Hey Officer! Do You Hear Me?

by Ted Belling


  Our whole lives we have engaged in countless conversations with other people. We talk about an infinite combination of topics; sports with friends; arguments with spouses; telling jokes; visiting with family, etc. The question is do we really listen to what they are saying to us? During the course of polite conversation, we allow the other person to respond as he wants. We accept it or ask further questions to clarify, but we rarely overtly challenge the response. If the person wants to blurt everything out at once, tell a lot of extraneous information, deceive, change the subject, or filibuster, we allow them to do so and move on in the conversation. If you as a police officer want to be successful at interviewing someone, you need to train your mind to focus and really listen to what is being said. You also need to direct the flow of information so that you get useful information in a timely manner.

  I have watched numerous officers, new and veteran, ask people questions. They get responses that don’t even come close to answering the questions. The officer makes no attempt to follow up and get a useful answer. The officer just pushes on to the next question. The person, again, does not answer the question, but starts complaining about something else unrelated. The conversation continues like this until the officer exhausts his questions. The officer then comes to the conclusion that the person doesn’t know anything about the subject of the questions. If you have done any police work at all, you know exactly what I am talking about. The reality is the person knew everything about it, but the officer did not truly listen to the answers and realize the person was evading giving answers.

  I am not going to delve deeply into interview and interrogation techniques or the interpretation of body language (kinesics). There are many people far more qualified than me that teach these. I do, however, want to touch on improving basic skills to enhance the quality and amount of information you are able to obtain during questioning, especially in the field.

  There is an art to talking with people. You have to control the conversation or you will not get the information you need. Too much or improper control, however, could anger the person and shut them down. If this happens, you are probably done. The only way to save the interview is to let another officer question the person. Too little control and the person could talk about anything and everything unrelated to the incident. Remember, the person you are talking to may have little or no clue of what information is important to you. Everything to him is important. He may be desperate to tell you all he knows immediately and as quickly as possible.  He does not know about the elements of a crime. The necessity to relay specific information to other officers who may have a suspect or are searching for one are not considered. He certainly does not care about the requirements of the district attorney or judge. You, however, do have to care about these things and must keep him focused on answering your questions in the manner and sequence you require. The simplest way to do this is just explain to them what you need. “Sir, I know that you have a lot of information you want to tell me. I, however, need to get some information out to the officers.” Officers are used to being in control by authority and not having to explain themselves to people on the street. It is hard for some officers to do this simple thing. I don’t think it is deliberate. They just do not think to approach it in that manner. The person you are questioning may not be the victim, but a witness, the suspect, or an associate of the suspect. He may not have any incentive to cooperate or tell you the truth. You will have to figure that out by means including the responses to your questions.

 Interviewing someone requires confidence on your part and a certain level of comfort at answering questions on the interviewee’s part. If someone is an upset victim or a nervous suspect, one of the easiest ways to get them comfortable is to ask several warm up questions that have little or no relationship to the incident and are easy to answer. Ask the person questions like what school they went to. Talk about sports. Ask perfunctory questions like their name, address, date of birth, etc. If you read the person their Miranda rights, this also puts some time distance between the reading and the beginning of questions that elicit incriminating statements. If you read someone their Miranda rights and immediately ask him accusatory questions there will be a high likelihood that the person will invoke his rights. If you talk about mundane things after the reading, the person will get used to answering you. The more time there is between the reading and the beginning of the questions that may have incriminating answers the more likely the person will answer them.

  You need to listen to what and how the person answers you during the questioning. Does he give you a direct and complete answer, or a partial one? Does he qualify his answer? Does he answer questions that require a “yes” or “no” answer with anything other than these answers? Does he give you an answer that is illogical? Does he answer a question with a question? Is there time or other gaps in the answer?

  Questioning a person that gives partial answers can be the most irritating type of interview. The phrase, “Getting information out of him is like pulling teeth” describes this type of person. You may be forced to ask numerous follow-up questions before you finally get a complete answer to your initial question. This is usually done as a stalling technique or is deliberately done to annoy the officer. Often times, officers give up in frustration. Say or do what you need to get the person to give more complete answers. With this person, you will not lose anything by trying.

  Questioning a person that qualifies an answer is attempting to give an answer that is only true if certain criterion is met.  This is an ambiguous answer designed to avoid a definitive response. Listen for words like “if” or “but” in the answer. “If she says I was at her house, then I was there”. The person may also use words like “might” or “could” to express a possibility. This is neither an admission nor denial.

  Asking questions that require a “yes” or a “no” is about the easiest way to test someone’s veracity. The answer is unequivocal. There is no parsing of words. No looking for hidden meaning. If you ask this type of question and you get an answer other than a “yes” or “no”, the person is probably lying to you.

  Illogical or rambling nonsensical answers are the worst form of evasion. The person is usually nervous and is having a difficult time balancing his thoughts between your questions, the truth, and the version of the story he wants to give. The answer comes out with no structure or flow. It is confusing and erratic. Often times playing on his guilty conscience will get you a confession.

  Continuity and information gaps detected during questioning should always be of concern. There are three reasons for gaps. The person forgot. He did not think it was relevant. He did not want you to know that information. I deal with these by walking the person through everything they did starting many hours before the incident. I then lead them up through and beyond the incident. I call this “baby stepping” them through their day. Once you have the person account for every minute, then it makes it very difficult for them to go back and modify the order of events. They will try, but it will be very obvious, and gives you something to attack their credibility with.

  Filibustering is both a diversionary and a stalling tactic. After asking a question, the person goes into a long story about something completely unrelated to the subject at hand. Often the story is about how the person was treated unfairly by police in the past. When you try and stop them and get them back onto the subject of your inquiry, the person frequently becomes a little angry hoping you will let them continue. The person is just trying to buy time and avoiding talking about the subject. Victims and unassociated witnesses rarely do this.

  A very common response to watch for is someone that answers questions with questions. This person is not sure how much you know about the incident and is trying to find out. He wants to lie to you, but he does not want to be obvious about it. He may also be trying to keep his lies consistent with what other people have said to you. You are the one asking questions. Limit your answers of his questions to information that helps you and your interview, not him.

  Virtually every police officer has talked to someone that absolutely will not give a straight answer to a question. I have talked to people that will not give a correct answer to innocuous questions like their height and hair color. They are so used to lying and deceiving that out of habit they evade every question. I think the head slap was actually invented for people like this. Always remember when interviewing anyone, and especially this type of person, you will get some useful information.

  Counter-accusations often happen when a person begins feeling very defensive. He does this to shift the felt level of power away from you to himself. This also serves to put you on the defensive, shake your confidence, and disrupt the flow of questioning. Look for this to happen when questioning gets close to exposing his guilt. Do not get side-tracked into talking about the counter-accusations. Keep him on the subject at hand and continue with your questions.

  Limit asking questions in such a manner as to suggest an alternate answer to the one you were looking for. Verbalizing the suggestion greatly increases the chance the person will take it. This goes hand-in-hand with asking permission to do something (consent to search, consent to enter, etc) in such a manner as giving them permission to say, "no". An example of this is: I would like to come in a visit with you a minute, but you don't have to let me if you don't want to? That is the same as giving permission to lie or say "no" to you. If the person wants to give an alternate answer, let him do so without your help.

  You as a police officer need to learn to focus and really listen to what you are being told. You also need to control the conversation and insist on an answer that is factually pertinent. Be skeptical and discerning. Patience is a virtue. Also, be methodical and thorough. With well developed skills, you will be amazed at the level of information you will obtain. You may even get a confession without the person knowing he actually did confess. I have interviewed several people that ducked and dodged, denied and lied, all the way through an interview. They did not realize that although they might not have made a declaratory admission of guilt, there answers eliminated any other possibility.    

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