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EXAMINING POLICE INTERROGATION TECHNIQUES: The accusation and the theme

This blog series discusses the interrogation rubric introduced in Criminal Interrogation and Confessions (1986) by Inbau and Reid which is the basis for law enforcement protocol nationwide. The first two steps are discussed in this Blog.
Step One of the interrogation is called the direct positive confrontation. The suspect is informed in unequivocal language that evidence clearly indicates that he committed a crime and in support of this assertion, real or fictional evidence is proffered. To persuade a guilty suspect to confess, the investigator exaggerates his confidence in the suspect’s guilt. If the suspect fails to confess, the suspect is henceforth treated as a liar.
After the initial accusation, the investigator must make a “transition statement.” An example of a transition statement is: “While there is no doubt that you did this, what I need to establish are the circumstances which led up to this happening.” The transition statement is psychologically integral to the interrogation because it offers a reason for the interrogation other than to elicit a confession. Note that the transition statement assumes that the suspect’s guilt is no longer at issue. With this more congenial transition statement on the heels of the confrontational initial accusatory statement, the investigator gives the suspect the opportunity to elaborate for the first time since the interrogation commenced with the expectation that the suspect will take the opportunity to shift responsibility away from him and towards external facts or persons as being responsible for the crime.
Step Two of the interrogation process is theme development. A theme is a monologue in which the investigator offers and reinforces existing moral and psychological justifications for the suspect’s criminal behavior. In order to match the correct theme to the suspect, the investigator must determine whether the suspect is emotional or non-emotional.
If the suspect is emotional, the technique known as “minimization” is used. Here, the investigator mitigates the offense and downplays its seriousness. The investigator begins building rapport with the suspect by offering empathy, moral justification and sympathy to the suspect’s predicament and assists the suspect in rationalizing and excusing his criminal behavior. Blame is placed on the victim, accomplice or the existence of extenuating circumstances and the seriousness of the crime is deemphasized. This is an example of a minimization theme in a burglary interrogation:
“Bob, I believe you went into that house out of desperation because of your financial situation. I don’t think you are a common criminal or a bad person. I think you tried hard to pay your bills and feed your family but when you lost your job you got further and further in debt. Because you are a good husband and father, you reached the end of your rope when your daughter got sick and needed to go to the doctor. In a moment of desperation and on the spur of the moment, you broke the window of the house on Elm Street and took some jewelry to sell. It is obvious that those folks have more money than they know what to do with and they even left their back door unlocked.”
In the example, the crime is minimized and the break in is morally justified as a reasonable act in the face of financial difficulties.
Alternatively, if the suspect is non-emotional, “maximization” of the evidence, crime or severity of punishment is utilized. The investigator exaggerates the strength of evidence against the suspect and magnitude of charges. The interrogator tries to scare the suspect into confessing by making false claims of the strength of the evidence and exaggerating the seriousness of the offense. Depending on the jurisdiction and the extent to which police are able to deceive the suspect, an investigator may stage an eyewitness identification or fabricate a lie detector test.
In the next installment, dealing with denials will be discussed.