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Investigation and Interrogation

Sometimes the only way to get a conviction is by conducting a good interrogation. Identifying the suspect and finding him to make the arrest is only half of it. Getting a confession is the other half. The suspect’s own words admitting to the crime is the most powerful evidence you can present in court. A distinct difference exists between an interview and an interrogation. During an interview, we are gathering information, such as: who, what, where, when, why and how. During an interrogation, we are trying to get the suspect to admit his role in a crime.

Conducting effective interrogations is indeed a mind game. We are playing psychological chess with suspects. We are trying to sell them a term in prison, which most suspects will be reluctant to buy. A major problem that criminals face when they lie to the police is that they cannot be certain what the police already know about their involvement in the crime.

Good interrogators will ask test questions for which they already know the answer. These are questions asked just to see how truthful the suspect actually is. These questions are called control questions, and they can offer the interrogator great insight. After all, if the suspect has nothing to hide, why would he lie about any question being asked of him?

Suspects being interrogated often provide great detail about unimportant events leading up to a crime, but they will give only vague information about the crime itself. Most people can’t lie well under pressure. Telling the truth is easy. It just relies on their memory or recall of what actually happened. Lying, on the other hand, requires creativity and logic. Creating lies is a process that becomes more difficult under pressure. That pressure is applied by experienced officers who fully understand the facts of the case and can apply pressure at the right times.

Why do suspects confess? Most people have a natural desire to talk, criminals aren’t any different. Smart cops learn how to develop rapport with suspects during an interrogation. They also have good communication skills and can act non-judgmental while interrogating suspects. Never express anger at a suspect for committing a crime, no matter how horrendous the crime may be.

Just as we size up the suspects we deal with, remember, they are sizing us up also. Don’t bring up consequences of the crime during an interrogation. Instead, develop a theme that to a suspect gives a logical reason for their criminal behavior. For example, “You took the money to pay bills, not to buy drugs or gamble.”

Other theme concepts can be developed to minimize the suspect’s involvement in the crime. Some examples include blaming rival gang members for a shooting. “If those fools hadn’t come on to your turf threatening, this incident would have never happened.”

Blame alcohol for a particular crime. For example, “I know you were drinking beer and smoked a little dope. It’s important to get that on the table. When someone is under the influence, their judgment can be affected.”

A theme is delivered as a sales pitch to get suspects in the right frame of mind to confess. The most effective themes offer the suspect a somewhat logical reason for their criminal behavior.

Many legal ways exist for law enforcement to get information from suspects. We certainly can bait them into believing that critical evidence points to their involvement. We can state that witnesses are involved, even if no witnesses exist. We can tell suspects that their footprints or fingerprints were found at the scene, even if they weren’t.

Conducting interrogations is one of the most critical phases of most criminal investigations. During an interrogation, officers must use active persuasion to convince suspects that they have enough information to charge them with the crime. The interrogating officer must convey complete confidence in the suspect’s involvement in the crime. “I know you did this; I just don’t know why you did this?” There can be no doubt in your verbal and non-verbal communication.
Be tenacious. Emphasize how long you have been working the investigation and how many other officers have been involved in the case. Don’t look at your watch or pace around the interrogation room. You have to give the impression that you have endless time to work on the suspect. You are sure about his involvement in the crime, and you’re going to prove it.

Pat McCarthy is a 25-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department. During his career, McCarthy worked patrol, special operations, spent six years on SWAT, three years as a sniper, five years as an undercover gang cop, and 11 years detailed to three separate federal task forces. McCarthy is also the creator of the Street Crimes Training Seminar. He may be reached at

Photos by Mark C. Ide

Published in Law and Order, Jul 2009

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