As Easy As Parenting, Part II: Non-Hostile, Non-Custodial Interviews

Posted on 22 March 2011 by

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In 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 this 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.



Interview in a Starbucks (Photo by Gene Wilburn)

Successful interrogation has not always come so easily for me, but after finding out who I was as a communicator, things fell in place and people started talking.

I suggest you find your own approach – never try to be someone else.

But do keep your personality subdued and as neutral as possible during an interview.

Here’s how I go about it.

Pick your battlefield carefully
Unless absolutely necessary, I conduct interviews in my office, or in a place that is familiar to and controlled by me. People – you included – act different and feel more empowered when they are in their own element. This is the first tactical advantage of any interview. If this is hard to facilitate, try and try again.

If it’s still a no-go, and you just can’t get them to come to you, meet at a neutral location. Any place that has some level of privacy, such as a library or Starbucks, will work fine.

Under all but very extreme circumstances, I do not recommend that you interview a suspect or suspect-friendly witness in his home. If it comes to this, I will usually try a surprise visit to their work that has been pre-arranged with their boss.

I try to use a remote office and have the boss discreetly bring the person to me.

A Little Respect
While you are at it, if you wear a uniform, ditch it before you make a surprise visit. Being discreet is a demonstration of respect on your part. Remind them that you did this to prevent them from being embarrassed. These are easy points to score, and respect is a very important ingredient.

Do Your Homework
Another important ingredient worth mentioning is homework. If you have made it this far in the process, you had better have done your homework. Know all you can know by now. There will be some pop-quizzes from your suspect at some point. You need to know names, times, cars – anything at all pertinent to the crime you will be talking about.

You also need to know what facts you don’t have but do need. If you fail one of these pop quizzes it is bad.

Do Not Lie
If you get caught lying, your interview is over. This is rarely a recoverable error. So do not lie during an interview unless it’s absolutely necessary – and if you do, make damned sure you don’t get caught.

Showtime
This is rapport-time folks. Sell yourself as a harmless, perhaps not very bright, certainly not over-bearing, but very thorough person. In fact, honey should be dripping off of your chin. No crossed arms, no flashing of the badge on your belt, no judgmental or snide remarks, and no brow-beatings.

Extend a hand, and introduce yourself by first and last name. (I usually say Dave, not David, as it is less formal and more personal.) Explain what agency you are with and that you have been tasked with conducting an investigation.

Be polite, be very respectful. Flash a small smile while shaking hands and repeat the person’s name when you tell them, “It’s nice to meet you, Tony”. Ask them if they prefer to go by another name and use it if they do. I try to use a person’s first name as often as possible without sounding like Rainman. It tells them that you are listening. People like it when you listen to them, a lot.

Offer a chair and have them sit down. At this point I always offer to buy them a drink. If you know anything about the Stockholm Syndrome, this tactic should make perfect sense to you (by the way, if they decline? At some point in the future I’ll be going to, “get myself a drink,” and I’ll bring them one back with me then)*.

The Beginning
Right up front, I try to pry as much personal information I can. Where did you grow up? How many siblings? What kind of work? And do you have kids or a spouse? I try to find interest of theirs. It could be cars, guns, stripclubs, skiing, I don’t care.

Talk to them about one or more for a few minutes and inject a little about your own interests if any are the same as theirs. It is good to throw in some personal details about yourself here – try and laugh a little.

Take as much time as possible – the longer the better – as long as it continues to go well. Don’t forget to make yourself human. it’s all about the rapport.

Rapport
Rapport is the single most accurate indicator of how successful your interrogation is going to end up. Segue-in to the interview.

If your subject is under arrest, I remind them that there is already an arrest report, and I offer to give them this opportunity to tell their side of the story… because it’s looking fairly one-sided at this point. Remember, this is all done very politely, and without a raised voice or even a twinge of attitude.

They should believe that you are doing them a favor. They will likely be feeling a little nervous and will be desperately looking for a friend. Take advantage of this, and let them befriend you.

As Seen On TV
If you’re interviewing a person who is in actual or constructive custody – that is, if the person believes that he is not free to leave – it’s time for a Miranda Warning. I am frequently asked how to “slide this in” without killing an interrogation.

Well, I don’t slide it in, and it has very rarely seemed to shift the flow of a good conversation. I will say something about how I can’t talk to them (which they should already want to do at this point) until I read them their rights, “Just like you’ve seen a hundred times on TV.”.

I take my time, read the rights verbatim from the card, ask if they understand, and then have them sign and date the face of the card.

It’s really that easy.

Icebreaking
At this point you should have already formulated your strategy, and discerned which facts you don’t know but should, as well as a list of facts you want the interview to reaffirm. Now you’ll need to break the ice a little.

Give a little information about what you know, but don’t lay it out in its entirety – just give a brief synopsis of what happened and where.

This a time where I have seen some guys start in with a notepad.

I don’t.

It seems a little desperate, and the interviewee will probably deduce that, every time you write something down, he’s just told you something you didn’t know. This can lead to a very short chat.

Use and audio or video recording if you can, preferably concealed if that is permitted in your jurisdiction. People are very uncomfortable being recorded and it makes them uptight at best.

Honesty
I explain that I am only willing to conduct an interview if the person is honest with me. This is another pivotal point in the interview. My attitude shifts from the nicest guy in the world, to dead-serious and semi-firm. After I am convinced that we agree on this condition, my attitude shifts right back to the nice guy.

Sit back, and shut up
Tell the person to start from the beginning, and open your ears. If you hit a wall and the person is not budging, you can tap in to the information you’ve learned about their family, or situations that you have observed that your subject had an emotional tie to. Leverage is a great thing to have, pry away. Inject and talk about the one person or situation about which you’ve observed they expressed the strongest emotion. This is usually their children, but sometimes a spouse, sibling, or pastor. Sometimes it is a story about how they felt when they were a victim.

You must decide which to use and how. Then transition it to the current situation, and get your subject’s emotions up.

When you have done this, it is time to listen, not talk.

Listen.

You should only talk when the conversation strays, or when there are some details purposely left out. If you find this happening too frequently, avioid an argument and let the person go on about the case. You will be returning to these details later, but after you build a little more rapport, and after the subject realizes you are empathetic.

Direct The Flow
As the conversation continues, remember that you direct the conversation, and keep it on topic. But if it starts to get slow, or if you see your subject is beginning to realize how bad what he is saying is starting to look, redirect.

Keep the conversation going, look interested and pay attention to non-verbal language. Body language can tell you what your subject’s mouth does not.

Revisit these items at times you find appropriate. If you know people and have listened to what your subject has said both, you will know when to chime in and when to ask pointed questions.

Some Common Pitfalls
There are some common challenges while interviewing bad guys. One is that uncomfortable silence that rears its ugly head in almost all interviews. This is a very pivotal time in an interrogation.

Usually the silence occurs at a time when your subject is trying to decide if he will come clean and confess, or not. When this happens, I offer this advice: Shut up and hold your ground. Say nothing at all and don’t back down. Stay two-points above neutral with your body language.

If you talk or show weakness, chances are you’ll have lost your confession.

Honestly, this point of an interrogation is the only part that puts me on edge. It’s awkward and tense.

It is tense for the bad guy too: he knows you know what he is thinking. Let him talk, let him lose. Review what you know, what lies were told, and what you think you know based on body language.

Go back over them and try to get it all out. You can reassure your subject that it will make him feel better. If he has liked you up until this point, he might even believe you.

Wrapping it Up
When concluding the interview, tell your subject you appreciate them being cooperative, and wish them good luck. Thank your subject and ask if there’s anything else they want to tell you. Don’t be surprised if you get a “Thank you,” back.

With all of what I have said about empathy and listening, let me make it clear that I never suggest that you lose control of a situation or interview at that expense. It goes without saying that you only afford grand courtesy for a limited amount of time, and that poor behavior will not go unnoticed.

If you’re getting nowhere with kindness, catching attitude along the way, be prepared to raise your voice and raise an eyebrow. This might gain the respect you need to continue, but it may not. If it works, slowly take it back to a more respectful tone.

While interviewing, there are no hard-and-fast rules; interrogations are very fluid. I have even ended interviews due to obvious lying, only to have my subject request another interview an hour later in which they come completely clean.

I encourage everyone to rely on your gut and let it guide an interview, as long as you pay very close attention to details revealed.


In 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 this 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.

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* This part covers non-custodial interviews, but it is worth mentioning that, if this person has been in custody, any food item not issued by jail staff works wonders at this point.