into deeper topics of discussion. They allow for a narrative from the subject and give the investigator opportunity to augment with detailed follow up questions. They are simple enough for anyone to comprehend, yet tend to elicit and encourage information. This type of questioning is derived from child forensic interview training for victims of sexual abuse. I used it on everyone, victim or suspect.

Most of the initial case facts, witness accounts, and some evidentuary information have already been given to the investigator in advance by responding officers to prepare for his or her suspect contact.   While a suspect is talking, an investigator is using active listening skills to foster conversation but also plotting ahead the next question while comparing evidence to the statements.   Law enforcement must also be wise to a subject’s body language and play off those clues. During an interview, the officer may be taking notes literally on a pad of paper or mentally thinking about content to attack or discuss in the near future. An investigator may also appear to be actively engaged in recording the person’s statements, but in actuality writing down points to redirect or making note of discrepancies or lies on the paper.

There were rare times, but I did catch myself doodling (unknown to the suspect). However, my scribbling was giving the person the illusion I was grasping every word. During one such incident when a suspect was volunteering a “very elaborate” story, I stopped doodling after I recognized I had made a mess of my notepad. He was very arrogant and continued to spew a complex account to sway myself and my partner. The suspect asked me, “Aren’t you going to write down what I just said?” I immediately reacted to him, “Of course! Of course! Could you please tell me again? I didn’t catch it fast enough. I apologize. This is really important.” It doesn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention during my art work, I was just trying to get through the subject’s fluff before I turned on the heat. I acted like a bumbling detective which gave him more confidence that his fabricated accounts were being believed. We also gave him the impression we were sympathetic with his view of the circumstances. In the end, he was caught off guard when we moved to a more aggressive conversation and confronted his lies with evidence and eye witness information.

Lies can be just as valuable as the truth, especially when you compare them to physical evidence or have witnesses to discredit the suspect. My interviews were video and audio recorded so no information was lost. In today’s age, video evidence is critical and makes an impact for court proceedings. With the public’s watchful eye, I don’t know if a juror would understand today if an interrogation wasn’t filmed or recorded by some electronic means. Even away from the comfort of the station, an officer is afforded recording devices, body and dash cams, and cell phones. We must also keep apprised of our equipment maintenance as electronic devices can also fail.

There is a time and place when an interview can turn into an interrogation, in my opinion. A seasoned veteran with emotional intelligence and the ability to read people will know when to take that turn. Those adept officers are the ones who seem to gain admissions and are champions at extracting confessions. A skilled investigator must also gauge his or her questioning and style to the personality of the suspect and adapt as they converse.

Interview and interrogation is like a dance or a game which requires the right amount of finesse. Being too aggressive or bold at inopportune times can ruin a chance to gain statements useful to an investigation. As a detective, you have to be convincing and better interrogators appear to be naturals at communicating with bad guys. I would advise anyone in law enforcement or seeking a career in law enforcement to take advantage of any school or training in interview and interrogation. You can’t get enough. Supplement those police trainings with communication courses. Learning various methods can only grow one’s knowledge of acceptable procedures and communication skills in any arena. Training, practice, and experience are an officer’s best track to garnering successful interview and interrogation abilities.