Handling The Angry Suspect

Written By: Reid
Dec 01, 2002

Every investigator has encountered a subject who exhibits symptoms of anger. Of all possible emotions, anger presents the greatest impairment of an investigator's ability to detect deception and persuade a suspect to tell the truth. Legitimate anger may precede physical violence and a personal safety issue may be at stake. Because anger is such an intense emotion, it often clouds other behavior symptoms. In fact, anger can mimic deceptive responses during a polygraph examination of a truthful subject. Finally anger, real or feigned, offers a tremendous outlet for the deceptive suspect to vent the guilt or anxiety associated with his crime. Because of these reasons, an investigator should do everything possible to avoid causing a suspect to become angry or upset during an interview or interrogation.

Understanding Anger

Anger is part of a complex protective response that occurs when a person's ego (self-image) or physical well being is threatened. In addition to focusing perceptions toward the source of the threat, anger causes internal physiological changes such as the release of adrenaline into the blood stream which prepares the body to fight off the threat. (If the individual chooses to flee from the threat, fear is the primary emotional state involved).

Legitimate anger, especially during an interrogation, is a good indication of truthfulness. Because it is the final expression of underlying emotional states, legitimate anger builds gradually, where it may be observed that initially the suspect's face becomes red, his hands are clenched and his eye contact is piercing. The suspect may then lean forward in the chair and once the anger erupts, it is difficult to dissipate. Despite the investigator's efforts to calm the suspect, the symptoms of anger persist. Finally, legitimate anger will be evident in all three channels of communication. The suspect will use descriptive language such as, "Listen, I did not rape anybody!" With respect to paralinguistic communication, each word of the response will be delivered in a staccato fashion.

What if a suspect's anger does not appear to be legitimate? This situation, which should be more strongly associated with deception, often involves feigned anger or self-propagated anger. Feigned anger is a learned response where the suspect has experienced prior success in avoiding consequences by raising his voice, making veiled threats and appearing upset. It is a well orchestrated act that the suspect performs when parents, teachers or police are close to finding out what he did wrong. Feigned anger will suddenly erupt without warning, as if there is an internal anger button the suspect can push. Because it is not sincere, feigned anger is easily dissipated if the investigator maintains his confidence and composure. Finally, feigned anger may be recognized because of inconsistent behaviors within the three channels of communication. For example, the suspect may be speaking in a loud tone, but has crossed arms and is leaning back in the chair.

Many deceptive suspects attempt to propagate their own anger by finding fault with the investigator or investigation. While this anger is real in the sense that the suspect is truly upset it is, nonetheless, an attempt to manipulate the investigator. The reason the suspect wants to become angry is to vent his internal feeling of guilt externally. Psychologically, it is similar to the child who throws a tantrum in the grocery store when his parents refuse to buy him candy. The pain caused by the child banging his head and kicking the floor is converted to anger toward his parents -- the child is venting his internal disappointment externally. Furthermore, when a suspect generates anger toward the investigator it allows him to psychologically justify his lies. An axiom of lie-detection is that it is much easier to lie to someone we dislike than to someone who treats us with respect and dignity. It is for this reason that every deceptive suspect would love to make an enemy out of the investigator.

To avoid self-propagated anger, the investigator should recognize the suspect's efforts to engage the investigator in an adversarial relationship. As an example, consider that when an investigator enters the room he notices that the juvenile suspect has his feet resting on the investigator's chair. If the investigator responds, "Get your feet off my chair you skum bag!" he is providing fuel for the suspect's self-propagate anger. A much more effective response to this situation would be for the investigator to politely introduce himself and engage in introductory questions while he gradually moves his chair from under the suspect's legs. By not even commenting on the suspect's attempt at manipulation, the investigator will have maintained control of the interview without giving the suspect cause to express anger.

Responses to Anger

The most appropriate response to legitimate anger (coming from a probably truthful suspect) is to tactfully step down the interrogation. The easiest way to terminate an interrogation is to ask questions. Therefore, the investigator should return to the interviewing format and perhaps revisit some of the topics that were covered during the interview, i.e., "Tell me again what you did last Friday night." Eventually, it would be appropriate for the investigator to say something like the following, "John, we are still at an early stage in this investigation. There are other people we need to interview and evidence that has not yet been analyzed. I fully understand your position in this matter and if you had nothing to do with (crime) your innocence will be proven. I will let you know if we need to talk to you further."

When dealing with feigned or self-propagated anger, certainly it would be wrong for the investigator to decrease his confidence of the suspect's guilt, e.g., "Well, John, there's something here that you haven't completely told the truth to". This retreating position will reinforce the suspect's belief that if he maintains his anger long enough, the investigator will eventually be convinced of his innocence. A much more productive response to feigned or self-propagated anger is an insight statement such as the following, "Joe, I can tell from your emotional state that you are very worried about what will happen to you because of this thing. I wish I could tell you that if you tell me the truth nothing would happen to you, but I'd be a liar if I said that. I'm not here to give you a hard time. The only reason I came back in here to talk to you is to give you an opportunity for input in my report before I send it out."

This response accomplished a number of important goals. First, the investigator has not backed off at all on his confidence of the suspect's guilt. Second, the investigator is actually using the suspect's apparent anger as further evidence of his guilt through an insightful connection to the suspect's fear of punishment. To further refute the suspect's attempt to avoid consequences through feigned anger, the suspect is essentially told that he will be punished for his crime. Finally, the investigator makes a statement against self-interest implying that a confession in not needed and that the only reason the interrogation is being conducted is to give the suspect an opportunity to explain the circumstances behind his crime.

The topic covered in this web tip is derived from information covered during our advanced course on interviewing and interrogation. If you have attended our basic course and are ready to enhance your ability to detect deception and elicit confessions, check our course calender for the location of the advanced course nearest to you.

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