Police interrogation and questions about specific times

It’s a common cliche on police and detective television shows; a suspect will be asked where they were at some specific time and date from weeks or months before. The suspect always has an answer. However, if a police officer asked me “Where were you at 8:00 PM on Tuesday, January 5th?”, I could never answer it.

Do police interrogators really ask questions like where you were at at a specific time and date several weeks or months ago?

I think most people would have some idea but not as certain as people on TV are.

When I worked in H/R in hotels, we’d often run tests where people would come in and check in or ask questions. The object was to keep desk clerks, maids and just about anyone in the hotel on their toes for suspicious people.

Everyone, myself included, would fail miserably in identifying people yet when you read true crime and such the witnesses are always certain.

Unless there’s a good reason you wouldn’t know.

For instance if someone asked me where was I on Mon Jan 11, 2010 at 8:30pm (central) I could say, "I was most likely watching “the Big Bang Theory.” 'Cause that’s what I usually do on Mondays. And maybe if I knew which episode aired, I might be able to connect something.

But with no side clues most people would be hard pressed to say exactly what went on, unless there was a good reason

Like when I worked overnights in a hotel and got robbed. This guy who held me up, was in the hotel for a week prior. He would come down and talk to me as he grabbed coffee in the morning. I remember when he pointed the gun at me, the first thought I had was “this has got to be a joke.” I mean who checks into a hotel and stays for a week THEN robs the place. Well this guy did. And because it was so unusual, I remember.

But if he was an off the street robber, I wouldn’t remember nearly as much

There’s a very nice discussion of this in the Dorothy Sayers novel “Whose Body”. Sayer’s detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, is talking to a medical student about events of several weeks previous.

The student claims that no one could possibly come up with specific answers about ordinary events in the past. Wimsey asks a series of questions which narrow the conversation down to the specific day, and gets a reasonably complete and reliable recitation of events. If I can remember, I’ll dig out my copy and quote a couple of paragraphs.

<minor hijack>Eyewitnesses are acknowledged to be generally unreliable. (cite 1, cite 2, cite 3). The human brain just isn’t wired to see someone’s face once for two minutes and automatically be able to pick that person out of a lineup or even accurately describe him some time later. Stressful situations make it even less likely that an accurate, lasting memory will be formed.

Also, that sounds like pretty much the worst robber ever. Did he use a credit card for the room?

The question isn’t “do you remember” the question is “do you remember accurately.” There is evidence that if there is any positive feedback on an inaccurate recollection, the wrong person just keeps getting wronger and more sure they are right.

The correct answer is *always *“I want to speak to my/an attorney. Am I free to go now?”

Let your lawyer answer for you.

Real interviews rarely happen “cold” as it were. If you have been brought in, you usually have some indication of what it’s all about, and (if the issue is, say a murder) it is likely to have been about someone or some event you know or can link to, even if you weren’t the killer. So you have some co-ordinates for starting to think about where you were and what you were doing at or about the time of such a significant event.

In addition, the introductory question is not usually “What were you doing on the night of January 25th?” But “Did you know X?” Do you remember the day X died? Were you at work that day? Tell us what you were doing that day?" The police can help with the date and day of the week later if that becomes important. If there is a need to question about events over (say) three days, then when the parameters are established, a policeman might say “Alright, you went to bed on the evening before X died, which you’ve agreed was Monday the 25th. Was it the next morning you woke? What did you do on the 26th?” Covering the same ground a few times might well result in a “What did you say you were doing on the night of the 25th?” type question, but by then I would expect the significance of the dates to have been well established.

The cliche question of hardboiled detective fiction “Where were you on the night of the 25th?” is designed just to cut to the chase. All the preliminaries which would emerge in a real investigation are almost always going to kill the pace of the show, so they just cull them.

I was tempted to whale in on the point made above about identification being unreliable, but that is perhaps for another thread.