Cover Story

The art of the interrogation:
By Joseph Pangaro

What is an interview?
An interview can be defined as a conversation between two people during which information is exchanged, questions are asked and answered, and understanding is reached. During a criminal interview, there is another aspect to an interview–one side usually wants to limit the information that is given to protect themselves from trouble. In these instances, the person usually lies, bends the truth, or makes up facts to confuse the investigator.

So, how does an investigator, detective, or patrol officer who is tasked with talking to a suspect and finding out what happened during an incident, overcome these road blocks and get to the truth?

The simple answer is to develop an understanding of human nature and some interview skills. One of the first things we need to understand is this: A person’s motivation to lie to you is in direct relationship to the jeopardy they face, or in other words, the more punishment they face, the more incentive to lie.

A key skill for an interviewer is to develop patience. You have to have patience so you can use the skills of interviewing to overcome the denials by the person you are talking to. You can’t get angry with them for not telling you the truth; they are trying to protect themselves. It is the interviewer’s job to find a way to get the person being interviewed to lower their guard and talk to you honestly. To reach this goal, the number one rule for success is this: You must develop a relationship with the person.

If you are new to this game or not as successful as you want to be, that might sound strange, especially as it relates to police work. Most of the people we have to talk to are criminals, and some of them are very bad people who have done terrible things; the last thing we want to do is to develop a relationship with them.

You have to move past that; our job as investigators is to get confessions and admissions. We can’t allow our personal feelings to prevent us from winning the interaction because the person we are dealing with is a bad guy or girl, no matter what they have done. We have to go forward with the goal in mind of clearing the case, helping the victims, and bringing the guilty to justice. This is big stuff and takes the right mindset for success.

Developing a relationship has some basic parameters, whether you are dealing with a criminal or a new friend–developing trust. Trust is essential; the person has to trust you. You show them that they can trust you by being honest with them about what you are going to do. Tell them you want to discuss the assault (or whatever you are investigating), and that you want them to be honest with you, and you will be honest with them.

This is another thing that seems strange: Are we really going to be totally honest with them? Isn’t our job to put them in jail? The answer is yes, but telling them you are going to be honest, sets the tone.
I found out a long time ago that you “Tell people what you want them to know” and it usually sticks. So tell them you will be honest and you want them to be honest.

Always remember that “Words mean things”. So listen to what they say, the words they choose. Being a good listener is another skill of good interviewers. In many cases, if you spend the time to listen to the person, you will hear clues you can use to further the conversation or uncover things they are trying to hide.

It is a reality that if someone is trying to hide something and they are lying to you, the truth is always close by in their mind. In fact, it is so close in their mind because they are trying to avoid the truth at all costs. If you are patient, calm, and listen, you might hear them say something that reveals some truth and gives you a place to focus.

One time, my partner and I were interviewing a man whose million dollar house burned down while he and his family were on vacation. While we listened and let him talk, he told us that before he left for vacation he, “Set up the house”. This simple phrase was the truth, and it slipped out as he spoke. We heard it, targeted it, and he eventually confessed to burning down his house.

Interviewing is an art. Practice the techniques that we know work, and you will become a great interviewer.

Keep these tips in mind: When conducting an interview there are some very important points to know:
1. Before you begin to ask Crime Questions. Don’t rush your conversation during this important time in your interview. Talk about things not related to the crime or incident you are investigating such as hobbies, family, sports, and music etc. As you listen carefully to the person, you will hear things about their life you can use later in the conversation. If you are investigating the theft of money from an office, wouldn’t it be nice to know the suspect has a sick mom at home that needs expensive medicine?

2. Set the Base Line for the person’s responses. This means understanding and actually seeing how the person responds to your questions when they are not concerned with jeopardy. So don’t dive into your crime questions; talk about sports, their family, their hobbies or anything else that will not make the uncomfortable. When they answer these questions you will be able to gauge how quickly the respond, if they look you in the eye, and if they have good recall of facts. Once you know this and launch into crime questions you can see a difference in their truthful and un-truthful responses.

3. Use “Diminished” terms to describe the crime under investigation. By diminishing the words we use to describe the crime we make it easier for a person to admit being part of the crime. Examples: Don’t say Burglarized say “went into the house”; don’t say Stole, say “Took”; don’t say Assaulted, say “ Hit, Slapped, or Punched.” This technique makes the crime sound less serious and therefore more socially acceptable.

4. Help the person “Rationalize” their actions. This does not mean to make excuses for the person’s actions; it means to help them explain their actions in a way that they can admit being a part of it. If they stole money, maybe suggest they took it to feed their kids and see if that sounds reasonable to them. Many people will admit to something that sounds like it was done for a good reason.

5. Show “Compassion”. We don’t have to like the people we interview, and in fact whatever they have done can be offensive, but by expressing compassion for the person you can help build a short term bond with the person which can help them trust you enough to let their guard down and provide important information to you about their actions.

6. Build a Bond. A person is more likely to tell you things if they feel you are their best chance to lessen or eliminate any punishment. By talking to them professionally, actively listening to them, diminishing and helping them to rationalize the crime and showing compassion you can become that lifeline to the best outcome they can hope for.

7. Use Push Lines. A push line is something you say when the person seems to be on the verge of making admissions, but is holding back. At this point they may be holding back for fear of things other than punishment of the crime; they could be embarrassed that their family will find out what they did, or they could be overwhelmed at having to tell a spouse or partner that they violated that trust. Some examples might be: “I know how difficult this must be for you to tell your family you did this, but, isn’t it better they hear it from you than in the newspaper?”; “You didn’t mean for things to work out like this did you?”; “You never meant to hurt anyone did you?”

8. Look for Possibilities. A “Possibility” is something you learned during your pre-crime question conversation with the suspect that you can use to help them rationalize their actions. An example might be: “Is it possible that you did this because you need to feed your kids”, “Is it possible you did this because you were trying to protect yourself?”

9. Two kinds of Guys. This technique involves giving a suspect two choices of answer, but both of them indicate guilt. An example: “Did you do this because you’re just a bad person and don’t care about hurting a child? or, Did it happen because you didn’t realize how hard you spanked the child?”

These specific techniques all work to overcome a person’s denials of involvement in a crime. It is our goal as investigators to establish a couple of important facts: A crime was committed; the person being interviewed was on the scene and took some action that caused the crime to take place. No matter what the suspect tells us, if we can establish these facts it doesn’t really matter what they give as their motivation.

Lt. Joseph Pangaro retired after serving 27 years at a police department in Monmouth County, NJ, having served as the Lead Training Officer. Pangaro is a graduate of Fairleigh Dickenson University’s Certified Public Managers Program (CPM). He’s a newspaper columnist who writes about the rigors and joys in law enforcement. Joseph Pangaro is the CEO and President of Pangaro Training and Management, and Pangaro Global Training, an online training company. Email Lt. Pangaro @JPangaro194@yahoo. com or Twitter: @Pangarotraining.