Applying Effective Interviewing Skills to Organized Crime Investigations

The fight against organized retail crime (ORC) is not unfamiliar to the retail industry, but it is more strategic and collaborative than ever before. This elevated focus is necessary to stay ahead of the evolving growth and aggression of these enterprises. There is also a developing sophistication in the type and method of crimes, as opposed to the traditional product theft, although this problem is still very real. Fraud scams impacting e-commerce operations, phishing attempts, credit or gift card manipulation, and supply chain theft are just some of the few areas of concern for loss prevention professionals.

Combating these issues is both preventable and reactionary with multiple tools available to retailers and law enforcement alike. Video equipment supporting predictive data analytics and detailed reporting allows investigators to identify and compile more thorough case files than ever before. Traditional surveillance methods and the tracking of high-theft products continue to be vital, on-the-ground resources. Partnerships with online retailers and resellers are also instrumental, as the sale of stolen products is no longer limited by geographic region, impacting multiple jurisdictions.

The collaborative relationship between law enforcement and retailers is another vital component to any successful investigation. These relationships have grown stronger with regional ORCA groups, supported by state retail associations and their respective law enforcement partners. Software companies have also helped facilitate these relationships through data-sharing and providing access to information on collaborative platforms.

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In addition to these advanced resources and tangible solutions, there is a foundational and often overlooked tool in the battle against ORC—the power of communication. Understanding the elements to relationship building, development of rapport, and managing resistance are all important aspects of an investigative interview. Interviewing skills are not siloed to application in the interview room, as these communication skills apply throughout the entire investigative process. In a review of the entire context of a collaborative investigation, understanding the power of information, we can identify the areas in which communication skills can facilitate a safe, and productive case development.

The Approach

One of the most concerning aspects for retailers when addressing ORC is the safety of their employees and customers in the apprehension process. Although many organizations have moved away from physical encounters in a “hands-off” approach, there still exists an element of confrontation in the approach of a person who has possession of stolen goods. If a company has permitted their team to make an apprehension, safety is paramount, and communication skills relative to de-escalation are impactful in these situations.

The initial encounter with the subject, with specific company guidelines being followed, is an integral moment in the likelihood of success for any subsequent interview. This approach must also be made in a way to ensure safety for everyone involved. The emotional state of the investigator or loss prevention professional is an important key to this stage in the process as they most likely have been surveilling the subject for some time and are anticipating this confrontation. Investigators must be able to maintain their composure, be tactful, and show respect and empathy in the approach.

There are a variety of ways to specifically approach the person of interest and investigators should follow their company policies to ensure consistency and compliance. However, there are elements to these approaches that are universal in their application. The interviewer should promote autonomy for the subject, while being transparent and adaptable in the process.

Projecting Autonomy. Providing the subject with a feeling of autonomy allows them to maintain control over their decision-making process, which may encourage cooperation. Thanking the subject for coming back to the office peacefully acknowledges that they had made the positive choice to do so. Investigators should also thank the subject for allowing them time to get paperwork done and providing their information. These moments of gratitude are respectful and allow the subject to understand that they have the ability to make choices. Their freedom to choose encourages a cooperative mindset rather than dictating their every move.

Showing Transparency. Transparency from the investigator can provide some guidance and reduce uncertainty for the subject. Informing the interviewee of the process they are going through and explaining the purpose of the questioning shows respect and demonstrates the investigator’s willingness to be forthcoming. The use of deception—lying about evidence or the potential outcomes—may only increase the resistance and distrust from the subject. Withholding evidence and confidential information is still important, but investigators can provide some comfort by discussing the process with the subject throughout the conversation.

Being Adaptable. Adaptability is another important skillset for the interviewer, especially in a potential confrontational situation. The responsibility to maintain emotional balance and control the direction of the conversation fall onto the investigator. When approached, a subject may be verbally aggressive, dismissive, or uncertain. All these maladaptive behaviors may inhibit a positive interaction unless the investigator can redirect the dialogue. Investigators should maintain control of the situation but can do so in a supportive and conversational manner. If the subject claims “I can’t get arrested right now,” a negative (but common) response may be “Well, then you shouldn’t have stolen those items.” Instead, investigators should understand the uncertainty from the subject and adapt supportively, “I know this is difficult. I’ll walk you through the process together.”

The Interview

The conversation with a person of interest is the most obvious fit to applying interviewing skills, however investigators should be aware of the diversity of these encounters and understand their true purpose. The interviewee in these cases can range from the person with stolen goods caught in a retail store to a reseller or fencing operation. The environment in which ORC interviews are conducted is also varied as some are hosted in a loss prevention office, or field interviews at a place of business, while others may occur in a patrol car or traditional custodial environment. All these locations have their unique obstacles, but still have underlying elements consistent with successful conversations.

What’s the Goal? One of the common misses made by investigators during an interview is being solely focused on obtaining a confession, rather than a more productive goal of obtaining actionable intelligence. Getting a subject to acknowledge they stole product (while in possession of it) may be important but is a narrowly sighted approach when the goal should be to obtain additional information. Successful interviews should seek to obtain information unknown to the investigator, adding to the list of evidence compiled in the case, rather than just confirming it. A focus on understanding the extent of the theft is important to determining the total loss caused by the subject and their organization.

There are additional areas that interviewers should aim to explore outside of the quantity of theft activity. Distribution channels are an area of focus, including the method of resale and potential implications of other involved parties. Names, locations, usernames, and location of previously stolen product all produce data points essential to compiling a thorough investigation.

Interviewers may also want to determine the organizational structure, the recruitment process for new members of the group, and how they profit individually in the process. Geographic coverage, transportation details, and communication logistics are also a wealth of data. Obtaining rental car information, vehicle details, and the range of activity will help to add more information to data-sharing platforms while also understanding what jurisdictions may have an interest in the case.

Interviews, even if in a time‑restricted and unique environment, should be focused on obtaining more information in an ethical and non-confrontational manner. The investigator should also be adaptable, recognizing resistance to one topic should result in transitioning to a different area of interest. If a subject is resistant to sharing names or information on their counterparts, the interviewer may transition to exploring details as to their method of transportation. Any details that can be utilized to develop a stronger foundation for the case will be helpful for the investigator but also have a compounding effect with the increased use of data-sharing platforms and multi-jurisdictional investigations. Collecting puzzle pieces will assemble a clearer picture, and many of these details are readily available, we just need to ask the right questions.

Establishing Credibility. If a person of interest is apprehended after swiping dozens of bottles of fragrances on their way out of a retailer, they assume that the investigator only knows about their current crime. One of the obstacles when catching someone “red‑handed” is the perception that the investigation is minimal, and that ensuing conversation is strictly based off the recent event. If there is an extensive investigation, or information available through other information-sharing platforms, investigators should always be prepared for the conversation. Consistent reviews of new alerts, attendance at ORCA meetings, and maintaining updated case files assist in educating the investigator and assisting in their preparation for an inevitable interview opportunity.

Even if evidence exists within a comprehensive case file, it is recommended that interviewers withhold this evidence from the subject. Showing evidence to the interviewee presents several issues including contamination of any confession and the potential revealing of confidential information or investigative resources. This tactic may also result in obtaining less information, as the subject may assume the only information the investigator has is the evidence in which they are being shown. For example, showing the empty packages of the fragrances that were just pilfered may yield an admission to the theft, but the subject may omit acknowledgment of all the video games they took earlier.

Either way, if evidence exists or there is minimal information available, interviewers should not be deceitful in their approach, but instead speak credibly to their general investigative process. In the development of rapport, interviews should also be transparent about their potential investigative resources as well as their knowledge of the types of theft activity that exists.

Without personally directing any accusation to the subject, an interviewer may list a variety of ways they are aware that people take advantage of their company: “…sometimes customers conceal product on their person or work in collusion with employees, other times they come into our stores in groups to distract our team. We have seen our product then resold online, at local swap meets, or even in other discounted stores….” This list should be relative to the type of activities the person of interest is involved in, which provides credibility to the investigator by demonstrating their knowledge and experience in investigating these specific issues.

The investigator can then similarly list a variety of tools at their disposal routinely used in investigations. Deception should not be used here, but rather a high-level overview of resources used in ORC investigations. If an investigator can briefly describe how they rely on their camera systems, collaboration with other retailers, inventory audits, or screening of online resale platforms, they will further establish credibility in their experience. This overview should not be accusatory or personalized to the subject, but rather provide transparent insight to the process.

Showing Empathy. Showing understanding to the difficulty of the current situation facing the person being questioned is a vital element in the interview process. Although interviewers should show compassion and empathy during the conversation, they should not justify or remove the perception of consequences as this may result in obtaining unreliable statements. Empathy in these conversations applies beyond the initial approach and acknowledgment of the subject’s state of mind and potential certainties. This is also useful in the understanding of what difficulties put this person in this situation in the first place.

Empathy as it relates to the reasoning behind a person committing the crime in the first place can be demonstrated through the sharing of other relatable experiences. Interviewers should not justify a person’s actions but may be able to show understanding to their financial situation or other pressures that have resulted in their decision to be involved in this activity. Throughout the conversation, the subject may allude to their decision-making process, citing the financial benefits of their involvement or the impulsive decision. Interviewers, even if they disagree with the ethical decision made by the subject, should allow them the platform to share their story without judgment. This display of empathy may provide an opportunity for the subject to disclose information without feeling further shamed for their actions.

Questions and Answers. A productive interview can be completely disrupted by ineffective questioning techniques and the lack of active listening by the investigator. Generally speaking, direct and leading questions can create emotional resistance, result in minimal information, and also are catalysts to obtaining unreliable details. With the above “goals of the interview” in mind, investigators should strategize categories of questions to elicit as much information as possible. These questions should be delivered in a funnel approach beginning with open-ended dialogue and eventually narrowing down to specific details. Open‑ended questions may elicit a wider scope of information, whereas closed-ended questions may result in more specific details. It is a combination of these question styles in the appropriate order that proves most effective.

The transition to a more open‑ended questioning is a simple concept, but hard for investigators to adapt without intention and repetitive feedback. Asking a subject “Where do you sell the product?” may result in immediate resistance, as the subject will not want to disclose that information or may simply omit details. Instead, an interviewer may ask “Could you tell me about what happens with the product after you leave the store?” This allows the subject a bit more latitude to tell their story and also potentially incorporates additional unknown details to the interviewer.

In the first example, the subject may disclose a name of a reseller, simply stating “I sell it at John’s Corner Store.” The second, open‑ended question, requires more context and may elicit the following: “We make a call when we get in the car to let the guys know we are good, and then we head to John’s Corner Store to get rid of it.” Now, using more exploratory questions the interviewer can expand on these details, such as “…could you tell me more about the call you make?” Following the funnel approach, getting more finite details, the interview may ask echo questions “…what do you mean, ‘to get rid of it'” or closed-ended questions “…who do you call?”

The sequencing of questioning allows for the investigator to become an active listener, providing a wider scope of information for the subject to provide. Follow-up questions focused on expanding more details will then result in the specific information initially desired. The use of this approach has a greater likelihood to extract more information and actionable intelligence.

Case Presentation

The entire investigation may be comprised of surveillance notes, investigative reports, and copies of videos, but without law enforcement support it may be a fruitless endeavor. Communication skills, as utilized when approaching a subject or within the interview, can also be applied when building relationships with law enforcement professionals. Relationships are built from reputations and trust, requiring these collaborative partnerships to be built well before they may be needed.

Just as in any interview preparation, investigators should anticipate objections from their potential law enforcement or prosecutor partners. Objections may include a lack of evidence, jurisdictional authority, or cost or time burden on a department that does not have the ability to spare it. Anticipating these objections proactively allows an investigator to better prepare a case with enough supporting evidence, identifying the appropriate jurisdiction, and offering support from their own network of resources.

Keys to combating ORC are founded in the importance of collaboration and communication. Without these elements there is a lack of data available, minimal actional intelligence, and porous investigations. Effective communication skills, a strength for interviewers, should be applied in all circumstances, ranging from collaborative discussion meetings to approaching a person of interest with stolen goods. Actionable intelligence keeps us in step with the evolving nature of organized crime and can be the catalyst to closing a case that impacts much more than recovering stolen goods.

This story is a part of LPM‘s Special ORC Issue. Download the full issue for free here. 

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