What do you sell to a suspect that they don’t want… when trying to determine the truth?

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Getting to The Truth Years ago, when I was a Detective, I attended an advanced criminal investigations course taught by the FBI. The FBI Agent who was teaching the course told all the students, of which many of who were seasoned police veterans already, that by the end of the course, he would expose us to a money-making opportunity that only we, as seasoned law enforcement and investigative professionals, could capitalize upon.

Needless to say, we were all chomping at the bit, wondering what this fantastic money-making opportunity was all about. We were quite honestly dumbfounded. Yet being skeptical jaded people that we all are, we were also wondering at the same time whether this agent was just selling us a bill of goods.

As the final day of class came around, the moment of truth finally came upon the Agent to expose this opportunity of a lifetime. The Agent finally asked us if we all figured out what was it that we were so good at, that would enable us to make so much money in our retirement years? We were all still clueless as to what he was talking about.

But then he asked us, “as Detectives, what do you do in your day-to-day jobs?” Some of us responded, by explaining how we investigative, how we write reports and or testify. Yes, but the answer was much simpler than just that. The fact of the matter is that much of what we do, beyond our investigative responsibilities, is we talk to people, be they witnesses, victims, or suspects. In other words, we conduct interviews.

Selling Them Something They Don’t Want The next question the Agent then asked us was, in the course of conducting our interviews, what is the end goal that we attempt to achieve? Many of us responded this time by explaining how we try to attain the facts, corroborate information, elicit  confessions.

Some of us, present company included, flat out said, “we try to get to the truth.” Aaaah, that last response then resulted in yet one final question that was asked by the Agent, which was, “when interviewing a suspect, how is it that you go about eliciting the truth?” Beyond the responses we already gave, many of us looked at each other to try and figure out the correct answer. That’s when the Agent said, “you sell something to people that they don’t want or don’t need. You sell jail time.”

That analogy that was afforded to us floored me. On the surface, it really appears crude, but in many respects, it is very true and akin to the old saying regarding talented salespeople, which is that, any good salesperson can sell ice to an Eskimo. The fact of the matter is that being a good forensic interviewer requires not only effective training, but an adeptness and skill in human relations and communication.

One also needs to possess a basic level of self-confidence when speaking to others, as well as the ability to empathize with them and their life circumstances. However, a professional interviewer does not have to be a gregarious outgoing extrovert, who is the stereotypical social bug and or life of every party. More than that, the last thing anyone should aspire to in this field is to come off like a pushy used car salesman, who most people have an aversion to dealing with to begin with.

Yet, one cannot be an introvert, because this personality trait fails to exhume the basic level of confidence that is needed in order to be proficient at conducting forensic interviews. Priority # 1 in any forensic interview is not to simply elicit a confession, but to establish the truth. Sometimes that also entails clearing someone of any suspected wrongdoing. Regardless, the strategy and tactics utilized to obtain the truth from a deceptive individual represents nothing more than a carefully crafted mental chess game played between you and your opponent (the interviewee).

To add to that, before embarking upon this field of mental battle, prior to any interview that is anticipated to turn into an interrogation, conducting an effective background of the subject beforehand is a must. On must attempt to not only get to know their subject, but also determine a subject’s motives in a crime, either by way of collecting direct evidence, or healthy speculation. The latter can be developed by connecting certain dots which may entail a subject’s historical background, coupled with their actions and behaviors in the case.

In other words, don’t ever start an interview if you are unprepared. For a police officer who is on the street, that luxury is restricted to verifying someone’s ID, determining if they have any wants and warrants, and comparing stories between the interviewee and any other party who may be in their presence. Otherwise, do your homework on your interviewee.

The Best Part of the Job The art of forensic interviewing is hands down, the best part of being a professional investigator, whether one is a sworn law enforcement officer, a private sector corporate investigator, private investigator, or in general, any type of fraud examiner. When I was in law enforcement, too often I would work with other Detectives who were not confident in their interviewing skills, which led to their constant paranoia of being sued for eliciting a false confession.

Hence the reason some Detectives I worked with would unfortunately got out of their way to over mirandize a suspect (several times). They would do this in the hopes that the suspect would invoke their right to speak to an attorney, which would basically let the Detective off the proverbial hook when it came to interviewing the subject.

That would always get under my skin, not because I advocated skirting the law in giving someone their miranda rights. No, not at all. It’s because at the end of the day, this is what we are trained and paid to do. Otherwise, you are wasting taxpayers’ money. I would also venture to say that although in the public sector, as the FBI Agent I noted who explained how the proficient law enforcement interviewer is in many respects selling jail time, the private sector investigator, who is tasked to interview crooked employees, is selling employees something even worst and more fearful. What they’re selling under these circumstances is the idea of getting fired, coupled at times with jail time as well.

As such, their job is in some respects even more challenging when it comes to eliciting a confession, because losing employment, is just as, or more nerve wracking than potential jail time. At least with the latter, the justice system drags things out, as one takes their chances hoping that due process and their legal advocate will secure them a good plea offer absent of any jail time. Do You Have What it Takes? Conducting interrogations takes fortitude, confidence, as well as respect and adherence to one’s ethical obligations in not violating an interviewee’s rights. Much like when I was a rookie police officer, the very first motor vehicle stop I did in the presence of my field training officer, was nerve wracking.

The public takes for granted the power and level of authority a police officer has even with conducting a routine traffic stop, where an officer is temporarily depriving you of your liberty. In saying that, don’t think for one moment, that self-confidence doesn’t play into that. One way or another, the intangible satisfaction of eliciting a confession from a suspect who ends up telling you something they wouldn’t even tell their own mother, is what every investigator strives for.

It serves as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, as the confession (if done right), places the last piece of the puzzle together for the investigator to make a complete picture. If they told me I could no longer interview suspects, but I could still keep my badge and gun, I would have left the job on the spot. Kicking down doors as you want and locking up bad guys is fun. But nothing beats winning a mental game of interview and interrogation chess with a bad guy.

But let’s not forget, there is a real and negative consequence to your successful interrogations that impacts your subject. Despite this, empathizing with an individual’s situation is perfectly acceptable under the circumstances. But sympathizing and not being able to accept the fact that your forensic skills are being used to ultimately incarcerate and or fire someone, is simply proof that this line of work may really not be right for you.

Bruno Pavlicek, Phd, CFE, CFI, retired from law enforcement after 10 years of service between the Millburn Police Department and Morris County Prosecutor's office in New Jersey. He began his career as a uniformed police officer and then joined the Prosecutor's Office as a Detective where he served in the Grand Jury Unit, Financial Crimes Unit, and Special Victims Unit, Firearms Unit as an instructor, as well as the DEA Narcotics Task Force. Bruno holds a doctoral degree in psychology and currently serves in the private sector as a senior corporate security investigator. He also teaches for Southern New Hampshire University's Criminal Justice Department as well as Kennesaw State University.
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