Interrogation Techniques And Tricks Everyone Should Know

Interrogation scenes have kept audiences' hearts playing hop-scotch for minutes on end in prominent films like Casino Royale, The Dark Knight, and Killer Instinct. The cat-and-mouse game between interrogator and detainee is exciting to watch, and it's hard not to root for the underdog. While the Joker shoving a pencil in an interrogator's eye is a fictional occurrence, many other interrogation scenes contain slivers of truth and reality that are found in precincts around the world.

Experts advising police and detectives have employed numerous interrogation tactics and methods; should the interrogator build rapport and respect the detainee, or should they intentionally hike their cortisol levels to get a quicker confession? Below, we'll look at the science of interrogations and some of the common techniques that have dominated interrogation rooms since the mid-20th century.

  • The Controversial Reid Technique Relies On 'Behavior-Provoking' Tactics

    Former Chicago detective John E. Reid elicited a confession in 1955 using a technique that induced a rollercoaster of emotions in his subject. Reid was also a psychologist and a polygraph expert, but most importantly, he was creating one of the most influential interrogation techniques in policing, one that's still used today.

    The Reid technique is a nine-step process tailor-made to catalyze specific behavioral responses. Interrogators intentionally raise a subject's stress levels, then offer sympathy and lenience - that is, if the subject confesses to the crime. This controversial interrogation style has been widely used since 1974 and has both defenders and detractors.

    Over the course of the interrogation, police talk over and ignore the subject's denial of committing the crime. The interrogator will also switch between understanding and building a connection with the suspect and pressuring them into confessing. Due to the psychological stress placed on subjects, combined with the lack of agency they have in the process, Reid opponents claim that this technique elicits too many false confessions, something Reid's defenders disagree with.

    Some of Reid's defenders argue that interrogators using this technique should treat their suspects with respect - not threaten violence or lie about leniency - and still believe it is a sound interrogation method.

  • The Subject's Seat In The Interrogation Room May Impact The Quality Of The Interview

    The Subject's Seat In The Interrogation Room May Impact The Quality Of The Interview
    Photo: The Interrogation / Corinth Films

    A suspect sits near the corner of an interrogation room, a table placed between them and the door. An interrogator walks in, and tension immediately begins mounting. This is the famous setup many TV shows and movies employ, but ex-FBI agent Joe Navarro calls this third-grade interrogating. Navarro follows up this comment by saying graduate-level interrogating sees the suspect sitting next to the door - a place of psychological comfort.

    Another discrepancy between fact and fiction is how close interrogators get to their suspects. In Hollywood, it's common to see a sweaty suspect nervously shuffling their hands as an interrogator looms over them, transitioning between good and bad cop. Navarro points out that interrogators shouldn't invade the subject's personal space: They usually sit four to five feet away and avoid making too much eye contact in order to make the subject feel comfortable - and hopefully more willing to share the truth.

  • Interrogators Often Start With Easy Questions To Build Rapport With The Subject

    Interrogations often start off with easy questions and a bit of small talk. The reason for this, according to Navarro, is that it makes people feel more comfortable, especially since many people being interrogated won't actually end up being the suspect. Navarro likes to ask people about their name - why they have it, how it links to their family - because it helps the subject connect to positive thoughts and ideas, allowing them to think more clearly.

    When interrogators bring in people to cross-examine, they can't think of them as suspects at first. While many suspects do pose as victims or witnesses, interrogators aren't supposed to treat someone as a suspect until they have evidence to back up their suspicions.

  • Interrogators Will Likely Look For Signs Of Discomfort And Distress, Not Lying

    Many people believe certain non-verbal behaviors indicate that someone is lying: scratching the nose, biting the nails, or looking in a certain direction while answering a difficult question are a few well-known examples. According to Navarro, in the 1970s - and potentially after - police and detectives were taught to look for non-verbal indicators that someone was being deceptive; however, no single sign can conclusively indicate someone is lying.

    Navarro says interrogators actually look for signs of distress, but even this is not foolproof. As an example, he shares a story about a woman who appeared nervous when the interrogation began. When he eventually asked her what was wrong, she simply said the meter was running out on her parking spot. In the end, she was not a suspect in the case.

    Defense attorneys can shred most accusations stemming from non-verbal indicators since science doesn't link any single non-verbal indicator to lying.

  • With The PEACE Technique, The Subject Shares Their Version Of Events Before The Questions Start

    In England, interrogators use a method called PEACE, an acronym for “Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure, and Evaluate.” This method focuses more on gathering information than eliciting a confession.

    In this method's first step, interrogators plan the interview and their objective, which they then share with the interview subject. When a PEACE interrogation starts, the interviewee is allowed to tell their story without interruption. Interrogators will only bring up any discrepancies or contradictions after the subject has finished speaking. When querying the subject, interrogators are advised to ask short, to-the-point questions and to avoid multi-part questions. This ensures the session will run smoothly and prevents any confusion.

    During the closure stage, the interrogator summarizes what the interviewee said and allows them to clarify anything that could still cause any confusion. Evacuation is the final stage of the interrogation; the interrogator assesses how the subject's information fits in with the investigation and decides whether or not they need to take further action.

  • Interrogators May Speak Slowly And In A Low Voice To Relax The Subject

    One of Navarro's strategies for a successful interrogation is to speak with a low, slow tone. This helps relax the subject, which is great for the beginning of an interrogation when the subject might feel tense. 

    Navarro adds that calm people have better recall, which equates to the interrogator gathering more accurate information in a shorter period of time. People under stress tend to have worse recall, and they may take a long time to remember even simple information. A stressed person can take 30-60 minutes to calm down before they return to a comfortable mental state.

    Speaking low and slow can also turn an interrogation around if it's derailing. These tones suggest compassion and sincerity, and the subject is more likely to listen to what the interrogator is saying if they display a calm demeanor.