This article is a follow-up to last month’s “Investigator Tip” which discussed how an investigator’s own bearing and demeanor may affect the outcome of an investigative interview or interrogation. This article expands upon one specific aspect: how to handle disrespectful subjects during questioning sessions.
It’s not uncommon for a subject to test the emotional strength of an interviewer or interrogator. Street sharp individuals and repeat offenders sometimes insult an investigator personally or challenge their integrity. It’s a universal maxim that anger clouds clarity of thought, and a savvy investigator should heed that insight by maintaining absolute self-control in the face of inflammatory comments.
Any challenge to an investigator’s integrity requires an immediate response, but the response must be measured. Disrespect towards an investigator becomes an elephant in the room, but overreaction is as much a sign of weakness as failure to respond. Rapport that is grounded in mutuality of respect between interviewer and interviewee is at stake. Without it, the likelihood of success of a questioning session is dim.
Personal insults are usually benign and easy to shut down. The investigator should initially react in a dismissive fashion by brushing it off with a condescending comment, such as: “Nice try, Bob, but save it for somebody else”. If the pattern persists, then the investigator should respond with a reciprocal challenge to the subject’s credibility, suggesting for example: “Hey, take a hard look at where you are right now, Bob, and look at what’s going on around you. It’s your credibility that’s on the line, not mine.” Caution must be exercised, however, to never allow an exchange to turn into a collateral argument between the subject and the investigator or to escalate into inferring to the subject that consequences are inevitable. If either happens, then an antagonistic subject takes the advantage by feeling emboldened by their ability to manipulate the investigator.
Sometimes even from the very beginning of a non-accusatory interview, subjects may exhibit an attitude that’s either overtly aggressive or passive aggressive. An effective strategy to overcome such an attitude, which is nothing more than a criminal’s defense mechanism, is to push a few questions that allow an offender to talk about themselves. Criminal conduct is frequently the result of an offender’s low self-esteem which they boost by engaging in behavior that gives them the satisfaction of mastery and control over their victims. By being given an opportunity to describe (oftentimes in a very prideful manner) their prior escapades, an offender suddenly becomes the center of attention, their caustic attitude is disarmed by a perceived boost to their self-worth, and at the very least a minimal level of rapport is established with the seemingly interested investigator. It’s a psychological chess move on the board with an oblivious criminal.
Direct attacks upon an investigator’s integrity require an immediate and strong response. For example, during interrogation a subject might attempt to undermine the objectivity of an investigation through a self-serving accusation that the investigator is biased or prejudiced against a protected class based upon race, sex, religion, or national origin. Such an inference is intolerable at every level and merits a reaction wherein the investigator looks the subject squarely in the eye and emphatically states that there’s one and only one reason that the subject is under scrutiny – the evidence. Under no circumstance should the investigator attempt to convince the subject that he or she harbors no ill-will toward the protected class or to attempt a flimsy explanation that their best friends may be among the protected class. Instead, the retort has to be sufficiently clear, immediate, and unambiguous to put the subject deservedly back on their heels. Thereafter, the investigator should hold eye contact with the subject for a couple of seconds before returning to the substance of the interrogation in his or her prior tone of voice with the goal of maintaining rapport and advancing toward the truth.
Additionally, an investigator can effectively punctuate their reaction to a subject’s disrespectful comment or behavior with a “statement against self-interest” wherein the investigator tells the subject that he or she doesn’t need the subject’s version of events in order to complete their investigation. This includes a four part message to the subject. First is that the evidence is sufficiently compelling to speak for itself as to what actually happened, in legal terms the “actus reus”. Second is that the investigator is affording the subject an opportunity to be heard on their mental state at the time the events occurred, in legal terms the “mens rea”. Third is that each and every adjudication of misconduct is assessed according to these fundamental concepts and that if the subject is comfortable allowing the evidence alone to define who they are and why they did what they did, then they’re doing the right thing by saying nothing at all. Fourth, and finally, the investigator may conclude by challenging the disrespectful subject: “It’s your life, your future, not mine. It doesn’t matter to me what you decide. But you’re at an intersection in your life, and it’s up to you to see it before it’s in your rear view mirror. Make a decision.”
Disrespectful challenges from a subject cannot, and should not, be tolerated by the professional investigator. The investigator’s response has to be swift but smartly proportionate to its offensive nature. Since the overriding objective of any questioning session is to voluntarily and reliably obtain the truth, it’s incumbent upon an investigator to respond decisively and logically without compromising mutuality of respect between interviewer and interviewee.
Philip A. Mullenix has been affiliated with John E. Reid & Associates, Inc., since 1978 and provides instruction in the Reid Technique to United States’ military personnel as well as to federal, state, and local law enforcement officers.