An interrogator's mindset: "It's not personal. It's business."
As John Reid told me, “A good interrogator is a good actor” — you have to convince the suspect that you’re on his side
During the past 40 years of applying the art of interrogation, one question repeatedly surfaces from investigators — particularly from those who are just beginning their professional careers in this field.
“How do you suppress your personal feelings when interrogating someone that you know has committed such a horrific crime?”
My response is simple: “It’s not personal. It’s business.”
Being a Good Actor
By adopting a mental discipline of suppressing all signs of adverse emotions during an interrogation — anger, disgust, revulsion, sarcasm, revenge, etc. — the trained investigator has a better chance of developing rapport with a subject and thereby greatly improve the probability of obtaining the truth through a fully corroborated confession.
Many years ago upon entering the training program at Chicago based John E. Reid and Associates, I was counseled by my mentor — John Reid himself — “A good interrogator is a good actor.”
This admonition has been indelibly etched in my mind, even though I didn’t fully “get it” during the early stages of my career.
I asked myself, “What does this mean, be a good actor?”
After having interviewed and interrogated hundreds of suspects, his words began to crystallize. I began to understand that he was telling me to mask my personal feelings — a task that is sometimes easier said than done.
The Three Channels
We accomplish this by evaluating three channels of communication — the suspect’s verbal, paralinguistic, and nonverbal behavior.
Whereas the trained interrogator systematically evaluates a suspect’s behavior symptoms, most suspects intuitively evaluate an interrogator’s verbal, paralinguistic, and nonverbal behavior for signs of the interrogator’s credibility, self-assurance, confidence and attitude toward the suspect and the suspect’s criminal conduct.
Experienced and successful investigators have learned the value of projecting a neutral attitude — or even an understanding and empathetic demeanor — toward the suspect and the suspect’s criminal conduct by disguising his or her personal feelings during interrogation.
Channel #1: Verbal
In a theft or embezzlement case some of my counterparts in the financial industry tend to initiate the interrogation by saying: “You were involved in the defalcation of all the funds from our institution.”
The preferred choice of language would be to simply say, “Our investigation indicates you took the missing money.”
If I were the suspect, hearing the word “defalcation” would maximize the serious nature of my crime (after all, there are four syllables in that word!) and lead me to believe that I’m probably looking at jail time.
Conversely, the more benign language used — that I “took” the money — psychologically minimizes the severity of my conduct and alters my perception of the interrogator’s attitude toward me.
Likewise, in a sexual harassment investigation, it would be preferable to initiate the interrogation with a statement that refers to the suspect “sexually touching” or “making a sexual comment” rather than accusing the suspect of “sexual harassment” to describe the same event.
Similarly, accusing a suspect by stating, “Our investigation clearly indicates that you raped Mary” would not have the advantage of a softer statement such as, “Our investigation clearly indicates that you did force Mary to engage in sexual intercourse.”
Raping and forcing mean the same thing, but utilizing the term force results in a more palatable phrase for the suspect.
By telling a suspect, “You realize that you molested Johnny, a five-year-old child, don’t you?” an interrogator recreates the abhorrent behavior of being a child molester and raises the specter of severe punishment associated with the act.
A better choice of words during an interrogation might be to suggest “You sexually touched John” — avoiding the harsh words “five-year-old,” “child,” “molest,” and even “Johnny.”
The second option allows the suspect to save face and dignity in the eyes of an experienced interrogator, who is thereby effectively masking his true feelings toward the suspect’s conduct.
Channel #2: Paralinguistic
For example: “Yeah, sure, right!”
Paralinguistic behaviors also include a myriad of displays by an interrogator such as snickering, laughing, changing tone or pitch of speech in a derogatory fashion, etc. Such behavior by an interrogator alienates the suspect and erodes the prospect of successfully establishing rapport.
Channel #3: Nonverbal
It clearly conveys that the investigator is insincere and does not believe what he is saying to the suspect.
There’s a disconnect between the interrogator’s spoken word and the accompanying nonverbal behavior. The investigator needs to drop the barriers and lean forward in an open posture during the interrogation process. The resulting compatibility between the interrogator’s verbal and nonverbal behavior intuitively validates the credibility of the interrogator’s words in the suspect’s mind.
Another example might include the investigator trying to verbally empathize with the suspect while nonchalantly leaning back with hands behind neck or engaging in significant body posture changes. Nonverbal miscues to the suspect can be as subtle as the investigator briefly looking at his or her watch during the interrogation.
Doing so may telegraph that the investigator is bored and has something more important to do. Under those circumstances, most street-sharp suspects will simply wait out the interrogation with continued denials.
All The World’s a Stage
To that end, the interrogator’s mindset should be to “act” — to conceal his or her personal feelings about the suspect and the suspect’s criminal conduct.
Remember, “It’s not personal, it’s business.”
Empathy is a key element within the context of the communication process. Always treat the suspect the way you would want to be treated: with dignity and respect.
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