Personality-guided interview and interrogation
Practical psychology for law enforcement investigators
A: One of the saddest tragedies of the current debate over coercive military interrogation techniques is that, in many cases, they would be unnecessary if military investigators would only take some lessons from their law enforcement colleagues. Over the last few decades, law enforcement has actually taken the lead in perfecting the art and science of behavioral profiling, interview, and interrogation to gather critical information in criminal investigations, undercover operations, organized crime and drug traffic interdiction, serial murder investigations, and counterterrorism.
Criminal organizations and criminal types
Criminal organizations can be divided into two main categories. Ideologically driven organizations, which include most domestic and international terrorist groups, are motivated by some higher religious or political cause, such as white supremacy, Islamic jihad, radical environmentalism, or world socialism. In contrast, primarily mercenary driven organizations are involved in criminal activity purely for monetary gain, such as Mafia-type organizations, drug cartels, outlaw bikers, and urban street gangs. Many criminal or terrorist enterprises contain elements of both ideologically driven and mercenary driven criminal organizations as exemplified by tax scams and bank robberies committed by North American white power groups, the political connections of many Latin American drug cartels, and religiously devoted weapons or narcotics smugglers in the Middle East.
Basic interview and interrogation strategies
While this standard model is generally effective with most of the everyday suspects questioned by civilian law enforcement and military intelligence teams, it may require modification and refinement to be useful with the personality types who comprise most extremist organizations and hard-core criminal gangs. Accordingly, based on an analysis of the available literature and my own experience in clinical and forensic psychological interviewing, I have developed a personality-guided model of criminal interview and interrogation that seeks to adapt the style and content of questioning to the personality dynamics of the subject.
You may extract useful information from a narcissistic leader if you can appeal to his self-inflated egotism by treating the suspect with a certain degree of deference and respect – letting him know he’s the “big fish” authorities have been after. One thing that narcissistic personalities love to do is talk about themselves, so interviewers should sit back, act impressed, and allow the narcissistic suspect to “blow his own horn” uninterruptedly during the initial open-ended phase of the interview.
Narcissistic lieutenants and underbosses may cooperate with authorities if they can be persuaded that their own well-deserved rise to power in the group has been unfairly thwarted by less worthy members. However, combined narcissistic and paranoid (see below) group members or leaders may well view their apprehension as proof of their martyrdom, and this will only stiffen their resistance.
Paranoid personality is a pattern of pervasive distrust and suspiciousness, so that others’ actions and motives are invariably interpreted as deceptive, persecutory, or malevolent. These individuals comprise the other main category of criminal cult leaders. Their group philosophy is more likely to have a racial, political, or religious exclusionary focus as well as a darkly conspiratorial tinge, in contrast to the narcissist’s universalist philosophy which is often broad enough to encompass the whole world.
Antisocial personality is a pattern of consistent disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others. It is typically associated with impulsivity, criminal behavior, sexual promiscuity, substance abuse, and a complete lack of empathy and conscience leading to an exploitive, parasitic, and/or predatory lifestyle. These individuals may join criminal or extremist organizations for the sheer thrill of power, and are often the assassins, soldiers, or “muscle” of the group. They can also be quite shrewd in a cunning-conning type of way, and the more intelligent among them may accumulate considerable wealth and power, or rise to positions of great authority within the organization.
Borderline personality is a pattern of erratic and intense relationships, alternating between over-idealization and devaluation of others, self-damaging impulsiveness, emotional instability and mood swings, a chronic feeling of emptiness, persistent identity disturbance, and impaired interpersonal relationships. Initially, borderlines may form ferociously powerful allegiances to group leaders and ideologies and their short-term periods of intense idealistic devotion may make them useful – and expendable – functionaries for dangerous criminal operations and terrorist missions.
Avoidant personality is a pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, hypersensitivity to criticism, and shunning of confrontation. Although it is unlikely that many individuals with this personality pattern would choose a vocation like crime or terrorism, some members may have initially been attracted to the social justice philosophy and comforting ideological certainty offered by many extremist political and religious organizations. In such groups, avoidant members are unlikely to be on the front lines, but may provide valuable assistance in support and supply roles that do not actually involve violent confrontation.
Earning the cooperation of avoidant subjects will usually occur in proportion to the amount of security and safety that you can provide – i.e. this is no place for the “bad cop” routine. With a collaborative and supportive interview style, many disillusioned avoidant subjects will actually be relieved to be out from under the thumb of the criminal or extremist group and will be happy to provide information in exchange for safety. While it may appear that the avoidant suspect is uncooperatively holding back information, it may well be their innate reticence that makes it difficult for them to articulate a coherent narrative. In such cases, try to employ a simple, direct, structured, and nonconfrontational style of interaction, deemphasizing the open-ended portion of the interview and focusing on specific questions that allow the avoidant suspect to reveal his or her information in a piecemeal fashion.
Dependent personality is a pattern of obedient and clinging behavior stemming from an excessive need for care and nurturance. Dependent personalities look to others to provide guidance and direction, and they may be dedicated followers of a charismatic criminal cult, as long as independent decision-making is kept to a minimum. Criminal or extremist group leaders may easily exploit dependent group members’ hunger for approval and validation by assigning them difficult and sometimes dangerous tasks and, while their daring is not likely to be as great as with borderline and antisocial personalities, the dependent member’s loyalty and perseverance is likely to be more dogged and persistent.
Histrionic personality is a pattern of excessive emotionality, attention-seeking, need for excitement, flamboyant theatricality in speech and behavior, and an impressionistic and impulsive cognitive style. These are the “showboats” of any organization who enjoy being at the center of attention but may not be as willing as other members to get their hands dirty with menial or dangerous work. Criminal and extremist groups may solicit these individuals as front-men and -women in the legitimate worlds of entertainment, the media, or politics, or to infiltrate mainstream organizations.
Schizoid personality is a pattern of aloof detachment, withdrawal from others, and a restricted range of emotional expression. Schizotypal personality additionally includes more serious delusional thinking and more bizarre behavior. While such individuals are not typically joiners, the unstable identity structure of many schizoid and schizotypal personalities may lead them on philosophical and spiritual quests that end up at the door of social and religious movements with criminal or extremist ties. They will be the oddballs of the group who keep to themselves but may show fierce commitment if the movement’s philosophy appeals to their idiosyncratic world view. However, they may have a tendency to decompensate and become psychotic under prolonged stress, and are then likely to become an expendable liability to the group.
Inasmuch as effective law enforcement is all about understanding and dealing with human nature, many local police and federal officers are already among the best “practical psychologists” out there today. Integrating your expertise with the systematic knowledge base of the mental health profession and behavioral sciences field can only increase the overall fairness and effectiveness of all phases of the criminal justice process.
Miller, L. (2004). Personality-based interviews and interrogations. International Association of Chiefs of Police Training Key #565.
Miller, L. (2006). Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice.
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