Can You Conduct a Productive Interview on the Street?
Everyone in law enforcement starts out in one place, the street! During the academy we are filled with so much information that it all becomes a little overwhelming at times. One area that gets somewhat overlooked many times is the question, how does an officer in full uniform who just arrested a subject get into a meaningful dialogue with a subject that results in a confession or provides meaningful information on the crime being investigated. Patrol officers interview everyone from witnesses to victims and of course suspects, but how do you ensure your getting all you can get?
There are a plethora of courses out there on interview and interrogation for investigators and detectives, but no so many for the patrol officer. Most street officers learn their interview skills through a small amount of training and a large amount of practice in real life scenarios. On many departments there is the patrol officer that seems to get everyone to tell them everything…..how is that? Why do these people feel the need to divulge so much information to this one particular person?
I have a questions for you….Do you think that the subject pictured in the photograph at the top of this article is in a position that is conducive to a productive interview? The answer is that in most instances the subject that is off his bike, seated on the ground, surrounded by officers who stand over him in positions of authority is very unlikely to divulge information. Although, I will admit these officers have a dynamic tactical advantage in this situation, it is not how I want to talk to someone.
We are trained in the academy and during training to keep the tactical advantage, and I urge you to do so. I do however recommend you find “common ground” that keeps you safe and is likely to produce results from interviews if that is your goal.
I remember when I came back to patrol from a narcotics position and began working the street again. On one of my first arrests the guys on my shift had placed a suspect in my patrol car on some felony charges. It was a warm summer night and I immediately started the air conditioning and opened the back door and offered the suspect a drink of water from a bottle I had. I then pulled a pack of cigarettes out of my duty bag (I do not smoke) and gave him a cigarette. A few moments later I opened the opposite rear door on the patrol car and climbed in the back seat with the suspect and said, “Hey dude, your obviously not going home, is there someone you want to call?” After he had used my cellular to openly confess to a relative that that he had committed a crime and how and that he was caught and going to jail, it was much easier to talk to me about the events of the evening. I think the guys on my shift thought the Corporal had lost his marbles while undercover when I crawled into the backseat, but hey it worked!
In our training we are taught to have officer presence and by our actions or posture to show others that we are in control. The people we arrest have little respect for authority let alone for the police. They already know that you are not there friend, so try not to bully them into a confession or give you information just talk to them.
We as police tend to do the same thing over and over again with the same results, often not considering alternatives. I do want to clarify that I’m not recommending you climb into the back seat with every suspect, but I do suggest you try some different styles.
There is a time for control, strict officer presence and authority, but remember that a person who feels comfortable with you and your personality is more likely to talk. If a subject feels like you can relate to them and are treating them like an associate they are likely to open up. It may be just a little extra information that you gather during your interview, but as street cops we do not always know where that information may lead a investigation at a later time.
If I had the option I always had the subject transported by another officer to a precinct or location I could interview. There is a reason that many detectives use patrol to transport a subject, other than the obvious security issues. Subjects tend to view the officer putting the handcuffs on or transporting them as their nemesis. This is the time when the interviewing officer gets to be the nice guy and remove the handcuffs from behind their back and offers a drink of water, or whatever it may be, to break down the communication barriers.
I ask you to think about this scenario for a moment. You are walking down the street or in your grocery store parking lot, and someone approaches you that you do not know. They begin asking you where you live, how many kids you have, where you work, what you did last night and a multitude of other questions. Now, I know the cop in you is thinking what you may do, but think about it seriously. We arrest people and take their liberty, then as total strangers and the person who just took away their freedom, expects them to open up and talk about things to us that they do not want to discuss.
I would also like to discuss the obvious issue of social communication barriers. As a police officer your daily surroundings, home life and friends are much different from most of the subjects you will contact and/or interview during the course of your shift. Many of the subjects you contact would be very uncomfortable in your daily surroundings, and you would definitely be out of place in theirs. The dialogue you use and the context in which you communicate will sometimes be night and day in comparison to those you speak with. I have seen many officers began to “attempt” to communicate with people using the “slang of the street” and I highly do not recommend this. This tactic generally makes you look the fool and the subject is not usually impressed with your vast knowledge of street slang. I recommend talking in general loose terms, stay away from “sir” and “ma’m” these aren’t at their level, as their friends and associates do not speak this way. There is nothing wrong with speaking to a subject as you talk to your co-workers in the locker room (minus the profanity). People respect you when you treat them like you would others, they can feel the truthfulness in you verbage and see it in you body mechanics. I think most officers could learn a lot about non verbal behavior from criminal suspects, they have spent a lot of time studying our body language. How does the suspect know when to run? He watches for your subtle clues that he is getting arrested, that your not focused on him or that a distraction occurred and….he is gone!
Obviously this article is not long enough to discuss all of the different styles, introductions or methods of interviewing. I hope that I have provided some food for thought that will cause you to try something new, the results will surprise you!
Submitted and written by Kirk Keyser
Kirk Keyser is a law enforcement officer with 17 years of experience and the owner of the PoliceArch™and Icparchway.com which is a web based law enforcement communications platform. Kirk has an investigations background in homicide, major crimes, state and federal narcotics task forces, property and fraud. During his time as a LEO I have been involved in the implementing of the theories of Intelligence Led Policing, Community Oriented Policing, Problem Oriented Policing and Predictive Policing.