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Designing an Interview/Interrogation Room

March-April 2010 (click here for printable version)

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I recently taught at a newly constructed police department. The architecture was beautiful featuring a massive open community room. The detective's work area was equally impressive with state of the art computer terminals, surveillance monitors and communication system. However, the interview room was right out of the 1960's. There was a table in the middle of the room and the suspect sat on a stainless steel bench bolted to the floor. The investigators' two chairs were on the opposite side of the table. Presumably, the suspect's bench was bolted to the floor to prevent movement away from the camera's view (which was mounted in plain sight in the upper corner of the room). As for the stainless steel finish, perhaps it is easy to clean up after an intense interrogation. This department, as well as probably many others, needs to catch up to the 21st century when it comes to designing a room for conducting interviews and interrogations.

Why is this important? Learning the truth from suspects, victims and witnesses is difficult enough without creating additional barriers within the room environment. The most important consideration is that the room should afford the subject privacy. Very simply, it is much easier to tell the truth to a single person than multiple individuals. Second, the environment should not remind the subject of the consequences awaiting him should he decide to tell the truth. After all, trying to avoid these consequences is what motivates the guilty subject's deception. Finally, the investigator should be aware of how the room will be perceived by a jury viewing a video-taped interrogation. Will the room's appearance raise issues of duress or coercion?

Location of the interview room: Ideally, an interview room should be placed away from reminders of what the suspect will face should he or she decide to tell the truth. Just as it is much more difficult for a person to tell the truth if his parent, spouse or supervisor is present, it is difficult for people to tell the truth when they can hear cell doors slam or know that the first people they will face once they leave the room will be co-workers. In a law enforcement setting, the interview room should be away from booking areas, holding cells and barred jail cells. In the private sector, the room should be removed from the employee's work area.

Construction: The interview room should be large enough for three individuals to sit comfortably, but not so large that the suspect can psychologically escape into the void. A dimension of 8' x 10' works well. The walls and ceiling should be well insulated to dampen outside noises. For the same reason, the door should be made of solid material, but certainly not resemble a cell door. Unless the room is exclusively used for custodial interviews, it is recommended not to have a lock on the door. The room should not have any windows to the outside or interior glass panes. Even if these are covered with drapes, the presence of windows decreases the desired sense of privacy.

For a floor covering, a short fiber carpet works well in that it absorbs sound and is easy to vacuum. The walls may be painted a light pastel color, reflecting an office-like appearance. The room should have its own thermostat and a quiet vent fan, if the circulation is poor.

The walls should be free from distracting art-work and certainly not reinforce consequences, e.g., a display of police patches from departments across the state or framed certificates from interviewing and interrogation courses attended. If there is an adjacent observation room, the two-way mirror should be placed at a height of about five feet; the subject should not be able to see his own reflection in the mirror when seated.

The preceding describes the three walls visible to the subject. The wall behind the subject is different. Because it is out of the subject's constant sight, It may be desirable to place art work on this wall to give the sense of an office setting. This is particularly desirable if the interview/interrogation is electronically recorded. The view jurors see resembles a non-threatening office setting. If the room contains a clock, it should be placed on this back wall -- Suspects are plenty defiant on their own without having a clock staring them in the face reminding them of how long they have been in the interrogation room.

Furniture: The room should contain four pieces of furniture - a writing surface (desk or table) and three chairs. One of these chairs is for an observer (partner, parent, union representative, etc.) the other two are for the investigator and the subject. The subject's chair should not have arms, which tend to restrict movement, nor a swivel seat or castors. It should be a basic chair one might find in a waiting room or reception area. The investigator should sit in a chair similar to the subject's, certainly not one which is more comfortable or luxurious. The investigator's chair in our office has a hinged writing desk that is brought up for note taking during the interview, but taken down during the interrogation.

It is a major error to have any barrier (desk or table) between the investigator and subject's chair. A guilty suspect will use that barrier as a shield and he will feel more confident and protected when lying to the investigator. In addition, the desk or table will conceal the subject's lower body movements which are critical for interpreting nonverbal behavior. Consequently, the desk or table should be positioned off to the side. The observer's chair should be placed behind, and to the side of, the subject's, perhaps on the other side of the desk or table. The goal here is to have the observer out of the suspect's sight, so as to minimize the violation of privacy represented by having a third person in the room.

Electronic Recording: Any newly constructed interview room should be designed to accommodate potential electronic recording - if it is not already required in your state, eventually it probably will be. There are a number of basic considerations. First, the camera should be positioned to view the subject's entire body, from head to toe. Remember that the purpose for the recording is not only to document that the suspect was properly treated, but also to reveal his emotional state and physical well being. A problem that is sometimes encountered is that if the investigator sits directly in front of the subject (which has several benefits), but the investigator's head may block the camera. To avoid this, the camera should be placed at a height of about six feet and view the subject at a slight angle.

Second, any recording device (camera, tape recorder, microphone) should be concealed and surreptitious (unless otherwise required by law). This can be accomplished by placing a camera behind a two-way mirror, using a camera lens disguised as a thermostat or placing a microphone underneath the desk. Research and experience clearly indicate that it is not the act of electronic recording that inhibits truth-telling - it is the constant reminder that the session is being recorded or memorialized that causes guilty suspects to stick with their earlier lies and victims and witnesses to withhold sensitive or embarrassing information. The same outcome may occur if an investigator is typing up the suspect's responses on a laptop computer during an interview. While we are strong advocates of note-taking during an interview, and have found several benefits to this practice, the act of key-stroking data into a memory storage and retrieval device is much more intimidating than a casual hand-written note.

In conclusion, room environment is an important factor contributing to the success (or failure) of an interview/interrogation and warrants careful consideration at the designing stage of a new police department or office suite. Many investigators are stuck with an existing arrangement, but still have some control over the room environment. At the very least the investigator should arrange the chairs and writing surface within the room in such a way as to eliminate barriers and afford privacy. The investigator who is interacting with the subject should sit directly in front of the subject. The partner, or any other observer, should be out of the subject's sight and not be actively involved in questioning the subject. Finally, any electronic recording device should also be out of the suspect's sight.


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