Planning A Formal Interview

Written By: Reid
Sep 01, 2008

Planning A Formal Interview

Over the last 30 years I have conducted thousands of interviews on issues ranging from employee theft to homicide. Despite that experience, I could not simply review background information on a case, then walk into a room and conduct an effective interview of the suspect. No competent investigator enters a formal interview with a blank sheet of paper. To conduct a proper interview requires preparation. This not only involves developing and analyzing investigative information, but also preparing an interview sheet that will have key questions written out in abbreviated form, followed by sufficient space for taking written notes and documenting follow-up questions.

There are a number of benefits to preparing an interview sheet. By writing out key questions in advance, the investigator has the opportunity to think about all of the questions that need to be asked during the interview and the sequence in which different topics should be covered. The interview sheet becomes a road map that keeps the investigator on track and allows him to concentrate on the suspect's behavior symptoms and responses to the interview questions. Finally, the organization of the interview sends a message to the suspect that the investigator is professional, well prepared and competent.

Starting the Interview

All interviews start with an introduction. In a custodial interview, the investigator would start by explaining that he has been assigned to the suspect's case and that he would like to get the suspect's side of the story, but before he can ask any questions he needs to remind the suspect that he has the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney etc. After listing the suspect's Miranda rights, the investigator would ask, "Do you mind talking to me about this?" If the suspect expresses a willingness to answer questions, the investigator would bring out the formal Miranda waiver and re-advise the suspect of his rights and obtain the appropriate written waiver. To obtain a legal Miranda warning, the suspect must be accurately advised of the purpose for the interview.

In a non-custodial interview the investigator should start the interview by offering a professional greeting to the suspect then go on to obtain background information, e.g., "Hello Greg, my name is Mr. Jayne. I would like to thank you for coming in. Before we get started, let me just get some background information."

Initial Questions

The initial questions asked during an interview are designed to establish rapport, obtain baseline behaviors from the subject and to acclimate the suspect to the interview, in particular that the investigator will ask a question, the suspect will respond to the question and the investigator will write down the suspect's response. Examples of initial questions include:

"Could you please spell your last name for me."

"What is your first name?"

"What do most people call you?"

"What is your current address?"

"How long have you lived there?"

"Are you presently employed?

Addressing the Issue Under Investigation

There are two categories of questions that address the issue under investigation. The first are behavior provoking questions which are specifically designed to elicit different responses from suspects who are innocent or guilty of the offense. Second, are investigative questions which relate to specific aspects of the crime. Behavior provoking questions are fairly standardized and have a logical sequence. It is the investigative questions that require thought and planning. Most formal interviews will address the following six investigative areas:

Opportunity (See how close the suspect will place himself to the victim or crime scene)

"Tell me everything you did last night between 6:00 and the time you went to bed."

"This shortage occurred on the 22nd of last month. Do you remember that day? Tell me everything you did that afternoon."

"Tell me everything that happened last Saturday night when you babysat for your niece."

"Were you inside Jake's liquor store last Friday night?"

"Did you handle the deposit at any time yesterday afternoon?"

Procedures (Establish normal procedures and identify if they were not followed. Many crimes are committed because normal procedures were not followed.)

"Tell me about the procedures you follow when you fill an ATM."

"Tell me what procedures you follow when you put Mrs. Johnson to bed."

"Tell me what usually happens once you get home from work?"

"What normal procedures were not followed on (date of crime?)

Access (Identify what special means or knowledge were required to commit the crime and ask the suspect about each of them. An innocent suspect is comfortable acknowledging access. Guilty suspects may lie about having access or be reluctant to acknowledge access.)

"Do you have a key to her apartment?"

"Do you know the code to turn off the alarm in the office?"

"Do you own a blue van?"

"Do you have any handguns?"

"Have you purchased any ammonium nitrate in the last 6 months?"

Propensity (Does the suspect have the psychological makeup to commit the crime?"

"Have you ever borrowed any money from the company and replaced it later?"

"Has anyone ever approached you asking if you could get some drugs for them?"

"Have you ever thought about having sexual contact with one of your students?"

"Have you ever been questioned before about starting fires?"

"Have you experienced any sexual arousal around any of your students?"

"When is the last time you've lost your temper?"

Motive (How strong are the suspect's needs for money, esteem, revenge, power etc.?)

"What unexpected expenses have you recently had to pay?"

"Are you behind on any monthly loan payments?"

"In the last 2 months have you asked for any cash advances at work?"

"In the last 2 months have you had an argument with (victim)?"

Precipitators (A precipitator is an event or circumstance that contributes to the suspect's decision to commit the crime when it was committed, where it was committed and the manner in which it was committed.)

"Did you have anything to drink that evening?"

"Have you received any notice of pending legal procedures?"

"Has your step-daughter ever accidentally seen your bare penis?"

"Did you have a knife or other sharp object with you when you saw her that afternoon?"

"In the last month has your relationship with either of your parents changed?"

The following guidelines are offered for asking investigative questions:

1. Completely cover one topical area before moving to a new one. This will help organize the interview and also assist the suspect's memory to focus on one similar area at a time. Skipping back and forth between different areas may cause the investigator to forget to ask important questions within an area and may cause the suspect to become confused and give inaccurate responses.

2. Introduce non-threatening areas before more threatening areas. In most investigations it is less threatening for the suspect to acknowledge having the opportunity to commit the crime than the motive or propensity to commit it.

3. It is beneficial for the suspect to make admissions against self-interest at the beginning of the interview. For example, if it is known that the suspect is currently on probation and is two months behind on rent, the investigator would cover these areas before getting into the suspect's opportunity or access to commit the crime.

4. Try to introduce an area with a broad question that requires a narrative response. Ask follow-up questions to clarify ambiguous, incomplete or contradictory information. For example:

Q: "Tell me about how your son hurt his arm."

A: "He was downstairs playing video games. I guess he slipped and fell on his right arm. That's what happened."

FO: "Who witnessed this?"

FO: "What time did this happen?"

FO: "What did he strike his arm on?"

FO: "When did you decide to go to the doctor?"

5. Never reveal inside information without first giving the suspect an opportunity to tell the truth. For example, if it is known that a suspect has a prior arrest for drug possession it would be improper to ask, "I see that you were picked up two years ago for possession. What happened there?" Rather, the investigator should give the suspect an opportunity to volunteer to truth, "Have you ever been questioned before by a police officer?" An innocent suspect will typically acknowledge the prior incident. On the other hand, a guilty suspect may lie about it.

6. Ask assumptive questions whenever addressing common behaviors, or when the suspect has already made an admission within the area e.g., "When is the last time you've had any marijuana?"; "How much money do you owe on credit cards?"; "When you have arguments with your girlfriend, what do you fight about?" ; "Other than that time, what other times have you been questioned by a police officer?"

Concluding the Interview

A formal interview will conclude in one of three ways. These are suggested closing remarks:

(1) The suspect will be interrogated: "Joe, I'm going to step out of the room for a minute to (talk to my partner, make a phone call, check on something). I'll be back shortly." When the investigator returns to the room he would confront the suspect and start the interrogation.

(2) The suspect's behavior indicates truthfulness: "Joe, I want to thank you for coming in today. Before you leave, is there anything else about (issue) that you think I should know? This is my business card. If you think of anything, please give me a call."

(3) The suspect cannot be eliminated from suspicion, but the investigator does not want to move into an interrogation. "Joe, that will be all for today. Thank you for coming in. I'm going to check out what you've told me and it may be necessary to clarify a few things with you. You'd be willing to come back in and talk to me later, wouldn't you?"

Even though an investigator is very familiar with all aspects of an investigation, it is important to plan out the interview of possible suspects. There are six investigative areas that should be covered during a formal interview. Preparation includes not only deciding what questions to ask within each area, but also the sequence in which the areas are covered. The key questions should be written out in abbreviated form providing an investigator with an interview sheet to guide him through the interview and to document the suspect's responses to interview questions.

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