By Dylan Kurz
In our society it is common to treat the police as less than intelligent. We laugh at the antics of law enforcement officers when we read of their mishaps in the news media and figure this to be their normative behavior. The only people we think to be stupider than the cops are the criminals they deal with. After all, if a cop can catch you, you must be pretty dumb, or careless, at least! Most of us also tend to believe that if we wanted to commit a crime, we would get away with it scot free. After all, many crimes go unsolved each year, so our chances are pretty good that we could commit a crime and escape punishment. But if the police suspected you'd committed a crime, would you talk to them? And moreover, would you confess, even though there was no way you could be arrested or convicted of the crime, unless you did confess? "Of course not," you'd say. "Why, I'd have to be a complete idiot in order to do something of that nature!" Unfortunately for you, you are wrong. If confronted by police who use sophisticated interrogation techniques, you probably would confess. In fact, you would probably be very happy to do so. Psychological manipulations can do that to you.....
Law enforcement is a sophisticated business, and not quite as filled with the bumbling idiots that the media portray it to be. As in any line of work, there are the usual collection of misfits and those who are merely on the job for the paycheck. Law enforcement techniques have had to evolve over the years, and tried and true systems have evolved with everything the police do. One of the basic problems the police have always had is how to get criminals to confess to the crimes they have committed. Since crimes are usually committed in secret, or with some degree of stealth involved, they can be hard to solve. Contrary to common belief, fingerprints and other types of physical evidence are hard to come by at crime scenes. And witnesses are either not around when the police need them, or have only the bare minimum of information to provide. It's not as if the police deliberately ignore information when it's available; it's just not usually there in the first place. So the police are left with the one piece of evidence that juries love to hear: the confession.
Eliciting confessions from unwilling suspects in the old days used primitive methods. Torture was an approved of practice in many locations, until the supreme court intervened with decisions such as Brown vs. Mississippi, and Chambers vs, Florida. After that, torturing suspects was strictly a no-no. So the police had to find new and interesting ways to make people confess. Polygraphs were new on the scene, and police quickly became enchanted with the idea that they could tell if someone was lying through the use of machines. "Truth serums" and hypnosis had been tried and found lacking. While polygraphs could (and still do) adequately predict when a suspect is being deceptive, the courts view the machines with skepticism. To this day, even failing a polygraph test means virtually nothing in court. In fact, most states do not allow polygraph results to be admitted into evidence. Polygraphs are still used by police departments as investigative tools. Nevertheless, the cost of training personnel in their use and buying the equipment is sometimes prohibitive, particularly for smaller agencies.
But the polygraph brought forth something else the police could use. Polygraphists, or polygraph operators, began noticing that people who were deceptive during their interrogations also exhibited certain behavioral signs. The polygraphists theorized that these same behavioral signs could be noticed in interrogations where a polygraph was not used, and set out to see if this was true. One noted polygraphist, John E. Reid, eventually developed an entire system of interrogation based upon asking suspects questions and watching their reactions. Reid could not just identify those who were deceptive in their answers, but his system also elicited information from those suspects that was eventually used against them to obtain confessions. Today, Reid's system is taught to most modern law enforcement agencies and any private sector company willing to pay the price. Reid is gone now, but his system of interrogation lives on.
Today's methods of interrogation are a fascinating study of the principles of human nature.. Through the years, interrogation techniques such as the Reid have become highly refined and are now used by notables such as the United States Secret Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Its effectiveness is undisputed, and has aided in the resolution of hundreds of thousands of criminal cases. Why it is so effective is another story entirely. The Reid Method and its imitators use advanced psychological techniques in their systems, techniques that appear simple on the surface, but which have been likened to "brainwashing" by criminal defense attorneys.
When the police wanted to question you about a crime in the past, the path the questioning took only went a couple of ways. The police would accuse you of committing the crime, read you your rights, and then try to convince you to confess by telling you all the bad things that could happen to you if you didn't tell the truth. The ,most sophisticated technique brought into play would be the time-honored Good Cop-Bad Cop ploy. However, the more experienced criminals rapidly caught onto these simple tricks of the trade. Most would not confess after experiencing police interrogation, or being told about it. Today's methods are extremely different in both format and application. An interrogator trained in psychological manipulation first talks with the subject a while and attempts to develop rapport prior to initiating any questioning. The interrogator may feign interest in some of the suspect's hobbies or in the suspect's lifestyle. By acting in such a manner, the interrogator leads the suspect to believe that he and the interrogator are similar in many ways.
The first principle involved here is that humans generally tend to like people who are most similar to them in interests and beliefs. Accordingly, this type of interrogator may profess to have Neo-Nazi beliefs if talking with a Skinhead, or to enjoy bass fishing if interrogating a sport fishing enthusiast. Some interrogators go so far as to wear the same brand clothing as the suspect, if that can be determined in advance. The second principle involved is that once the suspect begins talking about any topic, it is harder for the suspect to stop talking about other topics--including crimes he may have committed. The final principle used at this stage is a combination of the first two. Suspects who like their interrogators and feel compelled to talk because they are already within the throes of conversation find it much harder to lie....
The next stage of the operation involves getting a "baseline" of the suspect's normal behavior when asked non-stressful questions. These questions appear to be innocuous on the surface, but are not. The interrogator watches the subject's facial expressions and body language prior to, during and after the suspect answers the question. This is called Kinesic Interviewing. and it gives the interrogator a very good idea of how the suspect acts when he answers questions truthfully. But the technique is even more refined than simply observing mere body movements. The interrogator may even ask questions that will tell him important information about how the suspect's brain works while thinking, or recalling data. This technique is called Neurolinguistic Interviewing and involves asking a suspect two types of questions. One set of questions requires the suspect to remember data, and the other requires the suspect to use his cognitive processes. The interrogator then watches the suspect's body language to determine what type of changes take place when the suspect thinks of information, as opposed to remembering it.
This is of particular importance in knowing whether a suspect is remembering information, such as a truthful alibi, or merely creating such facts in his mind.
The easiest way to demonstrate this technique is to ask a person who is unaware of what you are doing several questions that would involve these thought processes. You should then watch your subject's eyes as the subject either thinks or remembers. When a person thinks of an answer, his eyes will usually move to a certain spot, such as to the left, or straight up. This will vary according to the individual. A good way toelicit this type of response is asking mathematical problems,such as 6x6-3+6=? Since math requires almost pure thought and little memory, a neurolinguistic response to such a question is a good indicator of how a person responds to thinking questions. Next ask a memory-type question, such as what the subject had for dinner the night before. Questions that require the subject to reach further back into his memory are best, as you will get a truer response.
Now compare the responses to both the "thinking' and the "memory" questions. You will probably discover that the subject's eyes went to different locations when each question was asked. It is not uncommon to see a person look to the right to remember something, but look to the left to think. This is thought to be because the brain stores information in a separate area than where the thinking apparatus is located. The eyes are merely an external indicator of how the brain is accessing its information.
The interrogator would later use both thinking and memory-based questions in order to determine if a suspect is being truthful in this manner. The interrogator has a baseline of the subject's behavior , and would ask a question that should involve the suspect in delving into his memory. But if it is apparent that the suspect is using his cognitive processes to "think" of an answer, this would indicate the suspect is not being truthful. This is only one of the tools the trained interrogator has at his disposal.
The interrogator would now move into the next phase of questioning. These questions are more pointed, and would cause a person actually guilty of committing the crime stress to a large degree. These questions serve several purposes:
1. They allow the interrogator to see if the suspect is deceptive or cooperative.
2. They tell the interrogator whether the investigation would be focused upon this suspect or not.
3. If the suspect's answers indicate a guilty knowledge of the crime, they also give the interrogator tools to elicit a confession from the subject.
The theory behind these two questions is twofold. First, innocent people tend to answer questions differently than guilty suspects. Secondly, a guilty suspect will show deceptive body language when asked these questions. However, an innocent person usually will not. An example of the first principle is a question like this:
Joe, you think that(the victim) caused this to happen in any way? Like if she made someone really angry and the guy couldn't help himself?
An innocent person would obviously reject such a premise. However, experience has shown the police that the people who commit crimes will seize upon any excuse to mitigate the reason they committed a crime. Blaming the victim for the crime is a good way of transferring the guilt away from the suspect. If a suspect answers that the victim is to blame, he is scored as being deceptive. An example of the second principle is the person who starts showing deceptive body language while answering questions such as this:
Joe, do you think this crime really happened, or do you think something else is going on? If "Joe" begins licking his lips, fidgeting around, or starts to use "grooming" gestures (brushing his hair, adjusting his clothes, etc.) he would be considered to be acting deceptively. This is especially true if these are not "Joe's" normal body language when answering questions. And obviously, if the police are asking questions, the crime happened, but suspects often state they believe the crime under investigation didn't occur.
Another question that would be evaluated by the interrogator is:
Joe, do you think whoever did this deserves a second chance?
While an honest person would reject this, a guilty suspect would not. He would probably show deceptive body language and say something like, "Everyone deserves a second chance."
By combining principles number one and number two, interrogators are able to judge a suspect's honesty accurately. Principle number three merely requires that the interrogator look at the answers given by the suspect and see if there is a recurring theme to them. For example, if the subject shows a propensity to blame his crime on someone else, or states that the crime was probably a mistake, these themes will be used later on. The suspect has shown that he is susceptible to such themes. If the suspect scores out as being honest, the questioning is usually over with, and the person is no longer considered a suspect. But if he scores out as being deceptive, the interrogation will continue. Now the interrogation will take a new tone.
The interrogator will read Miranda Warnings if required, then excuse himself and leave the room for about five minutes. While out of the room, the interrogator will put the suspect's name on a folder and place meaningless documents in it. In our society, we equate file folders with important facts. In this case, it will serve to imply that the investigator has a lot of evidence against the suspect. The interrogator will review the themes he wants to use and then reenter the interrogation room. The interrogator will now use a Confrontational Statement, and accuse the suspect of committing the crime. When doing so, the interrogator will modify his body language to show dominance and confidence to the suspect. The interrogator enters the room and stands with his arm about twelve inches apart, holding the file folder so that the suspect can see his name upon it. The interrogator will assume a wide stance, with his legs placed about shoulder width apart. The arms/hands will show the suspect that the interrogator is being honest, and the legs show dominance, or control of the interrogation. The interrogator will then state:
Joe, our investigation clearly shows you did do this thing, and I'd like to talk to you about it. Will you talk to me?
If the suspect agrees to talk at this point, he has waived the right to remain silent and to counsel Not only that, but some suspects become so demoralized that they actually faint when given the Confrontational Statement. Most do not even bother to deny they are guilty at this point. The interrogator then moves into Theme Development, the stage that defense attorneys claim is brainwashing.
In theme development, the interrogator selects a theme such as claming the victim for the crime and repeats it over and over. Theme Development may go on literally for hours, with the interrogator droning on an on about the reasons he "believes" the suspect committed the crime. The interrogator will speak in a soft, soothing voice, and will move closer to the suspect as rapport is further established. Here is a typical example of Theme Development:
Joe, you appear to be a good guy, so let me say this: If I didn't think you had a weak moment when you did this, I wouldn't talk to you. Joe, this was just a mistake on your part. You didn't intend to do this, but you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and your anger got the best of you. It's nothing more than that. Joe,, we've all had our weak moments--we all have. Joe, the important thing is that you learn your lesson from this and go on....
If "Joe" appears to be listening to the interrogator, the interrogator will know he is on the right track. He has found a theme that Joe likes, or an "acceptable" reason Joe believes will save his face. If Joe does not appear to accept this theme, the interrogator will move into another one until he finds an acceptable theme.
During Theme Development, only the interrogator is allowed to speak. The suspect is not allowed to speak, or is discouraged from doing so. This is because if the subject is allowed to make too many denials, he will grow psychologically stronger and be much harder to get a confession from.
This is how it's done. If ""Joe"' starts to talk or show signs that he wishes to speak, the interrogator will say something like, Joe, it's important that you listen to me right now. I'll let you talk later, but right now, you have to listen to me. This technique also stops many suspects from invoking their constitutional rights. The interrogation will then go back into Theme Development. If Joe succeeds in making an objection, it will be used against him psychologically. Suppose "Joe" is suspected of killing his wife with a gun. "Joe" may say something like this: Listen, I couldn't have done it. I don't even own a gun.... Rather than argue the merits of "Joe's" objection, the interrogator will sidestep the issue and turn it against Joe by saying something like this:
Joe, I'm glad you told me that, because it tells me something about you. Joe, this tells me that this was a crime of the moment, that you didn't plan it out. Joe, a man who plans out a crime like this would go out and buy a gun weeks before he did it. But you didn't do that, Joe. I'm not concerned about the gun, only that I can prove you aren't the evil guy some would want to portray you as. Joe, I believe you didn't plan this out and I'm glad you told me so....
The interrogator has not gained a new theme to use against "Joe" and give him further reason to confess/ The interrogator will continue to evaluate "Joe's" body language. Once "Joe" shows that he is losing confidence, the interrogator will start to move into the next stage. The lack of confidence will be shown in "Joe's" head bowing and in "Joe" leaning forward in defeat. Suspects will often place their heads in their hands, with their elbows placed on their legs. This is called the Surrender Position.
If "Joe" shows signs of surrender, the interrogator will use a technique called the Alternative Question. The Alternative Question gives "Joe" a choice between two reasons for committing the crime. One reason is "socially unacceptable," and should be rejected by Joe. But the other choice incorporates the theme "Joe" liked best in it. Here is an example:
Joe, did you kill your wife because you lost control when you found out she was unfaithful to you, or did you do it because you wanted the insurance money? Joe, I think it's because you lost control. That's it, isn't it, Joe? You lost control, like any man would have. That's it, isn't it, Joe? It's only one or the other. You lost control, didn't you, Joe?
The investigator will have moved extremely close to "Joe" at this point,, and will likely be touching him on the arm or shoulder--making it harder for "Joe" to lie. The closer "Joe" allows the interrogator, the more likely he will confess. At this point, "Joe" will either agree to the more acceptable reason or reject the Alternative Question. If he rejects it, the interrogator merely goes back into Theme Development and begins wearing "Joe" down again. If "Joe" accepts the Alternative Question, the interrogator will immediately ask "Joe" for some detail about the crime. Once this is obtained, the interrogator will leave the room briefly and return with a second interrogator. The first interrogator will introduce the second interrogator to "Joe" and state to the second interrogator these words:
This is Joe. He wanted you to know that the reason he did this is because he found out his wife was cheating on him, and he lost control. He didn't plan for it to happen."
The second interrogator will ask one question only: Is that the truth, Joe?
After "Joe" says that he didn't plan the act and that it was a mistake, the second interrogator will depart. Why? It's simple. By bringing a second interrogator into the process, "Joe's" apprehension and psychological pressure are increased. It is hard for "Joe" to confess to just one person, much less two. But he will defend his new-found theme of the crime being a mistake. After the second interrogator departs, it is suddenly much easier for "Joe" to talk to his "friend," the first interrogator. The first interrogator will then obtain a full confession from "Joe" with ease. "Joe" will be happy to cooperate now, as confessing will provide release from the psychological pressure that the interrogator as provided during the interrogation. Once "Joe" confesses, the interrogator will thank him for doing so and assure him that he has done the right thing.
This method of interrogation has proven enormously successful. It is not unusual for suspects to be interrogated by interrogators using this method several times over the years, and still confess each time. This includes even the most hardened felons imaginable. Even police officers trained in these techniques have been successfully interrogated with. However, the psychological forces brought into play by this method have been attacked by civil libertarians. The defense attorneys involved often claim that interrogators are using "Nazi brainwashing techniques" in order to coerce their clients into confessing. Opponents of these techniques point out that the soft, soothing voice the interrogator uses in applying the technique can be hypnotic. Also, the fact that the suspect isn't allowed to speak other than to confess is viewed as especially alarming. Other factors cited are the invasion of personal body space by the interrogator and the touching of the suspect to build rapport. Some judges have agreed with the critics of these methods, though not many.
As you can see, the interrogator who utilizes these methods has a highly structured plan going into the interrogation. These techniques can be taught to virtually anyone. Even ordinary police officers are taught to use them in everyday police work. This is especially alarming to critics of modern-day interrogation techniques who know that a confession is the hardest evidence to beat in court. Are these techniques inherently coercive? Perhaps they are, but they have also proven to be highly effective against the criminal population. It is unlikely that they will be outlawed. Nor will they be modified ton please a small segment of the legal profession made up almost entirely of defense attorneys. You should not be concerned about the coerciveness of these techniques. You should be worried that they will be used against you one day, though.
Dylan Kurtz is a veteran law enforcement officer and author
of Beating the Police Interrogation.