The Use of the Baiting Technique

Written By: John E. Reid and Associates
Jan 11, 2021

November / December 2020 (click here for printable version)

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We teach in our training programs and written materials that the investigator should not lie to a suspect about the presence of incriminating information or evidence during the investigative interview (the Behavior Analysis Interview or BAI). However, we do use what we refer to as the Bait question.

The bait question is one of the standard behavior provoking questions used in the BAI. It is non-accusatory in nature but at the same time presents to the subject a plausible probability of the existence of some evidence implicating him in the crime. Its intended purpose is to entice a deceptive subject to change, or at least to consider changing, an earlier denial of opportunity or access to commit the crime. The following example illustrates its application.

In an arson case (involving one of the subject’s business properties) assume that Jim, the owner, had stated that he was home at the time of the fire. The investigator may advise the subject that as standard procedure they will be interviewing all of the neighbors. He may then ask the subject, “Jim, is there any reason you can think of why one of your neighbors would say that they saw you drive into your driveway around 10:00 that evening?” Without waiting for an answer, the investigator should state: “Now, I’m not accusing you of anything; maybe you had to leave to run an errand.” If Jim is innocent and was home all evening, he will emphatically deny the possibility. If Jim is guilty, he must pause to evaluate the possibility that someone did see him drive home after starting the fire. He must decide whether to lie about it or to take his chance on an acknowledgment of that fact and consider what explanation he should offer. In any event, there will be a delay in his response. Most often, the forthcoming answer would be a denial, but it will be accompanied by the significant nonverbal behavior suggestive of deception. However, on some occasions a guilty person in Jim’s position will change his denial and say, “I’m sorry, I forgot; I now remember that I did run to the store for a short period of time that evening.”

A bait question may be used in almost any type of case situation. When using it the investigator must avoid any positive, challenging statement, such as, “You were seen coming out of the back door!” First, this type of question is clearly accusatory and therefore inappropriate during an interview. Second, the premise for such a direct question may be incorrect and thus not reveal significant behavior symptoms from the guilty subject. For example, the guilty subject may have exited through a side door. Similarly, a statement that the subject’s fingerprints were found on a bedroom dresser will evoke a truthful denial from a subject guilty of burglary but who knows that he did not touch the dresser or that he was wearing gloves. The investigator who issues such unfounded statements is getting out on the proverbial limb, which will be easily sawed off by the subject’s awareness that the evidence could not exist. Moreover, once the investigator is caught in a lie, further effectiveness is lost – he has lost credibility with the subject. There is no risk, however, in asking a nonspecific, non-challenging question, such as, “Is there any reason why we would find your fingerprints inside that person’s home?”

A bait question should only be used after the subject has made an appropriate commitment of denial; otherwise, it will serve no useful purpose. For instance, in the case of the warehouse fire, if the investigator had presented the bait question before Jim stated that he was home alone all evening, a subsequent acknowledgment that he left home would not have had the same significance as when he changed his story from a prior statement that he did not leave his home that evening.

When a bait question is used, the investigator must present it as a plausible, sincere inquiry. It also should be accompanied by what the subject may perceive to be a non-incriminating excuse for explaining away the evidence presented in the bait itself. The following examples, from interviews of subjects who later gave a corroborated confessions, are illustrative of effectively using the bait question.

A teacher was accused by a student of making unwanted sexual advances toward her in a freight elevator where, according to the student, he stopped the elevator between floors and said, “Who’s going to take their clothes off first, you or me?” Shortly thereafter he pinned her to a wall, kissed her, and placed his hand up her blouse. During his interview the teacher acknowledged stopping the elevator between floors and consensually kissing the student. He denied making any statement about undressing. The following bait question was asked:

Jeff, are you familiar with security systems in big buildings? Often they have microphones in elevators where, if the elevator stops unexpectedly, a light flashes on the security console and the guard can listen in to see if someone needs help. We are in the process of talking to the security guard who was on duty that afternoon. Would there be any reason, when he switched on the microphone, that he would have heard you say, “Who’s going to take their clothes off first, you or me?” I’m not saying that you forced yourself on her or anything, but do you think he would have heard you make that statement?

After a period of silence, the teacher responded, “I said, well. . . . I don’t remember saying who’s going to take their clothes off first. In fact, I’m sure I never told her to undress. Yeah, I never told her to take her clothes off.” Notice that the teacher’s final denial involved an allegation that was not made.

In another incident $18,000 was stolen from a bank safe that was left unlocked. An outside contractor, who vacuumed the office where the safe was kept, was immediately suspected. During his interview he denied ever touching the safe and explained that his hands were on the vacuum cleaner the whole time he was in the office. He was asked the following bait question:

Jim, the police have lifted a number of fingerprints from the outside of the safe. Some of them have already been matched to bank employees. Once they complete all the matches, is there any reason why they would find your fingerprints on that safe? Now I’m not saying you took this money, but maybe while you were vacuuming you pushed your hand against the front of the safe. Do you think they will find your fingerprints on that safe?

After a couple seconds in which the janitor shifted position in the chair he responded, “You mean where my fingerprints would be on the safe? Well, gee, I don’t remember. . . . I think I may have leaned against it while I was vacuuming. It’s hard to say.” This acknowledgement is essentially a contradiction of his earlier denial, supporting the opinion that he stole the money.

A fire was set underneath a propane storage tank located at the side of a farm field, resulting in a huge explosion. For a variety of reasons, the investigation focused around a group of juveniles who lived in the area. During one of these interviews, the following bait question was asked, after the subject had denied being anywhere near the propane tank on the day of the explosion:

Carl, do you know very much about spy satellites? Well these things circle the earth and take pictures from miles above the earth. The pictures are so clear that you can read newspaper articles or easily read a license plate from a car. Now the satellites are not only used for spying but for population counts and economic issues as well. Every spring the satellites pass over farm fields looking for pre-emergent weeds to help farmers time their planting and fertilizing. I have requested the photographs from the farm field where this propane tank exploded and will have those very shortly. When I receive that photograph, will it show you near the propane tank before that explosion? I’m not suggesting you had anything to do with the explosion, but if you were hanging around that tank that afternoon, that would explain the photograph. Do you think it’s possible that the photograph would show you near that propane tank that day?

After pausing for several seconds, the subject asked again on what day the explosion occurred and then explained that he may have been there that afternoon with some friends, but he was not certain. (The explosion occurred three days prior to the interview!) Following an interrogation this subject acknowledged being present when the fire underneath the propane tank was set.

As these examples illustrate, a bait question can deal with either real or nonexistent evidence. It may refer to such real items as footprints, tire tracks, bite marks, personal belongings left at the scene, or trace analysis of dirt, hair, DNA, or fibers that would place the subject at the scene of a crime. Examples of fictitious evidence would include such things as high resolution photographs from spy satellites, laser technology to identify fingerprints even though a person wore gloves, or sophisticated blood tests involving electrophoresis to identify ratios of hormones to determine whether or not sexual intercourse was consensual or forced. The two criteria affecting the usefulness of the bait question are (1) that the guilty person could have left the evidence and (2) that the investigator presents the possible evidence in a plausible and credible manner. Moreover, the investigator should ask only one bait question during the course of an interview. Experience has shown that the technique loses its effectiveness if multiple bait questions are asked of the same subject.

(Some excerpts are from our book, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, 5th edition)

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