5 reasons witnesses won't ID offenders (and how to beat them)

Many times during an investigation, a witness’ potential knowledge goes untapped by the investigator


There are at least five primary reasons why people who are not directly involved in a criminal act — yet who know the identity of the perpetrator — are reluctant to name the actual or suspected participant(s). 

1.) Fear of retaliation: While presenting a training program in Monterrey, Mexico, outside the city, bodies of 48 individuals were discovered in plastic bags with their heads, hands and feet cut off. This sent a loud and clear message by the suspected drug cartel of what would happen to anyone that provides law enforcement with incriminating information.

2.) Fear of falsely identifying an innocent individual: Some fear that they might implicate a person who has nothing to do with the offense under investigation. 

3.) Fear of violating the trust of “brotherhood or sisterhood”: A bond is established within the community, workplace, families and social groups which makes identifying individuals in these social structures difficult.

4.) Not wanting to get involved: Everyone today seems to be multitasking and has countless problems of their own, which makes cooperating (accepting more responsibility) with an investigation less appealing.

5.) Not wanting to be labeled the “rat,” “snitch,” or “stoolie”: Once a person is identified as a rat, snitch or stoolie, he/she is viewed by others as someone who is untrustworthy.

Each of these can present distinct challenges to overcome as an investigator, but here are some strategies for getting witnesses to play ball.

Maximizing Your Interviews
Many times during an investigation, the potential knowledge a witness harbors goes untapped by the investigator. Some crimes could be solved simply by spending time during the investigative interview overcoming one or more of these fears or concerns. 

During the interview a witness is typically asked whether he/she committed the crime. Assuming the witness displays truthful verbal and non-verbal behavior while denying participation, the next follow-up question should be whether the witness knows who committed the crime. 

Assuming that the denial of “knowledge” is accompanied by verbal and non-verbal behavior which is characteristic of deception, then obtaining the name(s) of the perpetrator now becomes the investigator’s focal point.

When an investigation includes multiple witnesses and/or potential suspects, each becomes an important asset in resolving the crime. Many times, those eliminated from suspicion based on case facts and evidence are not questioned because doing so may be deemed an inefficient use of investigative resources. 

However, individuals who are known not to have committed the crime should still be questioned both as to whether they “did it” as well as whether they “know who did.” 

This strategy allows an astute investigator to compare and contrast verbal and nonverbal response(s) to the direct question of an interviewee’s denial of “direct involvement” — which should be a known truth based on case facts and evidence — versus the question of an interviewee’s “knowledge” of who did it.

If the interviewee’s verbal and nonverbal behavior remains consistently truthful in tandem with denials to both questions, then the interviewee likely does not know who committed the crime. If however, the interviewee’s verbal and non-verbal behavior on the “knowledge” question appears less than truthful, then the investigator has discovered a key indicator that the interviewee either knows who committed the crime or at least has a good suspicion.

Critical to All Investigations 
Many seasoned investigators walk out of an interview with a ‘gut’ feeling, a sense that “I know this person is lying about something but I don’t know to what.” 

That confusion can be attributed to the investigator’s failure to recognize differences in an interviewee’s behavioral response to questions pertaining to direct involvement (committing the crime) versus questions pertaining to knowledge (knowing who committed the crime).

Therefore, after asking the knowledge question, the investigator should attempt to overcome one or more of the previous noted concerns with the goal of extracting names of potential suspects. The follow-up question to “knowledge” would be a similar question which, by design, affords the interviewee an opportunity to offer names of the offender or potential suspects. 

This question is the “suspicion” question. Properly asking the suspicion question will minimize one or more of the interviewee’s concerns over implication of others. The dialogue of the suspicion question should be prefaced as follows: 

Sean, the next question I’m going to ask you is not if you know for sure who did this (issue) but rather, what names (plural) crossed your mind (assumptive) when you were first advised of the crime. Remember, I’m not asking you if you know for sure who did this but rather what names just crossed your mind. 

It’s important for you to share that information with me, particularly if you are not involved. You know that you can’t stop your normal thought process. Furthermore, you are in no way saying they are involved. I know your concerns of that information getting back to the person(s). Let me say this: if the names you share are only gut feelings or hunches and not based on anything tangible or concrete, that is confidential. 

Remember, Sean, if you’re not involved it’s important that you be 100 percent truthful today. I know you have a lot on your mind and are concerned that you not point a finger at a truthful person or may even be concerned about how this information is to be used. 

Let us assure you that it is confidential. Other people have offered their opinions and that remains confidential and we will not share that with you or anyone else. Sean, what names just crossed your mind? Remember, you’re not saying they did it.

Suggesting limited confidentiality many times will draw out names, particularly from a truthful individual who might otherwise have been reluctant to cooperate. Let’s say the interviewee provides a name in the following manner.

Interviewee: “Well there is this one guy named Jim that crossed my mind, but I’m not saying he did it.” 

What would be an appropriate follow-up question? Most investigators would ask “Why?” 

That would be the wrong question to ask because the interviewee now has to express his/her rationalizations for this suspicion. The subject is now being reinforced not to provide any additional suspicions. 

The proper question would be:

Investigator: “Besides Jim, what other names crossed your mind?” 

Carefully observe the interviewee’s verbal and nonverbal behavior. 

Suspect: “Honestly, his is the only name that crossed my mind.” 

If the interviewee appears to be withholding additional names, then he/she should be asked:

Investigator: “There has to be more than only one name that you thought about. And remember, what you say will remain confidential if it is only just a hunch or a gut feeling. So, besides Jim what other name just crossed through your mind?”

Suspect: “Well there is this one woman, Genna. I did think about her.”

Carefully observe the interviewee’s behavior. If he/she appears deceptive, then there may be additional names. If so, continue questioning (as above) in an attempt to obtain more names. 

Remember, never ask “Why?” until the interviewee appears truthful to the number of names they have provided. Once the interviewee (as in the example of “Sean” above) appears to be truthful that Jim and Genna were his only suspicions, then the investigator can turn his line of questioning to why Jim crossed his mind. Then proceed to Genna and to each additional named suspicion thereafter.

Following the above protocol may lead to valuable information about the identities, motives, and tactics of potential suspects. Human intelligence gathering is critical to all investigations, and every step should be exhausted to collect that intelligence by exploring the “knowledge” and “suspicions” of even those who have no direct involvement or participation in a criminal event.

About the author

Louis C. Senese, VP of John E. Reid and Associates, Inc. and has been employed at the firm since 1974.  He received his BS in business from Northern Illinois University and his MS from Reid College. After nine years as a staff polygraph examiner, he became Chief Polygraph Examiner and vice president being responsible for overseeing seven to eight thousand interviews and interrogations for each of the next eight years. Lou has personally conducted in excess of eight thousand interviews and interrogations and has testified in federal and state courts as well as employment hearings. He is a past president of the Illinois Polygraph Society.

Additionally, Lou has conducted hundreds of interrogation training seminars on the Reid Technique of Interviewing and Interrogation®. He has presented specialized training programs for corporations as well as federal, state and local law enforcement, military and governmental intelligence agencies throughout the United States, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Kuwait, Mexico, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea and the U.A.E.

In 2005, Senese authored the book, Anatomy of Interrogation Themes which was translated into Spanish in 2008 (Anatomia de los Temas del Interrogatorio) and has published many articles. Lou’s sense of humor as well as his practical way of instruction has made him one of Reid’s most sought-after speakers.  

Contact Lou Senese

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