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The History of Interrogation According to Wicklander-Zulawski

BACKGROUND: Several years ago, the team at Wicklander-Zulawski was asked to discuss the history of interrogation at a conference along with its present situation and possible implications for the future.

When we originally began thinking about this project, we thought it might be as simple as doing a book report relating the facts as compiled by some prestigious historian. Unfortunately, we could not find a book like this. Our search did uncover one text called The History of Interrogation, which seemed to be the answer to our prayers.

With great anticipation, we explored the pages that listed interrogations throughout the ages. None of the listed interrogations contained any of the questioning techniques employed by our ancestors. However, the final sentence of many of the descriptions of the interrogations contained the words “hanged,” “drawn,” and “quartered.” It seems our ancestors were nothing if not thorough.

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Since we have neither a degree in history nor the academic qualifications to produce a definitive history of interrogation, you will have to be satisfied with the history of interrogation according to Wicklander-Zulawski. What we hope to do here is to follow some threads of history and weave them into a story of how we got to today’s interview and interrogation techniques. Fortunately, we have been part of much of the recent history of interrogation.

In the Beginning–Literally

The earliest interrogation we could locate seemed to revolve around the theft of an apple. On the surface, the theft would seem harmless, but it apparently had major implications for the human race, if one reads the biblical record. The story of Adam and Eve as told in the Bible’s book of Genesis 3.8–12 relates the serpent’s temptation of Eve to eat an apple from the forbidden tree.

Adam and Eve hide themselves from God’s presence after eating the apple.

God calls to Adam “Where art thou?” and Adam responds, “I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” When God then asks Adam if he had eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam responds that his wife had told him to.

The resolution of this case was probably easier than most, since according to the Bible, Adam and Eve were the only possible suspects. However, if we examine this first interrogation, several things become evident.

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First, there is a change in the behavior of Adam and Eve—they now recognize that they are naked and hide themselves from God. When we think about our experiences in today’s interviews, we often see changes in the individual’s verbal and physical behavior because of their fear of detection.

Second, we see the first evidence of a rationalization as Adam blames Eve for initiating the eating of the apple. Here Adam shifts the blame to Eve, offering an excuse to God for the reason he partook of the apple. It seems rationalization is an integral part of human nature.

We might also take another example from the biblical record and the wisdom of King Solomon. The Book of Kings reports the following account of a case that was brought before King Solomon’s court in Jerusalem.

Two women came to King Solomon and stood before him. One woman [1] said: “My Lord, this woman and I dwell in the same house. She arose during the night and took my son from my side while I was asleep, and lay him in her bosom, and her dead son she laid in my bosom.”

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The other woman [2] replied: “It is not so! My son is the live one and your son is the dead one!”

The first woman [1] responded: “It is not so! Your son is the dead one and my son is the living one!”

Then King Solomon said: “This woman [2] claims ‘My son is the live one and your son is the dead one,’ and this woman [1] claims ‘Your son is the dead one and my son is the living one!'”

King Solomon said, “Cut the living child in two, and give half to one and half to the other.”

The woman [2] turned to the King, because her compassion was aroused for her son, and said: “Please my Lord, give her the living child and do not kill it!”

The King said, “Give her [2] the living child, and do not kill it, for she is his mother!”

This may be the first example of statement analysis. King Solomon had been given great wisdom by God, and he used it here in the analysis of the two women statements. “This woman [2] claims ‘My son is the live one and your son is the dead one,’ and this woman [1] claims ‘Your son is the dead one and my son is the living one!'”

The positioning of the words “my son” is important in analyzing this statement. Woman 2 places what is most important to her at the beginning of the sentence while Woman 1 abdicates the child to the end of the sentence. Further evidence of her love for the child is contained in the final statement of the woman where she wishes to preserve the child’s life, rather than have the baby killed.

This example probably is also the first written example of a bluff (killing the child) during an interrogation. The deceitful woman gave herself away with her cruelty encouraging the King to sever the child, thus further providing convincing proof to the onlookers of her lie.

Other Techniques from the Early History of Interrogation

Using the fact that we experience physiological changes when there is a fear of the action, our ancestors recognized an advantage that they could use to resolve questions of truthfulness during an interrogation. One of the physiological observations that were made concerned the dryness of the mouth that occurred when someone was deceptive.

In China, circa 1000 BC, individuals were told to place uncooked rice in their mouths and hold it while they were questioned during the interrogation. The truthful individual whose mouth contained saliva would spit out wet globular pieces of rice, while the deceptive individuals would spit out dry rice kernels. Here the physiological response to the fear of detection causes the deceptive individual’s mouth to dry as a result of the natural diuretic response to increased stress during the interrogation.

In India around 500 BC, they made use of the sacred donkey as a means of detecting deception. A donkey was placed in a tent and the suspects were told the donkey was sacred and had a direct link to God. Each of the suspects was told to enter the tent and pull on the donkey’s tail. When the guilty party pulled on the tail, the donkey would bray and identify the person responsible for the crime. The innocent subjects entered the tent and pulled on the donkey’s tail knowing that God would exonerate them of the crime. However, the guilty individual, fearing detection, did not pull on the tail and left the tent. The priest then examined each of the suspect’s hands. Unbeknownst to the suspects, the priest had coated the donkey’s tail with lamp black (soot) so the suspect without soot on his hands was identified as the guilty party. Here, our ancestors recognized individuals’ change of behavior as a result of their fear of detection.

Supposedly in Africa, suspects were asked to pass an ostrich egg to one another and if one dropped it he was the guilty party. The physiological basis of this test was probably the idea that the more nervous individual would be more likely to drop the egg because of their fear of detection. In addition, they would likely be more distracted handling the egg, increasing the probability of damaging it.

During the Middle Ages, people turned to torture and humiliation to extract confessions and punish the transgressors during the interrogation process. The torturers constructed unbelievably terrible devices to cause pain to extract a confession from the unwilling. From the rack, which stretched the secured legs and arms by pulling in opposite directions, to the Iron Maiden, which confined the individual inside a tube containing sharp spikes that pressed into the body from all directions, each was designed to cause excruciating pain over a long period of time.

The interrogators perfected many of their designs during the Spanish and Medieval Inquisitions carried out by the Church to identify heretics. Scholars vary on the number of people killed using these devices during the inquisitions, but they generally place the number of people killed between 40,000 and 100,000.

In 1692, the Salem witch trials began in the United States. These trials resulted in the hanging of nineteen men and women accused of being witches. Some said that witches could be identified by being bound and thrown into water. If they came to the surface and floated, they were a witch; however, if they drowned, they were innocent.

The Salem witch trials are one of the first uses of taking a deposition and preserving a court record of legal proceedings we could find in the United States. The defendants and witnesses testimony was transcribed and became a permanent record of the interrogation. It was only in the fall of 1692 that the court refused to allow testimony relating to apparitions supposedly observed by witnesses. These apparitions were the basis of testimony that convicted many of the people in the spring when the witch trials began.

From these observations, it is clear that our ancestors recognized there were behavioral changes associated with attempts at deception during the interrogation, and they devised a variety of means to identify and test an individual’s truthfulness.

The Origins of Today’s Techniques

This section reviews the more recent past, beginning in the late 1800s to the present interrogation practices of loss prevention and the police.

The Third Degree

The third degree, trickery, and deceit mentioned by the US Supreme Court in the Brown v.Mississippi decision has its origins in New York City. Inspector Thomas Brynes headed up the New York City detective bureau from 1880 to 1895, when he was forced to resign. Ever the politically savvy officer, Brynes was a pro at self-promotion, choreographing arrests to bolster his image with the public. He was critical of Scotland Yard’s ineffectiveness at solving the Jack the Ripper murders in London, claiming he would have solved the case long ago.

Brynes coined the phrase “the third degree” to describe his interrogation technique for eliciting confessions from criminal suspects. The first degree was the policeman who apprehended the suspect, the second degree was the investigating detective, and the third degree was Brynes and his interrogation tactics. He would use any means to obtain a confession from someone he believed was guilty, including trickery, deceit, or physical beatings. Besides beatings, Brynes would also use phony witnesses and staged encounters between suspects to convince them their guilt was known.

In 1931, the Wickersham Commission, examining law enforcement practices and prohibition, found the use of the third degree interrogation as practiced by Brynes was widespread across the United States. August Vollmer, the primary author of the commission’s report who later became chief of the Berkeley (CA) Police Department is considered by many to be the father of modern law enforcement methods, originating many of the concepts of police work used today.

World War II

After the widespread use of the third-degree interrogation, Germany and the United States during World War II developed similar interrogation strategies to obtain information from prisoners of war. Hanns Scharff, master interrogator at Dulag Luft, was responsible for interrogating airmen captured during bombing raids over Europe. It was said that he never failed to obtain information from the downed airmen. His interrogation strategy employed a sophisticated intelligence-gathering system cataloguing the minutia of everyday life on the Allied bomber bases. Using this information during the interrogation he would convince airmen the information was already known, thus opening conversations that would confirm and add new information to the database.

In one anecdote, Hanns was walking with an airman in the woods holding an innocent conversation when he made mention of the change of color of the tracer rounds flash on the fighter aircraft. The airmen innocently told him this was to let the pilot know he was almost out of ammunition. During a later dogfight with a German ace, there was a change in the American’s tracer color and the German pilot disengaged from the dogfight in order to let the American live.

Similar to Hanns Scharff was Major Sherwood F. Moran, USMC. Major Sherwood was assigned to interrogate captured Japanese in the Pacific theater of World War II. The Major had extensive experience with the Japanese culture having lived there for years along with a native speaker’s ability with the language. Major Sherwood began each interrogation telling the soldier he was now safe. The conversation then turned to the common Japanese experience that they both shared before he began delving into the intelligence gathering process.

Both the United States and Germany had extensive intelligence operations to support their troops. The United States had sophisticated camps on both coasts dedicated to the interrogation of POWs from both theaters of the war. These operations were unlike the Japanese, Korean, Chinese, or Vietnamese prison camps, where Americans were tortured or brainwashed. It is interesting that the United States chose enhanced interrogation methods with terrorists after the success they achieved using non-confrontational interrogation during World War II on both sides of the conflict.


The beginning of an emotional approach to interrogation can be traced to the polygraph. Polygraph examiners found themselves having to interrogate suspects without using evidence. In most situations, a suspect was taking a polygraph because he was suspected and had not confessed based on the information available to investigators. The examiner could use the polygraph as a prop during interrogation and then repeat the evidence available, but this was generally an ineffective means of interrogation.

Early polygraph examiners were in a difficult position since the technique had not been validated. Testing sequences were in the early stages of development. As the polygraph examiners conducted more tests, they observed physical and verbal responses from the subjects prior to the test that helped them reach a correct conclusion. The polygraph pretest gave the examiner a check and balance against later polygraph charts to assist in a correct truth or deception conclusion. If the examiner observed a deceptive pretest from the subject, he would expect to see deceptive charts during the testing sequence, or vice versa—truthful pretest, truthful charts.

This was an effective means of identifying the subject’s true status, independent of the polygraph. In the mid-1970s, Douglas Wicklander began working on using the pretest independent of the polygraph to investigate cases. The behavioral interview became a standard investigative tool to resolve general loss and specific issue cases in situations where the polygraph was too expensive or time-consuming to use. In fact, the behavioral interview took the place of the polygraph after Congress passed the Employee Polygraph Protection Act, which limited an employer’s ability to use the examination.

Emotional Interrogation

Polygraph examinations also provided the seminal point for development of the emotional interrogation of a suspect. Early polygraph examiners had significant needs during the interrogation of a guilty suspect. First, the examiners needed an additional check and balance to assure the accuracy of their conclusion. They already had the polygraph pretest, which would confirm the accuracy of their decision, but they needed more when they were dealing with deceptive charts. What they used was a direct accusation at the beginning of the interrogation to elicit behavioral clues from the suspect that were typical of innocence or guilt. A statement such as, “Our investigation clearly indicates you’re responsible for [insert crime].” The subject’s reaction to this statement helped the examiner confirm a deceptive conclusion. Generally, the deceptive subject reacted to this statement with less aggressiveness than a truthful person, thus adding another confirmation to the examiner’s conclusion.

The examiner now had to interrogate the deceptive subject, but it was unlikely that using the evidence or information developed during the investigation would be sufficient to obtain a confession. Generally, that information had been used by the investigator already, and its use had been unproductive. The answer to this problem came from sales. The salesman provides his potential customer with benefits of the product to satisfy the customer’s needs. In the post-polygraph interrogation, the subject’s needs tend to revolve around his self-image.

The polygraph examiner could now talk about why the individual participated in the incident, rather than discuss how the crime was committed. In a factual discussion of how the crime was committed, even a small error by the investigator in restating the method of the crime could be disastrous. The polygraph examiners were able to avoid this by simply discussing the reasons why the individual became involved in the incident. This provided the benefit of a face-saving device for the subject, and an opportunity for the examiner to interrogate at length without discussing the evidence.

Sales Techniques

Sales also provided the early examiners with additional helpful components. The way a salesman would handle a customer’s objection, such as “I don’t need more life insurance,” was to agree, yet turn the objection around into another reason why the customer should buy. The examiner would likely hear, “I wouldn’t do something like that. I have money in the bank.” In the same way that the salesman handled the objection, the examiner handled the explanatory denial by agreeing and then changing the rationalization impulsiveness to support the individual’s self-image.

Another component coming from sales was recognizing the buy signs the customer was ready to make a purchase. The examiners noted the individual making a decision to confess would drop their heads, become quiet, and perhaps even tear up. Recognizing the person was ready to confess, the examiner needed to ask for the admission.

Salespeople quickly learned if they asked a customer if he wanted to buy their product, they were often rejected. Instead, a salesman asked for the sale assumptively. “Do you want ten boxes or fifteen?” “Do you want to take delivery today or first thing tomorrow?” The examiners offered a choice question based on the rationalization they were using. “Did you plan it out or do it on the spur of the moment?” “Was it your idea or someone else’s?” Selection of either of the choices was the individual’s first admission to the crime.

It was the early polygraph examiners’ technique that combined behavioral observations, behavioral interview, and the emotional appeal to the suspect into what we use in today’s loss prevention interrogation.

The Future of the Interrogative Process

With the smudges wiped from our crystal ball, we will gaze forward through the foggy mists of time and divine the future…pet rock…brick phones…gold at $600! Ah, here we go…

Changing Regulations

Interviewing and interrogation will be under attack in the next decade by a host of critics attempting to force changes that fit their agendas. This is a similar pattern to the way the polygraph was attacked in the late 1970s and ’80s.

It began with academics criticizing the validity and scientific basis for the polygraph. They were then joined by unions who strongly opposed the use of the polygraph in an employment environment. The cause was then picked up by partisan politics, which ended up passing The Employee Polygraph Protection Act that largely prohibited pre-employment and periodic polygraph testing by private companies. Although some entities, such as the federal government, police departments, armored car services, and nuclear facilities, were exempt, most of the pre-employment and periodic polygraph testing by companies was prohibited. Even specific issue testing was highly restricted by the Polygraph Protection Act.

It is unlikely the interviewing and interrogation process will be restricted by the passage of a law through Congress since the private sector is highly organized through its lobbyists in the National Retail Federation, Retail Industry Leaders Association, and others. It is much more likely that any restrictions to employer interviews and interrogations will come as part of regulations put out by the Department of Labor or other government entities.

Changing Interview “Style”

If we look to the United Kingdom in the 1980s, their entire policing philosophy relating to interview and interrogation was changed as a result of several high-profile miscarriages of justice. The academics examining police practices and politicians caused a revamping of the interview-and-interrogation process, replacing it with what was commonly referred to as PEACE. The acronym PEACE stands for:

  • Planning and preparation
  • Engage and explain
  • Account clarification and challenge
  • Closure
  • Evaluation

Effectively, the PEACE model prohibited the current style of interrogation used in the United States. It prohibited the use of a rationalization and a persuasive argument to obtain a confession. Instead, the approach is more of a cognitive interview encouraging in-depth and detailed accountings of the person’s alibi or sequence of events.

The change in the United Kingdom’s approach to criminal cases has started to find its way into the Canadian law enforcement model. The Canadian model of interrogation was confrontational, using a direct accusation and rationalization to obtain an admission. The Canadian courts have slowly been undermining this type of interrogation, seeming to swing their model closer to that of the United Kingdom and away from the United States.

In the United States, we have seen a similar push with the advent of DNA testing. There have been a number of cases across the United States where miscarriages of justice incarcerated innocent people. In some of these cases, there were instances of false confessions that caused further criticism of the interrogation style being used here in the United States. The critics, it seems, think that interrogation focused on confession is coercive and immoral.

As a result of the trends in the United Kingdom, Canada, and here in the United States, we can undoubtedly expect a push to alter our current interrogation methods. It would not be unexpected for unions to join with the academics and university innocence projects in an attempt to force their will on the current interrogation styles.

Changing Demographics

With the change in population growth indicating that the Hispanic population will reach nearly 30 percent of the total population in the United States in the coming years, we should anticipate changes that will relate to language and culture.

Since the early 1970s, Generations X and Y have initiated changes as well, based upon the way they work and think. We have developed the non-confrontational approach to interrogation, which meets the needs of the newer generations to collaborate, rather than simply be instructed how to do a job.

Based on the current need for Hispanic interviewers, we anticipate several things to occur. First, competent Spanish-speaking interviewers will be in high demand across the United States. As Spanish-speaking interviewers are trained, there will still be a need to resolve cases that could overwhelm the current supply of bilingual interviewers.

Because of the shortage of Spanish-speaking interviewers, the use of telephone interviewing will increase so organizations can maximize the use of the existing Spanish-speaking assets they have. Having bilingual investigators available at a central point by phone will allow companies to meet their needs in the coming years.

Changing Technology

Some organizations may move from telephone interviewing to using video conferencing tools, such as Skype, to conduct interviews. Although there will be some advantage to being able to observe the employee, we believe that many organizations will continue to use telephone conferencing to avoid having a picture of the interviewer available to the associate. People construct a more favorable perception based on a voice than they might have if they saw a picture of the person speaking to them. The expanded and continued use of the phone will be a foundation of future loss prevention strategies.

As exception-based reporting continues to be refined, we also expect employees will be identified earlier in their theft schemes and removed from employment. As a result, the overall admissions made by dishonest employees will likely reduce in the coming years.

There is also a trend among a number of organizations to return to general loss interviewing at high-shrink locations. We think many organizations will begin to develop high-quality interviewing teams who will handle the interviews for store and district personnel. These teams will be the closers for the loss prevention department, taking the initial case development and holding the final conversation with the associate to obtain the admission. This will likely result in a more thorough examination of the associate’s dishonesty, and it will result in better written and audio statements from the employee.

With the current trend in law enforcement to record interviews and interrogations, we expect that this will spill over into the private sector. A number of organizations are currently taking audio statements in place of handwritten confessions, and we expect to see an expansion to the recording of the entire conversation with the associate.

As entire interviews are conducted, it is likely that there will be much more monitoring and measuring of interviewer effectiveness by managers and senior executives. Initially, there may be resistance, but as the costs for recording equipment come down, it is likely to become a standard for the industry.


This article was first published in 2011 and updated December 6, 2017.

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