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Open and Closed Questioning
A police interview has a specific purpose…to elicit information, i.e., evidence. This process is a basic pyramid approach, beginning with open questioning and ending with targeted questioning. An “open” statement begins, “Tell me everything…” A “leading” question is, “Were you carrying a nickel-plated .45?” A “closed” question begins, “What time were you…”
Open questions create a two-way conversation, allowing the interviewee to answer on his terms and take the answers into the conversational direction he prefers. Open questioning is the best indicator of the interviewee’s cooperation. As the interviewee goes through his narrative, the officer is keeping track of things like time lapses and omitted information. These discrepancies will be explored during the closed questioning phase.
Open account interviewing usually begins with, “John, tell me everything…” or “What happened during…” Sometimes the answers to these questions are lengthy, but the interviewee must be allowed to answer without interruption. Interrupting the interviewee clues him in on the remainder of the interview.
If the interviewee is constantly being interrupted, he will expect it and alter his answers according to the anticipated interruption. If the officer reframes from interrupting and uses encouraging statements or actions like, nodding the head in agreement or interjections like “Ah, huh” it would tell the interviewee the officer is listening. This subconsciously asks the interviewee to continue.
Asking a question is not as easy as many may think. The words used in the question asks the interviewee to give information, but the tone of individual words tells the interviewee what the officer is looking for. Tone words work two ways. If the officer asks a question but stresses a particular word or phrase (increasing tone) it tells the interviewee the intentions of the question. If during a question the officer decreases the tone of a particular word, he hopes to shift the focus from that point to another.
“Is it POSSIBLE you were there the night it occurred?” The word “possible” tells the interviewee that the officer knows of a possibility. If used appropriately, it can cause enough stress to expose weakness, but it could give away the officer’s intentions. If done incorrectly the interviewee will know what the officer is seeking and avoid it completely.
Along with tone, the movement of the officer also gives away the objective. If the officer moves toward the interviewee during a particular line, it tells the interviewee what the officer is truly asking. It is important the officer maintains a neutral position, encouraging the interviewee to express the information developed in his head and not something created by the officer.
After open questioning, if the officer thinks the interviewee has expressed limited information, he should start targeting evidence and attacking the omitted information. This is where the officer become more aggressive in his questioning by interjecting known or implied information.
Officer: “When is the last time you were in John’s house?” Suspect: “I don’t remember.” Officer: “Is it POSSIBLE you were there two days ago?”
“What if…” or “Is it possible…” questions are a terrific way to imply there is more to the question than just the words.
“What if the homeowner had a hidden security system in his home?” “Is it possible that an ATM camera caught your car driving by the night the gas station was held up?”
These questions are not stating that there is a security system, but they do offer the possibility. The suspect’s immediate reaction will tell the officer the strength of anxiety this question caused. Implied or possibility questions are endless.
Officers entering an interview must realize it is done from the general to the specific. A well-planned approach is ideal but flexible enough to be altered at a moment’s notice. Knowing the facts or evidence puts the officer at an advantage but can be hampered if presented inappropriately.
Asking questions is truly an art form, one that must be mastered to properly elicit needed information. Officers can give themselves the advantage by implying there is a possibility that omitted information can be detected, found, and used in the investigation.
J.L. Sumpter, MS, is a detective / corporal with the Emmet County Sheriff’s Office and a freelance writer on police interviews and conversation management. He is a national public speaker and can be reached at email@example.com.
Published in Law and Order, Oct 2008
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