Establishing Rapport with a Suspect

Written By: Reid
May 20, 2013
We all know someone whom we respect and admire. It may be a teacher, coach, pastor, scout master, friend or parent. Assume that we committed a crime of some sort and this admired individual sat down and said:

"We both know you made a mistake and we also both know that the right thing to do is to tell the truth. For everyone concerned let people know why this thing happened. Did you plan this out, or did it just happen on the spur of the moment? I don't' think that you would ever plan something like this out, it was just the spur of the moment, wasn't it?"

Because of the established trust and respect felt toward this individual, we would very likely listen to his statements, nod our head in agreement, and confess that what we did happened on the spur of the moment.

On the other hand, if the person who said these words was a stranger whom we believed was just out to punish us and did not care about our well being, reputation or self-image, we would likely challenge the individual to prove our guilt and continue to deny involvement in the offense. The difference between these two situations is that in the first the communicator has an established rapport with the suspect.

In most professional interactions (physician, attorney, therapists, investigator) rapport is defined as "a relationship marked by trust and conformity." In other words, if my doctor recommends that I get a particular medical test I will schedule the test because I trust the advice of my physician and perceive her/him as looking out for my best interests and acting as an advocate for me.

For obvious legal reasons, an investigator should not make statements designed to convince a suspect that he or she is acting as an advocate for the suspect. However, to be effective the investigator must try to legally convince the suspect that he is someone who can be trusted and is a fair and objective person.

First Impression is Critical

Research has shown that within seconds after meeting a stranger a strong and lasting impression of the stranger is formed. The investigator needs to be very aware of this first impression effect. Upon entering the interview room the investigator should appear businesslike but not authoritative or threatening. For this reason, it is recommended that the investigator avoid introductions containing an authoritative title such as "Detective" or "Captain." For the same reason the investigator should not use emotionally charged language when referring to the purpose of the interview, e,g, "murder", "rape", "molest."

In a non-custodial case the initial introduction may be something like this: "Good morning, my name is Brian Jayne. Thank you for coming in to talk to me."

If the suspect is in custody, the introduction may be:

"Good morning Mr. Johnson. Last night someone took money from Jake's Liquor Store at gunpoint. I would like to ask you questions about that but before I can ask any questions I have to let you know that you do have the right to remain silent, any statement you make can be used against you in a court of law, that you have a right to an attorney and if you cannot afford an attorney one will be provided. Do you mind talking to me about this?"

Establish a Relationship with Suspect

After the initial introduction comes the relationship-building phase of rapport. The investigator's goals are to establish his objectivity by asking non-accusatory questions and, second, that the interview consists of a question / answer format. In addition, at this early stage of the interview, the investigator wants to establish the suspect's baseline behaviors (eye contact, communication style, emotional state, etc.) and make preliminary assessments of the suspect's intelligence, ability to understand the English language, mental health, etc.

The investigator may choose to initially engage in casual conversation with the suspect at the outset of an interview:

"Did you have any problems finding our office?"
"Did you come in on the Eisenhower?" "How bad was the traffic?
"Do you think that we are ever going to see Spring this year?"

An especially effective technique to establish rapport with a suspect is to express sincere interest in some aspect of his life. For example, the investigator may notice a Marine tattoo on the suspect's forearm and ask when and where he served. Perhaps the investigator can comment that he attended the same high school as the suspect or lived in the same part of town. This personal attention or common experience provides valuable material to establish trust.

At some point the investigator will spend a minute or two asking the suspect non-threatening background questions under the pretense of gathering or confirming biographical information:

"Could you spell your last name for me?"
"What is your first name?"
"What is your marital status?"
"Do you have any children?"
"What is your current address?"
"How long have you lived there?"
"Does anyone else live there with you?"
"Are you presently employed?"
"Where do you work?"
"What school do you attend?"
"Have you declared a major?"
"Do you participate in any extra curricular activities?"

Establishing rapport with most suspects only takes a few minutes. If the suspect is extremely nervous or has been mistreated by a previous investigator and is therefore resentful, several minutes of non-threatening background questions may be required. What should be avoided, however, is a very lengthy (30-45 minute) rapport building session. Under this circumstance, referred to as "forced rapport," suspects may feel that the investigator is trying to manipulate them by delving into personal areas such as their childhood, personal values or hobbies that have nothing whatsoever to do with the issue under investigation.

An exception to this guideline is when establishing rapport with someone who is incarcerated. The incarcerated individual's daily routine is boring and a lengthy, non-threatening conversation with the investigator may be welcomed. Under this circumstance it is not unusual for the investigator to conduct dozens of interviews with the inmate over a period of several months.

Another consideration for an extended rapport-building period is the suspect's culture. Some cultures consider it rude to only have a peripheral social exchange before getting down to business. Under this circumstance it may be appropriate to spend an extended time with the suspect sharing personal information about each other's families or country before addressing the issue under investigation.

Establishing Structure to the Interview

The investigative interview is not an informal chat with a suspect. It is structured and purposeful. This means the investigator will ask prepared questions and document the suspect's responses with a written note following each response.

There are many benefits to taking active written notes during an interview. One of them is that active note taking slows down the pace of questioning. This creates a period of silence following each verbal response. It is during this period of 3-5 seconds that most significant nonverbal behaviors occur. This period of silence also allows the investigator time to analyze the suspect's response and make a decision to ask either a follow-up question or move to the next area of inquiry.

Conversely, if the investigator takes sporadic notes or only starts taking written notes when the suspect answers questions about the crime, the suspect will attach special significance to the fact that the investigator decided to take a written note. This may cause the suspect to be more guarded and less forthright in volunteering information, which is obviously undesirable.

In conclusion, establishing rapport with a suspect at the outset of an interview will be an important factor in determining the success of the interview. Rapport begins with a non-threatening and business-like introduction. The investigator then needs to establish the suspect's trust. This can be accomplished by asking non-threatening questions that appear to establish the suspect's identity or other important background information. It is also important that the investigator establish a pattern of taking written notes right at the outset of the interview.
Permission is hereby granted to those who wish to share or copy this article. In those instances, the following Credit Statement must be included "This Investigator Tip was developed by John E. Reid and Associates Inc. 800-255-5747 /" Inquiries regarding Investigator Tips should be directed to Toni Overman