Note: The following are guidelines based upon legal precedent and experience. However, as always, follow your own department’s policies and procedures.
The most devastating evidence possible in any criminal prosecution is the suspect’s own words against themselves. A confession is extremely powerful. It is easily understood by the jury, unlike the science of DNA and fingerprints, or the inherent unreliability of witnesses. Therefore, it is essential for officers to understand effective interrogation themes and tactics proven most reliable in obtaining admissible confessions.
Ensure that information always comes to you, not from you.
Legally obtained confessions
For any confession to be admissible in court, it must be legally obtained, either through a Miranda admonition (only if the officer is legally required to Mirandize the suspect), through a Beheler admonition (a non-
custodial consensual interrogation) or other exceptions, such as general investigative questioning at the scene of a crime or other consensual encounters. Additionally, there can’t be any threats (expressed or implied), promises or suggestions of leniency, and no coercion.
Per the U.S. Supreme Court, an officer is only legally required to issue a Miranda warning when two conditions both apply: (1) The suspect is in custody (formally placed under arrest, not merely detained) or circumstances that are the functional equivalent of a formal arrest; and (2) The suspect is just about to be interrogated regarding their possible involvement in a crime.
Whether or not a suspect is the sole focus of the investigation; whether the suspect is merely detained as opposed to being formerly arrested; whether the officer plans to arrest the suspect at a later time; whether the suspect is a juvenile; or whether the officer already has probable cause to make an arrest — all have absolutely no legal bearing on whether to Mirandize.
A Beheler admonition is generally recommended to interrogate suspects consensually without the suspect having been formally placed under arrest. The officer must first explain to the suspect prior to interrogation that they are not under arrest, that they are free to leave at any time (unless the suspect is being detained) and that they don’t have to speak to the officer. The officer must get an acknowledgment from the suspect that they understand they are not currently under arrest and that they don’t have to speak. Then, the officer is free to interrogate without Miranda warnings, even if the suspect confesses. Miranda warnings only apply after the suspect has been placed under formal arrest.
Plan your interrogation and anticipate any possible defenses to counter them. Know as much about the circumstances as possible before interrogating the suspect. If possible and safe to do so, interrogate them prior to formally placing them under arrest with a Beheler admonition.
Always maintain control of your interrogation. Ensure that information always comes to you, not from you. Resist answering any question by the suspect or providing them any information unless it’s in your best interest to do so. If the suspect tries to misdirect your questions by talking about something else, place your open hand directly in front of their face to stop them and tell them to stop. Say, “I didn’t ask you that,” and then redirect them to what you want them to talk about.
Use non-accusatory, “soft” words. Don’t call the suspect a thief or a criminal. Assume the mannerisms of an objective person just trying to get to the truth of what happened. For example, instead of saying, “I want to talk about you molesting your daughter.” Try, “I’d like to talk with you about some issues with Melissa.”
Don’t allow the suspect to repeatedly deny involvement in the crime. The more they deny, the harder it is for them to later confess. After the first one or two denials, use the raised open hand technique in front of the suspect’s face to stop them from repeatedly denying, then ask another question.
Below are nine effective themes to form the foundation of your interrogation. Keep the suspect talking — don’t give up. If they are guilty, then the more they talk, the more likely it is that they will either lie, change their story or directly incriminate themselves.
“Sometimes good people make mistakes.” Tell the suspect (if appropriate) that you believe they are basically a good person and that they just made a mistake. It is much easier to admit to making mistakes rather than to committing “a crime.” Ask, “Did you mean to do this, or was this just a mistake? This was just a mistake, right? Wasn’t this just a mistake?” That way, the suspect only has to say one word to begin his or her confession, “Yes.” Make it as easy as possible for them to stop resisting and admit what they did.
“The reason why can be very important.” Tell the suspect that you don’t need them to say they did it; you already know that. What is important is the reason why they did it. The reason why could be important in order to prevent making the same “mistake” again in the future. Let the suspect know that without a reason why to explain their actions, then people are left to think the worst about them. Ask, “What made you do this?” If the suspect starts to talk about why they did something, then they are in fact admitting to doing it.
“We need to try to understand how this happened.” Suspects are more likely to explain away their actions rather than taking complete responsibility. The underlying reasons behind their actions really don’t matter, other than that they make it easier for the suspect to confess. Whether it is a bad drug habit, gang culture, poverty, being drunk, how they were raised or mistreated in the past — these explanations all offer excuses in the suspect’s mind. Whenever a suspect excuses their behavior, they are still confessing to their behavior.
“You’re not a bad person.” Let the suspect know that you don’t believe they’re a bad person. Tell them, “Things just got out of hand. That’s all right, now we just need to resolve them so you can move on with your life.”
“I know much more about this than you think.” Convincingly tell the suspect that you’ve done a lot of work and that “you know a lot more about what they did than they think.” Let their mind run wild about all the possible evidence you might have. That alone can be enough to persuade them to confess.
“This will never go away.” Convince the suspect that “this will never go away.” You and other officers will never stop investigating the case. The suspect will always be looking over their shoulder. Now is the time to get it behind them.
“The evidence clearly shows …” Without telling the suspect what specific evidence you may (or may not) have against them, work to convince them that you already have overwhelming evidence. “The evidence clearly shows your involvement. Why do you think I’m speaking to you?” When they ask what you have, don’t answer. Just tell them that it will all come out in court. By continuing to lie about what they did, tell them that they are not taking any responsibility and that often means they are much more likely to do it again.
Minimize what the suspect did. In my experience, this has been the most effective interrogation theme. It is far easier to admit to doing something that you make seem to be either not that big of a deal or not as bad as something else. No matter what the suspect has done, you can always make it seem like something less.
For example, regarding a father molesting his 5-year-old daughter. “We just need to talk about these issues with your daughter so they don’t happen again.” If the suspect tries to deny, put your open hand in front of their face to stop them. “No, we’re past that. We need to talk about this to prevent it from happening again. I mean, it’s not that serious. We can deal with it. You were probably just showing your daughter how much you love her. Things got a little out of hand, but you didn’t hurt her or anything. We can deal with this …”
Try to get the suspect to express remorse for what they did. People naturally understand that showing remorse is good. “Aren’t you at least sorry for what you did? Being sorry is a good thing, it means you regret your actions and don’t want to do them again.”
Whenever a suspect excuses their behavior, they are still confessing to their behavior.
Successful interrogation is a skill that, with practice, can become an art. The officer who learns how to get information from people is the most successful and effective officer.