Information vs. Confession: New Police Interrogators

Punch & Judy, police

photo: Dan Dickinson, creative commons license

Mystery and crime fiction readers (and writers!) may soon encounter a new approach to police interrogation that may be more effective at producing solid information and valid confessions. Until the mid-1930s, suspected criminals were subjected to the “third degree,” which often included bodily harm or at least the threat of it—like dangling a suspect out of a window (!).

Currently, police mostly use confrontational techniques “a rusty, stalwart invention that’s been around since the days of JFK,” says reporter Robert Kolker in the current issue of Wired.

These supposedly more scientific techniques are based on psychological manipulation, in which police attempt to persuade their suspect that confession is their only reasonable choice. Hallmarks of the technique are the claustrophobic interview room in which detectives appear absolutely convinced of a suspect’s guilt and present a damning version of facts (and even made up “facts”) that paint the suspect as the culprit. (If you want to see a memorable demonstration of this technique, check out this terrific YouTube clip from The Wire.)

The developers of confrontational interrogation justified the use of false information and other tricks because they—and many cops trained in their methods as well as judges and prosecutors—were convinced an innocent person simply would not confess to a crime he did not commit. This post demonstrates what a tragically wrongful conviction that was. Evidence against its reliability started piling up when DNA analysis became available and a large number of convictions were thrown out, even though the accused at some point “confessed.” Further, and contrary to expectation, Kolker says, “The more confident police officers are about their judgments, the more likely they are to be wrong.”

Now a growing number of police departments, starting with the LAPD, recognizes the shaky science behind these methods and are moving to an “investigative” approach more similar to that long used in England and Canada. As a joint effort of the FBI, CIA and Pentagon, the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) studied interrogation techniques around the world, with an eye to producing valid confessions and avoiding false ones among terrorists. Bottom line: “If you want accurate information, be as non-accusatorial as possible.” Now they are trying to spread the word throughout domestic police departments.

I can see changes in fiction—plots where one officer is trained in the HIG techniques, but the partner resists; repeat criminals unnerved by the change in police attitude; and the expansion of information police have to work with when their questioning causes suspects to simply clam up. Of course, in both fiction and real life, many skilled interviewers have used these techniques for years, without official sanction. (Fictional detective Lt. Colombo comes immediately to mind as a possible, possibly extreme example.) Any attempt to change the culture of policing is ripe for drama.

9 thoughts on “Information vs. Confession: New Police Interrogators

  1. Sorry, comment is late but am only just catching up with your website which I found by clicking on your name in a comment on a recent Jane Friedman blog ( the one about bookstores not coming back, I think).
    Do you have any more sources or articles where I could read more about HIG?
    It sounds innovative at first glance, but isn’t that technique like the “good cop” part of the “good cop/bad cop ” routine?
    Anyway, in general, I think your website is awesome. I especially love the header image. Very moody and evocative.

    • Thank you! Compliments from a fellow thriller writer are so appreciated! A quick google search suggests there’s more information about HIG as deployed in terrorism cases than in conventional policing (including a pan from HuffPost). That may be because police departments are only starting to adopt it in a recognized way. Although the lengthy Wired article did not make this point, as I said in my summary, I believe many skilled interrogators have always used such techniques, as you express it, the “good cop” approach, but without the “bad cop.” It’s almost like therapy–just keep them talking and eventually the important stuff will come out!

      • Hi Victoria, thanks so much for such a prompt and helpful reply. In the meantime, I was able to catch up on some more of your posts for writers. Really like your ideas, so I have signed up for subscription to your future posts. Look forward to reading more!

  2. All the homicide detectives I’ve taken classes from or interviewed in the last five years stress the importance of building up a rapport with the suspect, and to using tricks and threats only as a last resort, not the least because coersion gets a case bounced.

    The “narrow window” is something they all still mention (suggest the suspect has a narrow window for escaping the worst possible outcome, so they go for it and incriminate themselves)…

  3. Where’s the rubber hose? I was watching the finale of Chicago PD last night and the tough guy hero forced a suspect’s face down onto a hot stove burner. As far as false confessions, any investigator worth his or her salt knows that a confession should be corroborated by other evidence. It’s not simply getting the bad guy to admit to something he didn’t do.

    • If only that “evidence” (or the lack of it) didn’t leave situations open to interpretation, with all the preconceived notions, prejudices, and weaknesses entailed therunto! But a hot stove burner? That’s going a bit far . . . !

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