Investigations | Section 6.1

Fundamentals of Criminal Investigation by Adam J. McKee

Section 6.1: Interviews and Interrogations

Contrary to the Hollywood impression of how criminal investigations work, investigators solve more crimes than scientists.  They do so not with forensic evidence, but for the decidedly low-tech reason that “somebody talked.” Witnesses, victims, accomplices, and sometimes even the criminals themselves provide testimonial evidence that “cracks” a case.  Despite this long-standing relationship between interviewing skills and case resolution, the law enforcement community has done a poor job of training officers in the science (some would say art) of interviews and interrogations. Perhaps the cause of this widespread failure to teach officers one of the most valuable skills that they can possess is the enduring myth that getting people to talk requires some sort of innate ability, similar to the “gift of gab.”  

While it is likely that some officers possess better instinctive communication skills than others, rest assured that the basic skills necessary to conduct successful interviews and interrogations can be learned.  Other myths stand in the way of successful interviewing, such as the stereotypical no-nonsense detective that demands “just the facts, Ma’am.” Demanding “just the facts” would be convenient for the investigator that is pressed for time, but that simply is not how interpersonal communication works in the real world.  Some upstanding citizens will provide information even if an officer seems aloof or officious, but people like that don’t often have information about criminal activity. If we view an interview as a “conversation with a purpose,” then the need to treat people as people quickly becomes evident.

Interview Structure

Since no two people are exactly the same, no two interviews (or interrogations) will ever be exactly the same.  Even so, there are some generic steps that can provide a framework for conducting interviews that consistently provide a high probability of obtaining information that is useful to an investigation.   

Preparation.  Preparing for an interview maximizes the effectiveness of witness participation and interviewer efficiency.  Prior to conducting the interview, the investigator should: Review available information. Plan to conduct the interview as soon as the witness is physically and emotionally capable.  Select an environment that minimizes distractions while maintaining the comfort level of the witness. Ensure resources are available (e.g., notepad, tape recorder, camcorder, interview room).  Separate the witnesses. Determine the nature of the witness’ prior law enforcement contact.

Performing the above pre-interview preparations will enable the investigator to elicit a greater amount of accurate information during the interview, which may be critical to the investigation.

Introduction.  A comfortable witness provides more information.  On meeting with the witness but prior to beginning the interview, the investigator should attempt to develop a rapport with the witness.  It may be a good idea to inquire about the nature of the witness’ prior law enforcement contact related to the incident. It is almost never a good idea to volunteer specific information about the current suspect or case. 

Establishing a cooperative relationship with the witness likely will result in an interview that yields a greater amount of accurate information.  When introducing yourself to a victim, witness, or suspect, be sure to follow the rules of basic etiquette. There is a lot of truth to the old adage, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.”  It is important to remember, however,the difference between being polite and friendly and being subservient and meek.

At this stage, you want to create an atmosphere where it is psychologically easier to cooperate than it is to not cooperate.  It is important to not give an interviewee an “easy out” by asking them if they “want to talk.” Subtle changes in your word choice can have huge impact on people’s psychological state.  Don’t make a plea, make a statement. “We need to talk because…” is much more powerful than “I’d like to ask you a few questions about last night.”

Establishing rapport.  The idea of rapport is rather difficult to define, and most people will use words like empathy, liking, or comfort when they try.  In everyday social situations, when two people establish a rapport, we say they “hit it off.”  The basic idea is a state of harmony between two people where conversation comes easily and spontaneously.  This can be difficult when two people are decidedly different. It is especially difficult when an officer is trying to establish rapport with an individual that is uncomfortable or wary about talking to a cop in general, and about recent crime specifically.  

Even when a witness is cooperative, the need to establish rapport is not eliminated.  Being interviewed by an officer tends to induce anxiety in everyone, and that coupled with the potential trauma of being a victim or witness to a crime can be overwhelming to many.  Regardless of the person being interviewed, it is up to the investigator to establish rapport.

One of the quickest ways to destroy rapport with anyone is to appear insincere.  This should be somewhat obvious in normal social situations, but when it comes to cops dealing with criminals, the appearance of sincerity is what is important.  If the interviewee decides that the investigator is trying to “play” them, then much damage has been done.  Flattery is certainly a valuable tool in building rapport, but it has to be done in a way that is actually flattering to the person, and it  must seem sincere. What a person finds flattering is highly individualistic, so there is no magic formula that can be applied in every situation.  

Questions.  Interview techniques can facilitate witness memory and encourage communication both during and following the interview.  Encourage the witness to volunteer information without prompting. Encourage the witness to report all details, even if they seem trivial.  Ask open-ended questions (e.g., “What can you tell me about the car?”); augment with closed-ended, specific questions (e.g., “What color was the car?”).  Avoid leading questions (e.g., “Was the car red?”). Caution the witness not to guess. Ask the witness to mentally recreate the circumstances of the event (e.g., “Think about your feelings at the time”).  

Encourage nonverbal communication (e.g., drawings, gestures, objects).  Avoid interrupting the witness. Encourage the witness to contact investigators when additional information is recalled.  Instruct the witness to avoid discussing details of the incident with other potential witnesses. Encourage the witness to avoid contact with the media or exposure to media accounts concerning the incident.  Thank the witness for his/her cooperation. Information elicited from the witness during the interview may provide investigative leads and other essential facts. The above interview procedures will enable the witness to provide the most accurate, complete description of the event and encourage the witness to report later recollections.  Witnesses commonly recall additional information after the interview that may be critical to the investigation.

The record of the witness’ statements accurately and completely reflects all information obtained and preserves the integrity of this evidence.  During or as soon as reasonably possible after the interview, the investigator should: Document the witness’ statements (e.g., audio or video recording, stenographer’s documentation, witness’ written statement, written summary using witness’ own words).  Review written documentation; ask the witness if there is anything he/she wishes to change, add, or emphasize. Complete and accurate documentation of the witness’ statement is essential to the integrity and success of the investigation and any subsequent court proceedings.

Assessing Accuracy

Point-by-point consideration of a statement may enable judgment on which components of the statement are most accurate.  This is necessary because each piece of information recalled by the witness may be remembered independently of other elements.

After conducting the interview, the investigator should:  Consider each individual component of the witness’ statement separately.  Review each element of the witness’ statement in the context of the entire statement.  Look for inconsistencies within the statement. Review each element of the statement in the context of evidence known to the investigator from other sources (e.g., other witnesses’ statements, physical evidence).

Point-by-point consideration of the accuracy of each element of a witness’ statement can assist in focusing the investigation.  This technique avoids the common misconception that the accuracy of an individual element of a witness’ description predicts the accuracy of another element.

The witness may remember and provide additional information after the interview has concluded.  During post-interview, follow-up contact with the witness, the investigator should enhance rapport with the witness and ask the witness if he/she has recalled any additional information.  It is important not to provide information from other sources.

Reestablishing contact and rapport with the witness often leads to the recovery of additional information.  Maintaining open communication channels with the witness throughout the investigation is critical.

Detecting Deception

Just like most people will tell you that they are an above average driver, most people will tell you that they are a good judge of character.  We all like to think that we can “read people” and determine when someone is lying to us. The truth is that we aren’t very good at determining when someone is being deceptive, especially when a witness or suspect is a good liar.  There are some tested methods, however, that can provide some evidence as to the truthfulness of statements made during interviews and interrogations.

Some officers can naturally “sense” the “symptoms” of a lie, and will tell you that they have a “gut feeling” that a suspect is lying.  In reality, there is no sixth sense at work. They are observing the verbal and physical cues that interviewees give off when they are being deceptive.  With training, all officers can learn to recognize those symptoms, articulate them, and thus become something of a “human polygraph.”

Verbal Cues

When most people think of trying to detect deception in the statements of another person, they immagine “catching them in a lie.” By that, we usually mean that some alleged fact is a contradiction of some other alleged fact such that the two statements cannot both be an honest report of reality.  Unfortunately, many criminals are really good liars, and good liars seldom contradict themselves. Contradictions, however, are only one type of verbal cue.  Good investigators will learn to be alert for several different verbal cues.  

When people are answering questions about objective reality, certain parts of their brains are working.  If you ask someone what they had for breakfast, they activate the part of the brain that holds those memories, and then translate those memories into words that form a statement.  When someone is lying, they are using totally different mental processes that rely on totally different sections of the brain. When someone is lying, the are not remembering past experiences, but rather they are creating a narrative.  This means that a fabricated story will be constructed differently than a recounted truth, and the way events are described will be different.

Just as the laboratory needs a control sample to provide a “baseline” for comparison for a forensic sample, the interviewer needs a “baseline” of a person’s behavior when they are telling the truth.  To detect deception, the interviewer is looking for changes from the baseline behavior. This means that good interviewers have to be good multitaskers. During the rapport building phase of the interview, the interviewer is not only building rapport, but carefully observing the behavior of the interviewee when answering questions about things that already have known answers.   

If a suspect knows that they are going to be interviewed about an incident, the chances are they he or she will contrive a story and mentally practice telling the story.  Listening is the key to detecting the fabrication. It is important to really listen to what is said, and to what is not said. Obviously, a rehearsed story will sound better than a story created in an instant to respond to an unexpected question.  Thus, asking unexpected questions will tend to unnerve a liar and cause a detectable change in their demeanor. Simply put, unexpected questions vex deceivers, and they will telegraph that irritation.

A strategy to take advantage of this fact is to ask about a particular detail that wouldn’t likely rehearsed.  The question should relate to what the suspect as said; it should make sense in the context. If those two conditions are met, then the suspect will likely respond quite differently than an honest person would under the circumstances.

Honest people may suffer from confusion, and they may not recall details that investigators wish they could, but an honest person will almost never change their story.  If a suspect commits to a particular version of a story, a clever investigator can “trap” the suspect by chipping away elements of a fabricated account. While an honest person will get annoyed or confused when what they know to be true is challenged, a liar may well change his account to reflect the new information provided by the interviewer.  

Nonverbal Cues

The human central nervous system is designed to deal with danger much more quickly than the “thinking” part of our brain can.  When danger is perceived in our environment, a cascade of profound changes occur in the human body. This is often referred to as the fight or flight response.  It is important to realize that the primitive part of the nervous system that controls this response does not really understand the difference between actual physical danger and a stressful situation.  

A stressful situation–whether something environmental, such as becoming a crime victim, or psychological, such as persistent worry about going to jail–can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that produce physiological changes. A stressful incident can make the heart pound and breathing quicken. Muscles tense and beads of sweat appear.  For most people, lying is very stressful. A potential problem for investigators is that being involved in a crime and being interviewed by police is also very stressful. That is why establishing a baseline is of such great importance. To detect deception, the investigator isn’t merely looking for a stress response. The true “tell” is a change in the stress response when moving from truthful statements to lies.    


In court, a cross-examination is the grilling of a witness to bring out the truth for the jury.  In the interrogation room, there is no jury to ascertain the truth, so cross-examination techniques do you no good.  In other words, cross-examinations don’t lead to confessions. A confrontational strategy (what I call the “drill sergeant routine”) based on bombarding the interviewee with questions isn’t very likely to be successful with the vast majority of criminal suspects.  

Just as with interviews, we can outline a series of steps that have a good chance of leading to a an admission or a confession.

The accusation.  It may seem counter to common sense, but the first step in a true interrogation (after rapport has been built) is to directly accuse the suspect of the crime.  

Modification History

File Created:  05/02/2019

Last Modified:  04/30/2021

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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