Mark Severino, LAPD Detective III, Major Crimes Division
How interviewers can create resistance
In this post, I would like to address the topic of resistance. More specifically, how we at times facilitate or cause subject’s resistance or reluctance by what we say or do during an interview. There are many reasons why a subject would be resistant, such as the fear of the consequences or fear of retaliation or not wanting to get involved in a police investigation to name a few. The term resistance for this post includes subjects who withhold information, are deceptive, refuse to fully cooperate due to lack of trust for law enforcement, etc. As interviewers, it’s important not to feed into the resistance giving the subject a reason to be resistant. Sometimes the resistance we observe is directly or indirectly caused by our words or actions. Let me address several topics that I believe facilitate a subject’s resistance.
The interviewer’s demeanour: Giving the subject the perception, the interviewer is in control, being judgmental, stern tone of voice, sitting knee to knee, not giving subject full attention, not listening, etc. Some of the very best interviewers I have had the opportunity to work with come across respectful, mild manner, soft/low tone of voice, actively pays attention, listens closely and never interrupts. They never get frustrated or call a subject a liar, they allow the evidence to be confrontational as they maintain good rapport building strategies throughout the interview.
Not allowing the subject a sense of autonomy: This is related to the interviewer’s need for control. When we attempt to control the interview, there is a good chance the subject will resist our attempts to control. Allowing the subject, a sense of autonomy, meaning the subject is made to feel s/he has a choice, minimizes resistance. There are several ways an interviewer can reinforce autonomy, such as actively listening, not interrupting and adapting to the subject’s narrative. Good interviewers never give the subject the impression they are in a hurry and are aware of their first impressions they have on the subject. They are also aware the subject is forming their own opinions of the interviewer at the same time.
The interviewer’s questioning strategies: We traditionally ask many closed-ended questions. Ideally, the majority of our questions should be open-ended questions since open-ended questions enhance memory recall and prompt the subject to say more. Closed ended questions are appropriate for clarification but will typically follow open-ended questions. Asking open-ended questions reinforce social dynamics and improves communication. Rapid-fire questions should be avoided since it may cause the subject to push back i.e., resist cooperating. As for any questioning strategy, more is not better. Even open-ended questions asked in quantity can cause subject frustration. Research as shown the more questions the interviewer asks the greater chance accuracy diminishes. We in law enforcement put emphasis on questioning strategies, when ideally with a cooperative subject, emphasis should also be on recall strategies.
Reluctant witnesses: Many times, victims and witnesses are reluctant to talk to law enforcement and there are several reasons for this. One of the causes of this reluctance is the subject is unsure of the interview process and can only gage an upcoming interview from what they have seen in the movies. The interviewer should lower subject’s anxiety by explaining the interview process and what would be expected from the subject and what to expect from the interviewer. By taking time establishing rapport and explaining the interview process, reluctance is minimized thus resulting in a more positive interview outcome.
Encountering a reluctant subject is a common occurrence for law enforcement. It’s important for interviewers to self-evaluate their words and actions during interviews to assure we are not the cause of the reluctance.
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.
SM adds: The following articles also consider the problem of ‘resistance’ in interviews and are good follow-ups to Mark’s piece.
Eastwood, J., & Watkins, K. (2021). Psychological persuasion in suspect interviews: Reid, PEACE, and pathways forward. Investigative Interviewing: Research & Practice, 11(1), 54-63. https://iiirg.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/iII-RP-Journal-Vol-11-Issue-1-April-2021.pdf
Goodman-Delahunty, J., & Martschuk, N. (2018). Securing reliable information in investigative interviews: coercive and noncoercive strategies preceding turning points. Police Practice and Research, 21(2), 152-171. https://doi.org/10.1080/15614263.2018.1531752