In my last semester of college, I took an interview and interrogation class with retired FBI Special Agent Eldon Mueller, who was head and shoulders above every other teacher/instructor I’d had in life so far, so he always had my attention. He was as much a mentor as a teacher.
At this time in my life, I was happy to be in his class on interview and interrogation. This was my last semester in college and I was a full-time officer by night and a student by day. During my night job, I had no trouble catching criminals but was having a great deal of trouble getting statements from them. I did not know it at the time, but I was continually thwarted by my own attitude toward getting statements. I went into interviews believing getting statements were an impossible task. After all, I reasoned, “Why would anyone want to admit guilt, when it is against their better interests?” That thinking was counter-productive and it served as a barrier to my early success.
One day in class Eldon Mueller declared, “If I had only one interrogation technique to use, this would be it because it works!” I always listened to Mr. Mueller, but even so, I sat straight up and listened even more intently.
Mr. Mueller said the proper groundwork had to be set before beginning the interview. Treat those you interview with dignity and respect throughout the contact. You need to do what is necessary to take them into custody legally, while keeping yourself safe, but then:
- Once again, always treat them with dignity and respect.
- Make sure you gather the evidence in the search incident to arrest, that which is on them and within the lunge area.
- Make sure you keep them separated from accomplices.
- Take them to a prepared interview room with a stack of statement forms and waiver forms.
- Go through the rights waiver form and get a waiver signed before continuing, without threats or promises. (These days you will most probably record this exchange.)
- Build rapport. (This is a personal add-on. I would offer to buy them a soda, “We only have Coke or Pepsi.” They will most likely have a preference. Whichever one they chose I would get one myself also and engage in a light conversation about the shared preference.)
- Know what you know and know what you don’t know but need to know about the case.
The one technique
After you are relatively certain you have the perpetrator, but they hesitate to release the floodgates, are holding back the truth, or even are lying to you, pause thoughtfully. When you begin the exchange again tell them:
“Picture yourself as the judge. You are up on that bench in your robes and two people are brought before you. One says, ‘I had nothing to do with this. This is absolute BS. I was railroaded, harassed, framed and they can’t prove a damned thing!'”
(At this point you can even throw in an appropriate identifiable quote that the suspect used in their denial, at some time during your interview.)
“Now later in the day you are still the judge and you have another person brought before you charged with the same offense except, they say, ‘Your honor, I made a mistake here and know there is no excuse for what I have done, but I want to make it right by first accepting responsibility for my actions. These bad choices I have made were my choices and I want to say that I am very sorry for those who have been hurt by my bad choices. I believe that the first step toward making amends is to admit what I have done.'”
“Now as the judge, you have to sentence these two people, who are both guilty of the same offense, which they are accused of. Which one of these individuals is deserving of your mercy and which one will you punish to the full extent of the law?”
Let them answer, or even just quietly sit and contemplate this.
After an appropriate pause, continue with your interview.
With two suspects
To add on to the preliminaries, if there are two suspects who both perpetrated the offense, leave them both alone for a bit and then enter the room and grab one of the rights waiver forms. Let them sit alone a bit more and return to grab some statement forms and leave again. Don’t give them any explanation, just take the forms and leave them to sit. They will eventually draw the conclusion their buddy is talking.
Over the years as I watched masters at work and then attended training in the specific skill of interview and interrogation, I was able to develop my own skills as an interviewer/interrogator. Throughout my entire career, when I made an arrest, I would always view the situation as “My arrest is my investigation,” and I would strive to get as much information out of my suspect as possible before I turned them over to any investigator. The more training that I got along the way, as well as obtaining more practical experience with interviews, the better I got at getting crucial information.
However, in my very early years as a police officer, when I was long on desire, but short on experience and skills, this one tool gifted to me from my instructor retired FBI Special Agent Eldon Mueller served me well time and time again.
And now I am gifting it to you. Do you think it will work? Try it sometime and let your suspects be the judge.
NEXT: Interviews & interrogations: The delicate process of extracting information