The Evolution of Interviewing

Moving from Third-Degree Interrogations to Nonconfrontational Interviews

American political writer Norman Cousins said, “History is a vast early warning system.” History is certainly fascinating. It has a way of enlightening our understanding of the now while at the same time giving us motivation and hope for what can transpire tomorrow. Having a historical perspective in and of itself won’t allow for positive change to manifest. It takes knowledge along with a collective understanding and agreement that things need to change in order to make it happen. Then comes the hard part—change.

I’m a firm believer that no matter what your professional pursuit, it’s imperative for you and those with whom you interact to have a working knowledge of why you do what you do and the specific way you do it. Understanding the evolution of your profession will allow you to operate from a position of contextual intellect rather than one of blind action.

I’m going to take you on an abridged journey through the (recent) history of interview and interrogation techniques used in the United States. A multitude of books and articles are floating around the Internet (and if you dare to venture, in actual libraries) that will provide you with a considerably more extensive, unabridged, historical overview of interview and interrogation techniques. My goal isn’t to bring you back to the beginning; it’s to shine a light on how our current methodologies and practices have evolved into what we use today and, if I’m lucky, spark your desire to use the past as a springboard for improving what we do tomorrow.

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The Dawn of a New Era

Close your eyes and picture this: It’s 1930. You’ve just been arrested for a crime, and two extremely intimidating detectives are walking you into a cold, dark, soundproof interrogation room. What comes next more closely resembles something you might find on a medieval museum tour rather than what we deem acceptable practices in 2020.

interrogationThese tactics were exposed on the national platform in 1931 with the release of the Wickersham Commission report. The Wickersham Commission was a group formed by President Herbert Hoover that was tasked with examining the US criminal justice system under prohibition. The report revealed the systemic, nationwide use of “third-degree” interrogation tactics by the police, including physical and psychological torture. Leveraging these methods was likely done with the “best of intentions”—the goal being to get a confession.

The report’s exposure of these practices didn’t, on its face, enact immediate change. What it did do, however, was open the eyes of the public and judicial system to the reality that change was imminent. Physical coercion would no longer be accepted in the American criminal justice system. Or so we thought.

In the years that followed, a cascade of case law, set off with Brown v. Mississippi (1936), outlawed the use of third-degree tactics, ensuring the rights of all citizens would be safeguarded from unethical interrogation practices. (Again, so we thought.) It didn’t happen overnight, but the landscape of what the courts deemed to be acceptable interrogation techniques evolved by leaps and bounds in the following decades. Now that physical means were no longer in play, the strategy evolved to leveraging emotional connections to acquire information from subjects.

Removing physical coercion was a step in the right direction, but it wasn’t the total solution to the problem. Cases continued to surface where confessions were deemed involuntary due to the use of overt threats, psychological coercion, and a litany of other questionable tactics. As a result, in 1964, the US Supreme Court ruled in Escobedo v. Illinois that all criminal defendants had the right to an attorney during a police interrogation. Four years later, in 1968, the courts ruled in favor of the defendants in Miranda v. Arizona, extending additional safeguards to the subjects of criminal inquiries.

So Defendants Have Rights. Now What?

With the 1970s and 1980s came a wave of commonly accepted accusatorial interrogation practices. Specifically, in 1982, Wicklander-Zulawski came on the scene with a new and unconventional approach to the accusatorial interrogation. When Doug Wicklander and Dave Zulawski created the “introductory statement,” they differentiated themselves and the brand from other training providers by offering a nonconfrontational technique to both the private and public sectors.

While both the confrontational and nonconfrontational techniques were void of physical coercion, there was still possible risk if they were misused to obtain a confession from the accused no matter the cost. (Enter: false confessions.)

Though they’ve been around since the dawn of conversations, through the 1980s and early 1990s, false confessions were beginning to find a place in the international spotlight. England and Wales specifically had experienced a handful of high-visibility cases that were overturned as a result. In response, the UK joined forces to develop an effective method for interrogating subjects without the presence of an accusation. Thus, the birth of the investigative interview model known as the PEACE method (planning and preparation, engage and explain, account, closure, evaluate) came to be. This method is still used today throughout the UK, along with a handful of other countries around the globe.

The PEACE method isn’t the only type of “investigative interview” out there, however. Many methodologies in existence today find their roots in leveraging fact-finding strategies, rather than accusatorial techniques. One of the primary investigative interview methods used in the US (and around the globe) is known as the cognitive interview (CI). Introduced in the mid-1980s by Ronald Fisher and R. Edward Geiselman, this method intended to blend fact-finding interview strategies with a cognitive psychological perspective for enhancing the efficacy of memory retrieval. In layman’s terms—it is a method of communicating that helps the subject remember things they otherwise couldn’t have on their own.

Since the 1990s, training in the US has leveraged the traditional aforementioned accusatorial methods in conjunction with a handful of more progressive investigative interviewing techniques. When it comes to choosing the most appropriate accusatorial method, the two primary options available are the confrontational approach and the nonconfrontational approach. As you may have guessed, WZ tends to be partial toward nonconfrontational.

DNA testing Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the use of DNA testing to corroborate evidence in the criminal justice system shined a long-overdue light on the severity of the false confession epidemic right here in the US. This realization only further reinforced the need to shift away from confession-driven, confrontational interrogation practices to those rooted in truth-seeking, nonconfrontational, fact-finding techniques. And then September 11, 2001, happened.

Immediately following the attacks on 9/11, President George W. Bush approved the PATRIOT Act. This opened the door to the eventual implementation of what came to be known as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” These “techniques” utilized both physical and psychological torture in the hopes of extracting actionable intelligence from suspected terrorists. So what was the big deal, outside of the obvious moral and ethical issues? They didn’t (entirely) work.

Fast forward to 2009 when, based on the findings from an exhaustive government-led investigation, President Obama created the task force that eventually led to the establishment of the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, otherwise known as the HIG. The role of the HIG is twofold. First, they conduct ethical interrogations to collect actionable intelligence on high-value targets. Second, they research current interrogation methodologies and develop evidence-based, effective approaches to be shared with the public.

This Brings Us to Today

The interview and interrogation landscape of 2020 America is one of contention, reflection, and most importantly change. The interrogator’s focus is shifting away from being confession-oriented and moving toward where it should have been from day one: finding the truth. We’re accomplishing this by providing a suite of nonconfrontational interview methodologies to choose from, dependent on the nature of the interaction. Being tied to one singular accusatory method can lead the interviewer to possibly leverage a technique that may not be the most appropriate option for the case at hand. Outfitting interviewers with as many tools as possible to get to the truth is the goal.

It’s not as easy as merely “providing options.” This task requires forging partnerships between academics, training institutions, law enforcement agencies, the private sector, and beyond. In doing so, we improve upon our current methodologies while creating new techniques aimed at reducing the occurrence of false confessions and increasing the likelihood of obtaining truthful ones.

What the future holds for the interview and interrogation landscape is up to all of us. As practitioners in this industry, we must continuously push the status quo and ask the question, “How can we do better?”

Improvement and intentional evolution come from being educated on what brought us to where we are today while having the foresight to anticipate what may be coming around the corner tomorrow. In the last few years, with the upsurge in digital communication and the viral spread of content, the general public has been exposed to the tragic reality of what can happen should an individual be subjected to interrogation techniques that don’t appropriately meet the situation at hand.

I like to believe that we’re all in this for the same reason—to do the right thing. This is only possible by offering training that meets current demands, is rooted in evidence-based best practices, and is delivered in a manner that stresses the necessary safeguards that need to be implemented before ever engaging in the interaction in the first place.

In the not-so-distant future, we will see targeted efforts to increase awareness from both a “top-down” and a “bottom-up” approach. It’s imperative to educate the decision-makers on the importance of implementing a robust interview training curriculum to outfit their teams with the resources they need to complete their jobs. We will also see increased attention targeting those individuals who are new to the industry, both at the college and academy levels. Getting grassroots exposure to best practices and developing an understanding of how to effectively communicate will pay dividends for the coming generations.

The training options available to the consumer will also continue to evolve. Virtual education will not only provide new and innovative ways to train current consumers, but also act as a venue for introducing training to those who may never have been previously reached. Education is the first step. Implementation follows suit.

We will continue to see an increase in the partnerships between practitioners and academics in the effort to further understand what methodologies are the most ethical and effective in obtaining the truth. We will continue to research and implement a suite of interview methodologies to provide a proper perspective for the dynamic range of scenarios our consumer base finds themselves in. From trauma interviewing, to tactical field interviews, to fact-finding and accusatorial—the variety of methods both researched and taught to the public will continue to grow and evolve. The surge toward all interviews and interrogations being recorded, both in the public and private sectors, will continue to move forward, eventually becoming legally mandated (at least for the public sector).

As the increase in visibility and awareness continues to grow within interview/interrogation training, we can expect to see a proportionate influx of new providers to hit the scene, each offering the next “best and brightest” tools to get the job done. As with anything, the impetus will lie squarely on the consumer to ensure they are educated, aware, and understand what programs best meet the needs of their respective organizations.

As for WZ, we will continue to lead the way as thought leaders. We will challenge ourselves to reflect on historical standards, question current practices, and innovate to provide the next wave of professionals with the most effective training available to get the job done. Stagnation breeds complacency. We will keep our eyes focused squarely on what lies ahead while being purposeful not to lose sight of the history that paved our way here.

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