Interrogation: As Easy As Parenting, Part I

Posted on 5 March 2011 by

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In this Part I of the series, Dave describes how officers should use their interviewing techniques not just on suspects, but on everyone they come in contact with in the community. In Part II, Dave sets forth his personal philosophy and tactics for conducting non-hostile, non-custody interviews. Your mileage may vary, but this is how Dave does it. In Part III of this Two Part series, Dave offers some take-away points and tips on how to apply the techniques and tactics described throughout the series in everyday conversations. And in Part IV, Dave will cover in-custody and hostile-witness interviews.


Interrogation, or “interviewing” as we now spin it, is not a magic skill. Yeah, it is cool to tell your buddies you made some hard punk with tattoos growing up the side of his neck, cry like your wife does every time she watches Fried Green Tomatoes.

For cops who have never conducted structured interviews, it seems awful odd that you can get bad, hardened, and street-smart people, to confess to all of their evil and put it on paper. Honestly, it’s a facade not unlike the Wizard of Oz, sitting in a magical office chair and working your voodoo.

Interviewing people doesn’t necessarily mean interrogating suspects. It means communicating with everyone, and this is a part of our job. This is something that should happen every day on every call and every traffic stop. Interviewing – that is, talking to and listening to citizens – is an important part of relationship building in your community. It is an essential part of gathering intelligence for yourself and your agency.

It is our responsibility as cops to actively engage in communication and relationship building. From crime tips, to commendations, and forming confidential informants, this is an informational bloodline to your intelligence and crime analysts. When someone strikes up a conversation at the local Stop and Rob while you are sipping on your cup of terrible coffee, listen, engage, and make a new partner. Don’t be the stand-offish tough guy. This is time well-spent: invest in it. You will be surprised at how much intel you gather as you foster these relationships.

Share this intel, and these skills, and encourage others in your agency to do the same.

How It Works For Me
I have conducted these interviews for about seven years now while working as a Detective, and with a pretty damn good success rate. But I still walk out of my office with a smile on my face and confusion in my mind after each one. What are these people thinking? They know that what they are telling me is not going to benefit themselves, I warn them of this before we even start. Something about “…will be used against you at your trial” and “…you can end the interview at any time”. I give it to them in writing and make them sign and date an Adult Warning Card before I even agree to talk to them. Yet the self-mutilation goes on and on.

People like to talk. This can be to clear their conscience, make them feel smart, or whatever the motive may be. But they will talk, you just have to listen. So why is the Interviewing skill so important, and how is this in any way like parenting?

Well, to begin with, communication is a key to our success and how to do it effectively is a bit dynamic, lust like parenting.

Rules of Engagement
There are these fancy interrogation schools which promise to teach you to be a mind-molesting warrior, armed with a recorder and a yellow legal pad. ‘Position yourself in this part of the room,’ ‘position the suspect in that part of a room,’ open arms, closed arms, eye contact, and all. That is awesome, really impressive stuff.

The only problem is that, like any other skill, some guys got it and some guys don’t. I am not saying that it is a natural skill only possessed by an elite few, what I am saying is that communication and people skills are not everybody’s strong suit.

Let me make this clear: I am a very firm believer that every officer I have known comes to the job with a certain natural ability to do some things very well. The backside of this statement is that we all lack the ability to do other aspects of the job on the same level. Be honest and know your skills, know your weaknesses, expose them all and try to guide your assignment decisions based on your attributes.

The gift of gab is easily spotted. Do you know a guy who gets along with everyone? The guy who can hold a conversation with an uneducated street junkie, a dentist, a union worker, a child, or a child molester? You know, the ugly guy who always ends up with a pretty wife or girlfriend (sometimes at the same time). This is the guy. See, this guy has the natural ability to talk to and, more importantly, empathetically listen to everyone.

If this is you, congratulations – you know the rest of this story. If this is not, listen closely and learn from those who have it. You will get more actionable information and gain more allies if you just follow a few simple steps.

As Easy As Parenting
Not unlike parenting, extracting confessions requires that you learn a few skills. As with parenting, most skills can be honed with time, but some people are just naturally good at it. Cops are generally horrible at these when fresh out of an academy that has just taught them that a) everybody wants to kill them, and b) to believe nothing.

Some tips:

First things first, drop the attitude. Nobody wants to open up to a sarcastic, condescending burn-out.

Introduce yourself by your name…Not rank and last name, but your first name. It is amazing: cops are actually given first names, people will be amazed by this. While you are at it, don’t lean on your gun and cross your arms the entire time.

Lean forward and listen. Listen to everything, and show some emotion when you respond. Spend 80% of your time listening, 10% asking questions, and 10% just talking. You will be amazed what people will tell you.

While you’re at it, try not to inject words like dude or sweet, unless you are talking to a teenager. It is important to speak to your audience, even if it is one person. If you are being told about a topic you don’t understand, say so. Everyone appreciates honest sincerity over that dumb blank agreement, we all tend to put out.

In this Part I of this series, Dave described how officers should use their interviewing techniques not just on suspects, but on everyone they come in contact with in the community. In Part II, Dave sets forth his personal philosophy and tactics for conducting non-hostile, non-custody interviews. Your mileage may vary, but this is how Dave does it. In Part III of this Two Part series, Dave offers some take-away points and tips on how to apply the techniques and tactics described throughout the series in everyday conversations. And in Part IV, Dave will cover in-custody and hostile-witness interviews.