Facilitating a suspect interview is no walk in the park. If you’re a detective or investigator looking for a recipe for success, good luck finding one straight shoot answer for each of your questions. There are many methods and strategies employed by law enforcement and the answer will vary depending on who you’re asking. However, when you’re asking questions about the admissibility of evidence, Miranda rights, and legalities of interviewing, the answers are pretty clear cut.
Earlier this year, we compiled suspect interview tips from 11 LEOs worldwide. In this article, our Director of Marketing, Jessica Wein reached out to two officers to ask how they would answer 11 of Google’s most frequently asked questions regarding suspect interviews. Learn more about these officers and see their answers to our questions below…
First, a little about the officers she interviewed:
Rick Musson is a law enforcement consultant for FreeAdvice.com. He is a 19-year law enforcement officer in Bozeman, Montana.
Justin Boardman, a retired Special Victims Unit detective and founder of Boardman Training and Consulting, trains law enforcement in the trauma-informed victim interviewing protocol he developed. Reshaping the victim interviewing process led him to change the way in which he interviews suspects as well. He notes:
“Because of the impact trauma has on a victim’s emotions and memories, perpetrators of sex crimes can seem like the rational, truthful party. A skilled suspect interview, supported by thoughtful preparation, will gather information that can be used to reconstruct portions of the crime the victim cannot remember.”
JW: How do you prepare for an interview?
JB: In my prep for a suspect interview, I would:
- Review Reports: First review the initial report to see what information I could glean.
- Build a Case: If I had a suspect identified, I’d start building my case. This would look different whether it’s an adult or juvenile.
- Pull Criminal History: If the suspect is an adult, I would first pull an Identification and then a local and national criminal history.
- Identify Patterns: If any crimes were similar or the same as the one I was investigating, I’d request the police reports. This is important in Sex Crimes and Domestic Violence to show a pattern of conduct. I’d compare what the suspect did to control the victim. This is important to corroborate during an interview. The suspect will be more apt to talk about past issues that are settled matters. Prior bad acts can be brought into SA and DV type crimes.
- Speak with Witnesses: Then, I’d follow up with the witnesses to see what they saw and heard, ask about past observed behavior.
- Recruit the Victim: Depending on the circumstances and legalities of the state, I’d see if the victim was willing to try a pre-text call or text with the suspect. I’d do this after a Trauma-Informed Victim Interview.
- Call Suspect: Finally, I would then, (depending on public safety issues) attempt phone contact with the suspect on a recorded line to set an appointment for an interview. During this conversation, I’d ask for the cliff notes version. This gets them set in a story; this is not custodial so there are no Miranda issues. It presents an opportunity to gather details the victim may not remember due to the way trauma impacts memory.
RM: A full understanding of the details of the case will contribute to a more effective interview. The more information you know about the case and the suspect you have, the more specific you can be in your questioning. When you know as many of the facts as you can before the interview, you will be better able to compare those facts with the suspect’s answers. Obviously, statements that don’t match up with facts are red flags and can help the investigator move forward with more pointed questions.
JW: What introductory questions do you typically ask at the beginning?
JB: I ask: “Will you help me understand what you are able to remember about what happened?” Then I’m quiet. Once the suspect has stopped speaking for a bit, I may ask some follow up questions around the elements of the crime.
RM: Usually, I begin with introductory questions, such as: who they are, where they live, where they work/what they do. Engaging in some small talk/conversation to build a rapport with the suspect and get a baseline for how they respond to questions gives valuable insight for later questions that are critical to the case.
JW: What legal issues should guide a suspect interview?
JB: Custody is a legal issue that should guide a suspect interview, if custody is intended. Also: probable cause, freedom to leave and basic Miranda issues.
RM: Legal issues during an interview may differ from state to state. Even with the Miranda Warning, which seems fairly universal, states have different requirements for when and how you read it to the suspect. Some states allow the investigator to lie to the suspect and some states do not.
JW: Can you interview a suspect in jail who has since been assigned a public defender?
JB: This is certainly a gray area. I will not interview a jailed suspect if they have been assigned an attorney. In fact, would err on the side of caution and call the defense attorney if the suspect were to contact me without being coerced.
RM: You cannot interview a suspect in jail who has been assigned a public defender without their attorney present.
JW: When should you avoid interviewing a suspect?
JB: That depends on timing. Any chance you get to talk with a suspect is good, but it might take more than just one interview, especially if you mean formal interviews.
I try to interview at the very end of my case. I want to talk to witnesses to corroborate what I learned from the victim, then compare notes with what the suspect says, then go out and corroborate what the suspect tells me. The process needs to be fair and balanced. Sometimes I’d avoid an interview until I screened the case with the prosecutor. This was due to safety issues. Especially in sexual assault cases involving intimate partner relationships.
RM: The investigator may need to avoid an interview with the suspect due to legal considerations, such as the laws around the Miranda Warning. It is rare that an investigator would avoid an interview. The investigator may delay the interview due to the suspect’s condition or to allow more preparation for the investigator.
JW: How do you ask a suspect if you may interview them?
JB: This one is a little bit harder, it varies from case to case and it varies depending on safety as well. What I suggest for sexual assault investigations is I use the phone first. I do this because:
- Bringing a suspect into an interview room can scare their neurological defense circuitry, and they will shut down.
- There are Miranda issues as well. Sometimes you don’t need to Mirandize on a recorded call as you do not have custody; they can hang up at any time.
- I would be setting up the interview when I call. They will hem and haw to find reasons not to come in to talk with me. Then I ask for a Cliff Notes version of what happened – they then have an opportunity to lie to me or to fill in the gaps. They are not going to fill in the gaps about the crime, but they will feel more comfortable to fill in the additional outside details. These are the details where the victim may not have memories due to the way trauma impacts memory. Then if the suspect does come in, I have something to work with. I have some information about their experience.
RM: The process depends on the state laws regarding suspect interviews. Universally, in the U.S., you would need to Mirandize a suspect when they are in custody and being interrogated. Each state builds their law from those requirements and the protocol is surprisingly varied.
You would begin an interview as you would begin a normal conversation. In normal conversation, you do not begin with “Can I have a conversation with you?” Similarly, you would not begin an interview with, “Can I interview you.” Typically, you would start with small talk and basic introductory information and then steer the conversation to the subject you’re investigating.
JW: Can you clarify how traumatic memories operate and how your interview process for suspects differs from victims as a result?
- The victim’s memories will be about the threat; other details outside the threat they may lose. They will catch the central details about what is harming them (e.g. an arm across the chest). They won’t usually remember what the suspect was wearing, but they will remember the threat to their airway. The external memories may be there, but there is no guarantee.
- The suspect is not traumatized by the rape, so they will have a more rational thinking brain. They will not want to incriminate themselves on the threat in the event. They will usually help construct a timeline, what they were wearing, who was there. Victims do not record timelines well, but the suspects will.
JW: How does the suspect become read over the phone? What are the signals you look for?
JB: Tone. Jumping around in the telling of their experience. Avoiding questions. What most sexual assaults come down to is that it’s usually a known person, and it comes down to consent. If I can get as much detail as possible this will help me to corroborate their experience. I’ll ask how they know it was consensual.
I build the case from the victim’s statement. If the suspect didn’t come in, I’d still have a strong case. If the suspect did not participate, I have a very strong case. From the very start of investigating sex crimes, I do it assuming I will never get to talk to the suspect. If I get to, it is icing on the cake. I still screen it with the prosecutor. Sometimes there isn’t enough to make the statute requirements.
JW: How does a suspect become “read” during the interview process in person?
RM: If “read” means reading Miranda rights, a suspect would be “read” by outright being read their Miranda rights.
If “read” means reading body language and inconsistencies, interrogators start the conversation with basic questions for a reason. Basic questions get basic answers that are typically truthful. If the suspect’s body language and speech patterns change when answering questions about the incident in question, it could be a red flag indicating lying or deception.
JW: What would you advise a suspect if you had an interview with him or her? Why?
JB: I err on the side of caution. I’m confident in my casework. Some officers will say you can leave any time so they don’t’ need to Mirandize. I say, “I’m happy you came in. I want to hear your side and want to be sure everything is figured out, but I will feel more comfortable reading you Miranda.” Some will leave. But if they come in, typically they will talk. I start with outside details that you can corroborate with witness and victim statements. Then I work toward the BAM moment.
RM: I would advise them of their rights per Miranda. Other than that, I would let the situation lead. Some people assume that an interrogator and would begin the interview process by demanding the suspect tell the truth or face certain consequences. In reality, some states consider that coercion, so that tactic should certainly be avoided in those states.
JW: The BAM moment?
JB: The threat event. The moment the victim understood the threat. Where the event goes from consensual to not consensual.
With the victim, I work from BAM out to the external details. With the suspect, I work from the outside details into the BAM event. Suspects fill in gaps. Even if what they corroborate is not against the law, it helps corroborate with the victim’s experience.
If I can locate some of the neurobiology of trauma in the victim’s interview, from their perspective they were raped. It cannot be faked. If they are saying “I didn’t fight back. I tried to scream but I couldn’t” and they don’t have a background in how traumatic memories form. People usually feel “If I was raped, I would scream.” That’s not how it works. Your brain takes over – you don’t choose what happens.
Imagine you are driving. If someone runs a light and you slam on your breaks. You don’t think about it. That little switch is something you can’t control. It’s the same with your reaction to a BAM moment. You might:
- Fawn: In the moment you understand something isn’t right… you might start making up excuses (kids will be home soon, I need to go…), you might start a negotiation (not right now, not in the bathroom, another time). In interviews, the victims will speak to this. That is actually no. For an example “I have COVID” is no. Victims who identify as female have been socialized to be polite. Saying no is not polite. Saying you have as COVID is polite. That is where suspects don’t pick up on social cues. If I put you in a suspect interview room, you aren’t usually going to share those details, as you don’t feel safe. I need these little details to make my case. That is where the victim interview room and your video system can make the difference.
JW: How long does it take to interview a suspect in a forensic investigation?
JB: It takes as long as it takes, and it depends. It could take 2 minutes if they invoke Miranda. It could be a war of words. I have a friend known for long interviews. He used trauma-informed interviewing before it was a thing to build trust with the suspect. There is a time where fatigue will step in and you need to take a break.
RM: It could take minutes or it could take several hours and even several interviews. Not only does the length of time depend on the case, but it also depends on the person being interviewed. If the suspect admits to everything, the interview could go quite quickly.
The Importance of Recording Suspect Interviews with a Reliable System
Video evidence is the key to building a strong case when executing suspect, witness or victim interviews. Ensure that you’re utilizing reliable interview recording systems that display every aspect of the interview in order to bring that evidence to light. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about how our interview recording systems can help improve the process of your investigation today.