The Use of Visual Aids During an Interview or Interrogation

Written By: Reid
Jul 01, 2008
Investigators rely extensively on their verbal communication skills to elicit information during an interview and to persuade a suspect to tell the truth during an interrogation. It is often beneficial to reinforce verbal communication with visual aids. Consider the difference between verbally telling a person how to get from point "A" to "B" as opposed to reinforcing the verbal directions with a written map. With the visual aid, the person is much more likely to arrive at the destination. This web tip will address the use of visual aids to increase an investigator's rapport, credibility, and ability to learn the truth.

Not all visual stimulation is desirable. For example, it is much easier for a person to tell the truth if there are not visual reminders of being punished. Consequently, a police officer should remove a gun and handcuffs before entering the interrogation room. Similarly, it is not desirable to have on the wall of the interview room a poster depicting a policeman escorting a handcuffed shoplifter into a police car. It is also clearly inadvisable to have any recording equipment visible to the suspect. A tape recorder sitting on top of a desk or a video camera mounted in the corner of the room serves as a huge reminder of punishment, e.g., your words will be used against you later.

During an Interview

At a recent seminar, a loss prevention investigator explained how she used photographs of her pet dog and cat to help establish rapport with employees at the outset of an interview. After getting basic background information from the employee, she would ask, "Do you have any pets?" This served as an introduction to discuss her pets along with their photographs. In this way, she established an initial emotional connection with the employee, which made it easier for the employee to later tell her the truth.

A visual aid can also enhance the effectiveness of a bait question, which is a question in which the investigator asks the suspect about the possibility that evidence may link him to the crime. For example, in a robbery of a liquor store, the suspect may be asked the following bait question: "Bill, if we were to review the surveillance video outside the store that day, is there any reason we would see you on the video?" The question is designed to elicit behavior symptoms reflecting confidence from the innocent suspect and uncertainty from the guilty. These behaviors may be enhanced through the use of visual aids as the following examples illustrate, where the visual aid is in brackets:

[Latent finger print on an index card] "This very recent finger print was recovered from a door of the stolen car. Is there any reason this would be your fingerprint?"

[photocopied signature] "We have submitted this signature from the back of the check for handwriting analysis. Once they scan and enlarge the signature, they use computer software to make statistical comparisons with the exemplar that you gave me earlier. Is there any reason the results of that analysis would indicate that you wrote this signature?"

[Photograph of tire or shoe print] "This photograph of a tire (shoe) print was taken outside of the victim's home. As you can see, the tread marks are pretty clear and distinctive. Is there any reason they would match any tires on your car (any of your shoes)?"


Prior to an interrogation, the investigator should prepare visual props that may be used during the interrogation. During our seminar we teach that, at a minimum, the investigator should prepare an evidence folder that can be referenced when the suspect is confronted, e.g., "Joe, I have in this folder the results of our entire investigation..." The following are suggestions for additional visual aids.

A third person theme is a story about another person who engaged in behavior similar to that of the suspect's. An effective way to develop a third person theme is by introducing it through a newspaper article. When making reference to the article during the interrogation, it is helpful to highlight certain words or phrases. The week that this web tip was written there were three newspaper articles that could easily be cut out and used to develop a third person theme.

The first was a research finding that showed a correlation between childhood exposure to lead and later criminal behavior. This article could be effectively used to reinforce the concept that sometimes things happen to us that are out of our control and that those factors need to be taken into consideration when understanding why someone did something.

The second article was from a terrorist who was caught smuggling explosives into Heathrow airport. He testified at his own trial to clarify that his only intention was to set off the explosives at the airport to cause confusion, not to blow up airplanes and kill people. This article would be very effective in stressing the point that it is human nature to think the worst:

"My gosh! Had this man not explained what his true intentions were people may have jumped to the conclusion that he was some sort of menace to society and they wouldn't understand that he just wanted to cause confusion. This is why you need to tell the truth!"

Finally, there was the Tatum O'Neil story. This celebrity was arrested for possession of crack cocaine but the court granted leniency because of her "traumatic childhood". This article is a natural introduction to the following theme:

"Judges are not robots or computers. They make personal decisions of what is appropriate given all sorts of different considerations. In Tatum's case, the judge considered her childhood, which was very rough. She had a father who was a popular movie star and she acted in movies at a very young age. It's like she never had a childhood to learn lessons from. All of a sudden she was in an adult world with adult temptations and opportunities, but she still had a child's judgement. Just as there were extraneous factors to consider in Tatum's case, I think there are extraneous factors to consider in yours. But you're not a public figure like Tatum O'Neil. People don't know your history. They don't know what pressures you've been under or other factors that may have influenced your decision that day."

As a legal caveat, it is important that a third person theme does not transmit a promise of leniency. If the suspect, through wishful thinking, chooses to believe that because of extenuating circumstances he may be afforded leniency, that is fine. However, the investigator cannot state or imply that the suspect will receive a lesser punishment if he tells the truth.

During our advanced course an interrogation technique is presented where the investigator discusses negative aspects of the suspect's life as a result of his continued deception regarding the crime. An investigator attending the seminar described the use of visual aids to reinforce this technique. He was interrogating a woman who had a long criminal record for crimes ranging from prostitution and drug use to burglary and auto theft. To prepare for the interrogation he put together a picture album of the suspect's mug shots over the past ten years. The first showed a naive, pretty young woman but over the years, as the drugs and criminal lifestyle took their toll, the photographs became less and less attractive. While slowly flipping through the pictures, the investigator developed a theme about how the suspect's choices in her life have caused so much pain and hardship. By the time the investigator got to the suspect's most recent photograph, she was in tears and confessed not only to the issue under investigation, but implicated a number of other suspects in unsolved crimes.

Visual aids can also be used to reinforce the existence of evidence against the suspect. In some cases, where actual physical evidence was recovered from the crime scene, the investigator may visually present the evidence to the suspect during the interrogation (even though analysis of the evidence does not link the suspect to the crime.) This technique was used successfully in a case where an employee had fished a deposit out of a safe using a coat hanger with chewing gum stuck to the end of the coat hanger. After the suspect offered repeated denials the investigator pulled out a plastic bag containing gum residue and told the suspect that it was the gum residue from the deposit bag. He then explained that the suspect's DNA would be found on the gum residue. This visual prop was instrumental in persuading the suspect to eventually tell the truth about stealing the deposit money to pay off a debt her brother owed a street gang.

In the previous case there actually was gum residue recovered from the inside of the safe, although no DNA analysis was done on it. In many investigations there is no actual physical evidence to produce. Under many circumstances, the investigator may be able to create a visual prop in an effort to convince the suspect that, in fact, there is evidence against him. For example, the suspect could be shown a latent finger print and told the following, "This is your fingerprint. We found it inside that stolen car so don't insult my intelligence by telling me you weren't inside the car. We know you were." Similarly, the investigator may produce a VHS tape with a label indicating the date of the crime. The investigator may explain, "This is the surveillance video from a camera mounted across the street from the liquor store. I reviewed it this morning and it shows you going into the store just before the robbery. It's as clear as day; there's no doubt it is you."

There is an important legal guideline to consider when using a visual prop to persuade a suspect that there is evidence which implicates him in the crime. The ruling comes from a case in which the investigator typed up a fictitious crime lab report indicating that the suspect's DNA was found during the victim's autopsy. After reading the report, the suspect confessed to the killing. The appellate court suppressed the confession and ruled that a distinction must be made between false verbal assertions (which are permissible) and fabricating evidence (which is impermissible).1

The court's concern in this case had nothing to with obtaining a false confession through fabricated evidence. Rather, they felt that the practice of manufacturing evidence against a suspect threatened the integrity of the evidential system, e.g., "What if the manufactured crime lab report found its way into a trial or was used to issue a search warrant?"

To be in compliance with this ruling, we offer the following test: If someone did not know the history of the visual aid, is it possible that the person may believe that it represents actual evidence against the suspect? If the answer to this question is "Yes", the visual aid should not be used. As an example, it would be permissible for the investigator to place his own fingerprint on an index card and falsely tell the suspect, "This is your fingerprint that we got from inside that stolen car." On the other hand, it would be impermissible to take the suspect's own fingerprint and place it on an evidence card labeled in such a way that another person may believe that the fingerprint was found inside the stolen car.

In conclusion, visual communication is an important skill for investigators to utilize to be more effective in their job. For example, a sketch artist's drawing of a robbery suspect is infinitely more helpful than a physical description in identifying the perpetrator; a simple crime scene sketch reveals information that pages of written text could not capture. Similarly, an investigator can use visual aids during an interview or interrogation to develop further information from a suspect and eventually persuade a deceptive suspect to tell the truth.

1State v. Cayward, 552 S. 2d 971 (Fla. 1989).
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