Counter-Interrogation Strategies

Mark Severino, LAPD Detective III, Major Crimes Division

Kicking off our focus on counter-interrogation strategies.

A counter-interrogation strategy is defined as the subject’s tactics to withstand an interview and appear credible. A subject who is telling the truth will typically tell it like it happened and believes the truth will shine through. A subject who is being deceptive will attempt to anticipate the questions that will be asked and: (a) avoid critical information and provide a vague narrative, or (b) deny their role in the crime. Guilty subjects differ from innocent subjects in how much information they include in their statement. Deceptive subjects want to ‘‘keep the story simple’’ and will provide a less detailed statement, whereas an innocent subject will provide a more detailed account (see the works of Granhag, Hartwig, Vrij).

In order for a deceptive subject to appear credible and convince the interviewer of their innocence, the subject may provide some information while withholding critical information. Deceptive subjects will consider when to be truthful and what information should be withheld. One thing both guilty and innocent subjects share in common is both want to be believed. Research has shown the subject’s decision to confess many times begins before or at the beginning stages of an interview (See the works of Moston, Deslauriers-Varin, Gudjonsson). It’s important for the interviewer to be aware that the subject may be going through the decision-making process when the interviewer first approaches the subject. A good percentage of those subjects will have made the decision to cooperate, i.e., disclose critical information. However, the subject’s decision to cooperate can quickly change to a denial if the interviewer approaches the subject being judgmental and accusatory.

We in law enforcement have spent years trying to assess what the subject is thinking on the inside by looking at the subject’s physical or emotional cues on the outside. Contrary to popular belief, subjects don’t leak cues of deception or guilt. Subjects will leak cues of nervousness and anxiety, but again, in a police interview, who wouldn’t? As Dr Par Anders Granhag says, there are no reliable cues to deception. Some may argue that it is a combination of verbal and non-verbal cues. The issue with that argument is if there are no reliable cues, so it doesn’t matter if you have one or many.

Another area that sometimes gets confusing is when the interviewer’s personal beliefs are in contrast with the subject’s decision-making. Meaning, the interviewer assesses the subject’s narrative by what the interviewer would do in a similar situation. Or when an interviewer believes a subject lacks certain emotions when the interviewer believes most people would show emotion etc. The only way an interviewer can determine what a subject’s interview strategies and thoughts are, is to encourage the subject to talk. Only when the subject is talking can an interviewer elicit critical information, assess counter-interrogation strategies, identify potential cues of deception and ultimately obtain the truth.

The opinions expressed in this article, which was prepared in Mark Severino’s personal capacity, are his own and do not reflect the views of the Los Angeles Police Department.

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