Random Lessons from the Room: Part One

Conversations often take strange turns, leading where we never expect them to go. Such a conversation inspired this column discussing the lessons we’ve learned during tens of thousands of interviews. We opened this topic up to our interviewers, so they could also share things that they have learned over the years in the room.

The Truth Often Has Many Versions

The truth can be an elusive thing. Determining the truth can often be problematic even when there may be audiovisual evidence of what happened. Four cameras covered the slide of the runner as the third baseman took the throw and swung his mitt to touch the advancing runner. The umpire was carefully positioned and observed the play calling the runner out. The manager protested the call, and the umpires gathered to review the video evidence of the play. While the play was clearly close, after attempting to tag the runner out the third baseman pursued the runner reinitiating the tag when he reached third base. Immediately the announcers raised questions suggesting the third baseman had actually missed the tag. Depending on the camera angle, there was no independent verification that the umpire had blown the call. The end result—the base runner was out as the play was called.

Sometimes the truth can be altered because of the position of the observer. In this case, the third-base umpire was in the best position to closely examine whether or not the third baseman actually made contact with the runner. Fans who were biased for the runner argued the third baseman’s actions after the attempted tag showed that he believed he had missed touching the runner.

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So the truth can change as a result of biases, assumptions, position, or other qualifiers, which might shade even the truthful witness’s testimony. Many times the guilty individual will intentionally shade the truth in an attempt to salvage his self-image or to reduce the seriousness of what he has done.

For the investigator it is often difficult to know with absolute certainty what the real truth might be. Instead, the investigator has to use the physical evidence, witness testimony, or other information to piece together what is the most likely series of events.

Don’t Give Up Your Evidence

Since it can be difficult to tell when people are lying, shading the truth, fabricating events, or just omitting details that may incriminate them, the investigator can use what evidence is available to evaluate the stories, sequence of events, or alibis of the main players.

If the individual was aware of all the information available to the investigator, he could begin to alter his story to match the evidence uncovered during the investigation. However, when the investigator withholds the evidence and allows the individual to tell his story, the evidence can help determine the veracity of the individual. One common problem during conversations with those suspected of wrongdoing is that the investigator contaminates a confession by talking about evidence, alluding to evidence, or using leading questions that infer the correct answer.

Evidence can also be given up by using an incorrect assumptive question to obtain the first admission. For example, if the subject is suspected of creating fraudulent refunds to steal money, many investigators might ask for the first admission using this question—“What is the most number of fraudulent refunds you created to take money from the company?”

If one was to use an assumptive question relating directly to the refund, you have indirectly told the subject what is most likely known and where his exposure in the investigation lies. This question may also infer that the investigator does not know about any other forms of cash thefts the employee has participated in. This results in the employee making fewer admissions because he doesn’t believe the investigator knows about the other areas of theft. Had the investigator used an assumptive question that said, “What is the most amount of money that you took from the company in the last year?” This question addresses a broad area of the investigation, which has revealed the employee stole money but not the method used to do so. The employee may now offer an admission to taking money right out of the register or voiding sales leaving the investigator with his knowledge of the individual using fraudulent refunds to steal cash. The investigator now knows in absolute terms that the employee is lying by omission, and there is additional development of the admission to be done.

In any interview where the individual confirms facts that were not related to him by the investigator, it helps substantiate that the subject is giving a truthful confession.

What Is the Common Denominator?

If there is a problem with the outcome of an interview or a conversation always seems to cause someone to deny, it is most likely going to happen because of something the interviewer is doing or saying that contributes to the problem. The common denominator in multiple interviews is the interviewer, not the subject. What this tells us is the interviewer’s statements or actions must be contributing to these difficulties.

When investigators come to us saying, “I always have this problem,” the first thing we begin to do is look at what the interviewer has done and said up to that event. By examining what came before the problem, we are often able to determine how to correct these difficulties. For many investigators, it’s the problem of developing an admission beyond what was already known from the investigation. With this problem, it’s often the assumptive question that contributes to the lack of development. For example, if an investigator watched an employee steal $20 out of the terminal and put it in the right front pocket, he may choose to ask the individual to remove the money from their pocket immediately. Now the employee knows he is caught but also can surmise that this is the only thing the investigator knows and thus is confident that he can claim that this $20 theft was the only time he had taken money. Had the investigator gone through with the interview and asked the individual, “When was the very first time you took money from the company? It wasn’t your first day on the job was it?” The investigator now has an opportunity to expand the scope of the admission and ultimately develop the admission to a more accurate amount.

Most of the problems in the interview are caused by the interviewer. These problems can vary, but ultimately they are the responsibility of the interviewer. It could be the tone of voice, word usage, strategy, failure to rationalize, or any of a dozen other things the interviewer is doing wrong. If you’re having problems, examine carefully what you’re doing and saying that may be contributing to the problem.

Rarely Catch the Person the Very First Time

For everyone, there will be a very first time that they have done something wrong or committed a crime. However, people tend to fall into patterns of behavior that they can rationalize and justify internally. Also, people become more careless and have less fear of being caught the more often they do something. The very first time a crime is committed, there is a significant emotional and physiological reaction to their fear of detection, but this diminishes as they have success in their crimes.

There are likely to be other indicators that a person is likely to be involved in theft activity. Dissatisfaction, poor workmanship, and frequent absences can all be indications that someone is unhappy in their position and can therefore justify a criminal act. Even in a murder where a husband takes his wife’s life, there are likely to be other actions he took during the relationship that could have contributed to the ultimate death. It would be highly unusual for a spouse to kill their partner unless it was preceded by some form of verbal or physical abuse, infidelity, or some other event that was a precursor to the murder.

Prior to the interview, consider what the individual has done and what other related types of incidents would be of a similar nature. For example, a residential burglar could also easily rationalize a simple theft, shoplifting, or other property crime because they are closely related and likely to provide items that could be converted into cash.

We will continue our discussion of lessons from the room in our next column.

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