What's interrogation like in real life?

I’ve seen zillions of interrogation scenes in movies, but what’s it like in real life? Say I rob a place with some other guys, there is some violence and/or deaths, and then they grab us, separate us, and start interrogating us to find out who did what to whom where and when.

What can I expect? Buttering up? Threats? Coffee and a cigarette? Slap to the face? Lies about what the other guys have said? Truths about what the other guys have said? How long will I be in there in one go? How many police officers will there be at a time? Will they take shifts? Does “bad cop good cop” exist outside fiction? If I simply clam up, at what point will they give up?

If you got any sense, you identify yourself, and refuse to answer any questions about whatever caused your arrest while asserting your right to counsel.

When I was a teenager, I was with some friends and we had a couple of handguns in the trunk. <—not my guns, really officer! To top it off, the car we were in had an illegal license plate so we looked like we were in a stolen car.

We were placed under arrest and each put in seperate rooms. It was almost like the movies. The room was super hot and an all-white room. It was super bright in there (but no spotlight), and there was a one-way mirror (stupid teenage me at the time did not realize that), probably with a video camera and detective on the other side.

I must have talked to three or four detectives, each taking turns with me. Detective One: You are going to jail for a long time, say goodbye to Mommy and Daddy, etc. Detective One departs, in comes Detective Two: I know you want to go home, want a cigarette, let’s make this simple, I want to help you, just tell me who gave you these guns, what did you do with them? Oh, and both said my friends were talking and blaming me for it.

It turns out my friends went through the same procedure. Anyway, long story short, it was like the movies.

For those who care, charges were dropped as I did not know the guns were in the trunk, it was not our car, and off we went.

Now, I’m from Canada, so laws are going to differ as to what’s acceptable coersion and what crosses the line (keeping the statement out of court).

Basically, the police have two ways of questioning a suspect:

–the interview, where the suspect does virtually all of the talking (ideally), with prompting and questions from the cop when he’s winding down. This is “warned,” you’ll be informed, at the least, that you don’t have to talk to the police if you don’t want. If you’re in police custody you’ll also be given an opportunity to contact a lawyer (and informed of your right to do so). The cop will most likely try to form a bond with you, and be friendly and understanding. Probably there will only be one officer present, it will be video or audio recorded. The whole point behind the interview is to get the suspect to “story up” so that holes can be poked in their story later. Any confession is a bonus, and not really expected.

–an interrogation, where the idea is to get a confession. The whole idea here is to form a bond with the suspect where he feels he can confide in you. The idea is to get him to believe emotionally he can trust you, even though he knows he can’t. The officer will do the vast majority of the talking, telling stories (I had a kid brother one time in a similar situation…), saying whatever he can think of to form that connection. The only thing the suspect is allowed to say is “I did it,” everything else gets shut down quick. IF the suspect is actually guilty, denails will steadily get weaker and eventually he may confess. The interrogater will, at all times, act supremely confident that the person is guilty, responding to any denials with a “Look, we have all the evidence. We know you did it. I just want to know why,” or whatever. The interrogater will paint two alternatives, that you’re not a bad guy and you screwed up, or you’re a souless monster. The suspect then confesses to the first so that he won’t be thought the latter.

Generally, any cop a week out of training can perform an interview (unless we’re talking about a murderer or aggravated sexual assault or something), whereas the interrogations are tricky and generally done by a cop with a little training in how to do them.

Legally, of course, they’re the same thing–all the same warnings must be given, all the same case law applies. Generally , cops in Canada cannot promise any sort of legal absolution for a confession, but can say just about anything else. I could, for example, say that people will think better of him if he confesses, or that he’ll feel better, or that his god would approve, but I couldn’t say it’ll look better to the judge or anything along those lines. The cops can absolutely lie–there’s a standard question in suspect interviews that’s pretty much always built on a lie, and the stories used in interrogations are pretty much completely fabricated.

The key legal question in Canada in relation to confessions is whether or not the suspect had an “operating mind,” thus confessing of his own free will. Rulings have upheld that things like torture remove the operating mind, but lies don’t (unless the lies enter the realm of legal consequences, of course). Thus, the bright lights, refusing to give the guy water or allow bathroom breaks, screaming in his face; it’s all dangerous waters in Canada. Probably a little of that sort of thing would be allowed, but cross the line and hours of work could get thrown out of court. Most police forces find it safer to be the nice guy, and get confessions through empathy.

Refusing to speak to the police is difficult if you’re in their custody. They can sit you down in a room and sit there and talk at you for hours if they want. You can say nothing if you want, but most people find it hard to be continuously attacked without defending their actions. You get your one opportunity to talk to a lawyer and then you’re pretty much at their mercy for however long they can legally hold onto you.

Anyway, a bit of a Canadian perspective.

I’ve never slapped anyone. But other than that, all of the above. It’s an art not a science (and I’ll freely admit there are many people better at it than I am) and you use whatever you think will work on the individual.

My husband has done hundreds of interrogations. He was the Investigator at the prison in which he works, which is basically like their in-house detectives for any mis-doings that go on inside the prison, done by either staff or inmates. He’s no longer in that position, but his legend lives on-- he was the most successful investigator the prison ever had, and was sent around the state to train others.

He never yells at them or gets upset, and no, he’s never threatened or hit someone he’s interrogating. He never interrogates a suspect until he has the information he needs. His purpose is to get a confession, and it’s a lot harder if you go into it “blind”, or not knowing what happened.

He keeps the conversation chatty and light at first. (Never start right in with the pertinent questions.) He expresses some slight sympathy with the situation, hinting that he believes the suspect’s actions really weren’t as bad as they appear. He asks the suspect to tell their side of the story.*

Now comes the incredible part. He memorizes every single detail of what they said and uses it to tear apart their story. “Now, wait a sec . . . did you talk to Dave before or after you got your coffee?” He keeps asking questions like that about minute details until he catches them in an inconsistency, and then he digs on it. When people are lying, they usually include a grain of truth to try to remember their story. By twisting it around, you can confuse them so that they don’t remember what they’ve said, and might add more detail contradicting what they said before.

Despite what they may believe, most people aren’t good at lying. Yeah, there are some people who are really good at it, but most people get confused and nervous when confronted and add details they omitted before to try to shore up their story. Then Hubby asks incrediby minute questions about the new details, confusing them even more. “You say you went into the storage room. Was the door locked when you got there? Did you have your key with you? Mike told me last week that that door is sticking a bit. Gotta get the maintenance guys up there. Did you have any problems unlocking it?” He uses that new tidbit to weave into their narrative. “So, if you had trouble with the door, how’d you get down there so quickly? Oh, so you didn’t have trouble with the door. Why’d you just tell me that you did?”

He also takes words they used and delves into their meaning. “You say you were upset. Now, what do you mean by that? 'Cause upset means that you were mildly put out, but if that happened to me, I’d be* pissed.* Were you really just upset or were you really angry?”

I know it sounds weird, but it really does work. At my request, Hubby tried it on me one time. He accused me of drinking the last of the milk. I hadn’t-- I had thrown it out because it went bad, but as he’s interrogating me about every single motion I made approaching the refrigerator, I started getting confused, even though I was telling the truth.

He also had sophisticated lie-detecting equipment at hand, but most of the time, he didn’t even have to use it. After an hour or so of this, most people were so confused they were almost grateful to tell the truth, especially since he became very sympathetic and understanding. He eventually gets them to write out a confession in thier own words, defending and explaining their actions.

  • Mind you, inmates don’t have the right to remain silent. Staff members can have a union representative present if they wish, but they cannot refuse to answer questions.

This is not meant as a criticism, but a sincere question: if you got confused in a benign facsimile of the real thing, when you knew it was a false accusation, and you were telling the truth, how likely is it that an innocent suspect might end up falsely implicating themselves in a real scenario that had genuine negative consequences for them? Or did he always follow up with the lie detector?

Lot of good that would do. Not only is it inadmissible in (US) court, but a polygraph is a useless machine for finding out the truth.

Although it might work in the kitchen.

Sure they can. They just won’t like the penalty for remaining silent.

For the record, we are taught that military interrogations are exactly like you’ve come to understand them. As a result resistance training is pretty violent out of necessity. It wouldn’t be as effective if they just told us what would happen, so they give us a taste. Yeah, that’s it. Just a taste.

He doesn’t go into these situations “blind.” He never interrogates a suspect until he’s ready to get a confession. He gets statements from all of the witnesses, collects all of the evidence (wire recordings, phone call recordings, fingerprints and the like) and then goes in armed with the evidence. Unless there was an incredible set of coincidences, it would be very unlikely that he’d be using these techniques on someone who’s really innocent.

However, he’d always be willing to give people the benefit of the doubt if the evidence wasn’t solid, and yes, that’s when he’d employ the lie detectors, but when a suspect came to him, it was usually because he already had enough to fire them or present criminal charges.

He wasn’t gung-ho to get notches on his belt. His primary concern was the safety of the prison, and he wanted to get dangerous people out of there.

Here’s an amusing story. Hubby’s partner was the one who was certified on the lie detectors. One day, Hubby had to interrogate an inmate who was dealing drugs, but his partner wasn’t at work. He hooked the inmate up to the machine and just shook his head whenever the inmate said something he knew from the evidence wasn’t true and said, “This says you’re lying.” The inmate confessed. The machine was never even turned on.

The lie-detecting equipment is only used in the prison-- as you said, it’s not admissable in court. Secondly, the suspects aren’t Mirandized, so their statements would be inadmissable as well.* Hubby is only gathering evidence to be used to fire the employee. If criminal charges are going to be presented, the State Troopers are brought in after the employee has been fired and do their own investigation.

Secondly, Hubby knows the equipment isn’t fool-proof, which is why he only uses it when he knows that the suspect is, in fact, lying. Suspects don’t always know that the polygraph and voice-stress analyzers are dubious.

  • I’d have to ask him about all of the legalities, but as I understand, non-Miranda statements can be used against the inmates, but not the staff.

I’ve heard it said that the only lie a polygraph can actually detect is someone lying about whether they’re having an orgasm. Polygraphs are very good at telling you whether someone’s orgasming. But for things like “Did you steal that car”, or “Who started that fight”, they’re only slightly better than a coin toss.

That said, of course, if a suspect thinks the lie detector works, it might be a useful tool to get a confession out of them.

Am I the only one who finds this statement incredibly worrisome? First of all, if he truly knew who was innocent and who was guilty beforehand, he wouldn’t need to do the interrogation at all. The fact that it’s considered a valuable skill shows that he doesn’t know beforehand. Second, just a few posts earlier, we have an example of the technique “working” the way it’s only supposed to when the person is guilty, when the person was known to be innocent. “Well of course he’s guilty, or I wouldn’t be interrogating him in the first place” is not just at the top of a slippery slope, it’s well on its way down it already, and building speed.

Well, technically it isn’t needed. In most cases, they already have all the information needed to punish the offender. For an employee, getting a confession is important, because of union rules regarding termination, but it’s not crucial.

I do understand what you’re saying, and I agree with you. However, I don’t think it applies in this case.

At the end of our experiment, I hadn’t confessed to drinking the milk. I’d be hard pressed to believe that anyone would confess to a crime/misdeed they didn’t commit out of confusion. What he does is tear their story apart bit by bit. An innocent person would be as confused as hell by it, as I was, but it doesn’t make you say, “Okay, I did it.” It’s not torture-- you don’t confess just to make it stop.

He’s a reasonable, intelligent man who isn’t prone to jump to conclusions. He’s extremely methodical. (Not one of his cases has ever been overturned by the union or inmate disciplinary board.) Sure, he could be wrong, but as I said, he waited until he had firm evidence, such as a recording of the employee setting up a drug deal, or letters from an inmate discussing wrongdoing.

Remeber, the interrogation was the* last step* in a lenghthy process, sort of the equivellent of testifying at the trial. They already had what they needed to discipline the offender. It was merely the icing on the cake. If the employee/inmate didn’t confess, they’d proceed anyway in whichever manner the circumstances warranted. The confession would just make the “case” easier.

Sounds familiar.

Hrm. While I was driving to work I thought about this post and realized that it souds rather assholish. That wasn’t my intent and I apologize. I have a habit of linking to Snopes everytime something sounds like a UL but in this case I could’ve been more tactful about it.

It’s a bit different than Snopes: he used a real lie detector. It just wasn’t turned on. I realize you have no reason to believe me that it really happened, and no offense was taken.

You aren’t the only one. In fact, I find Lissa’s entire post very worrisome if it is in fact true.

How many innocent people have been locked away because they were tripped up by the questions they were asked? Lissa claims that before these type of tactics are used there is already information showing the person is guilty - that in itself is even more worrisome. Cops should NOT be the ones deciding guilt, no matter how strong the evidence. That should be left to the judge and jury. A cop making the decision that you are guilty and therefore uses the type of interrogation that will trip you up, is very frightening to me. How many innocent people have been put away for this very reason? How many have actually confessed to something they didn’t do because the cop tripped them up into a false confession? Don’t think it is possible? Take a look at www.WM3.org and decide for yourself.

The whole point of an interrogation is to find out the truth - regardless of whether the truth is that the suspect is guilty or innocent. If the only purpose was to “prove” that the suspect was guilty, regardless of whether or not it was true, then we would just skip the interrogation entirely and declare him guilty.

Some people will now ask, why if we’re only interested in the truth do we almost always end up with confessions of guilt? It’s because, despite what you read in books or see on TV, in the overwhelming majority of cases there’s an obvious suspect who really is guilty. Investigators rarely have to spend a lot of time determining who committed a crime - it’s usually obvious. Investigators usually have to spend more effort in collecting enough evidence to be able to prove who committed the crime.

There are certainly some cases in which a hapless suspect is railroaded into a conviction for a crime he didn’t commit. But the vast majority of investigators are genuinely trying to ensure that they catch and convict the real culprit.

I’m confused by what you’re saying. Cops don’t decide who’s guilty. That decision is left to the judge and jury. But I have to assume you already know that.

Is what you’re actually saying is that you don’t like the police being involved in investigating crimes? Because somebody has to and if they’re not the police now, they’ll basically end up becoming the police when they start doing their job. Unless you’ve got some really radical alternative in mind.

Well, none, actually. The inmates are already “locked up.” At worse, they could be prosecuted for additional crimes and incarcerated for more time, but that was rare. The employees could lose their jobs, but their statements couldn’t be used against them in criminal court. If criminal charges were anticipated, the State Troopers participated in the investigation and did their own.

Why? Would you prefered if he had used these tactics without bothering to collect evidence? He could have-- there’s no rules against it. However, as I said, he’s a meticulous guy, and wouldn’t want to go into an interrogation without knowing all of the facts. He had no interest in badgering innocent people. Why would he? He had enough to do without making up more work.

He was not a cop. He was no where near being a cop. When cops were needed, he called them and lets them do their own investigation. His job was to see if misconduct had taken place in the prison, and then to fire the person if evidence showed that they had done something wrong.

99.9% of these “cases” never were prosecuted.

As I said, I didn’t confess to drinking the milk. I can’t imagine any person who’s innocent being so stupid that they confess to something they didn’t do because they were “confused.”

However, if I had drunk the milk, it would have been extremely difficult to keep my story straight with all of those minute questions. Liars generally don’t think of every detail, nor do they remember their story as well as they had hoped under intense questioning.

Not in this situation, it isn’t. Again, he was not a cop, and the statements could not be used in a court of law. It’d be a pretty amazing feat if he managed to “trip up” a person so that they *wrote out a confession using their own words. *

By the way, all of these interrogations were tape recorded. Hubby was never even accused of wrong-doing in any of his investigations, and he’s surrounded by officers of the law. (There’s a State Trooper assigned to the prison.) he is a man of high ethical standards and would not violate anyone’s rights.

I, for one, would like to take a moment to thank Lissa for sharing some very relevant personal (indirect) experience directly responsive to the OP. This is the sort of stuff which makes the Board such a pleasure to read.

Catching someone off guard is a tactic that is used as it lowers resistance. Arresting someone when they don’t suspect it makes them more mentally defenseless. Interrogation rooms are designed to appear and feel foreign where the interrogator is seen as a very strong authority figure and all the surroundings are for the authority of the police and not the civilian. A cop coming to your house to ask questions is not the same as you being caught off guard and taken to a police station to be questioned.

One trick that is used is to ask presumptious, leading questions or to imply that you have evidence that you really don’t.

“so & so saw you coming out the side door of the house after the crime” then testing how he replies. In theory if he is guilty he may give up, if he is innocent he’ll get angry. I read in one book that in interrogations the guilty generally start off in control but their resistance goes down with time. The innocent tend to start off cowd and weak but get angrier and more resistant as time goes on.

I’ve read several interrogation manuals but it was years ago. Most of it is just psychology, finding a persons weaknesses and motivations for not talking and manipulating them with them. If a person loves his wife then implying that getting arrested will humiliate his wife but if he cooperates with you and tells you what you want to know that will keep it out of the papers is one tactic. I don’t know if that is legal anymore as I don’t think a cop has that authority.

Apparently howstuffworks has an article on this subject now.