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January 30, 2014
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Louis C. Senese Interrogation Themes
with Louis C. Senese

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
I then remind them that the investigator’s goal is to obtain the truth, and that a fundamental element of the Reid Technique in eliciting the truth is to establish rapport with a suspect. No matter how disgusting or repulsive the crime, the professional interrogator must maintain a demeanor of being outwardly non-judgmental while displaying no personal aversion towards the suspect or the suspect’s actions.

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
During our interrogations, we’re always reading the suspect’s behavior for signs of truth, deception, motive, and the like. We also assess the suspect’s behavior to determine whether we’ve successfully established rapport (which is essential for the elicitation of truth and the development of corroborating evidence).

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
The first channel is verbal communication. Words we choose and their arrangement send a distinct message. Semantics or the meaning of words selected by the investigator can minimize or maximize the uniqueness or horrific nature of the suspect’s crime.

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
The second channel we convey to the suspect is paralinguistic. This would consist of the characteristics of speech that fall outside of the verbal response. The investigator could respond to the suspect’s denial of committing the crime using sarcasm, mockery, cynicism, or scorn.

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
The third channel is nonverbal behavior, which includes the interrogator’s gestures or postures. Let’s say the investigator is telling the suspect — as part of the interrogation theme — that he believes the suspect’s act was totally out of character, but the interrogator’s posture is one of leaning back with legs and arms crossed. What message does this convey?

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
It is incumbent upon the professional interrogator to recognize that criminals most often admit their crimes because they truly like, trust, or feel comfortable with the interrogator.

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.


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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