For many people, the closest they'll ever get to a real police interrogation is via episodes of a TV show like Law & Order. Unless the writers hired law enforcement professionals as outside consultants, events happening on-screen are just someone's best guess at the reality of an interrogation. As such, viewers probably aren't learning anything substantial from watching Ice-T wax poetic about the injustices he witnesses in New York.
But this begs the question: what methods do police interrogators use? Is there a playbook everybody uses, or is every cop just making it up as they go? Are they basing their techniques off of a standard, or do they rely on the good cop, bad cop dynamic?
In North America, many police agencies use standard practices like the Reid Technique, while others employ the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) method. Either way, they're out to make you talk.
Police Prepare Extensively Before The Interview
When police enter an interrogation room, they are well prepared. In movies, it can seem like police are just winging it, but in reality, virtually every technique turns out better with a great deal of preparation. The FBI strongly advises its members to prepare extensively before any interrogation, especially since there are so many ways they can go wrong. According to an article released in 1998:
Preparation stands as the most important factor in conducting successful interrogations. Too often, the unplanned approach leads to interrogation failures. Factors to consider when preparing interrogations include setting and environmental considerations, knowledge of case facts, familiarity with subjects’ backgrounds, and methods of documenting confessions.
They Watch Your Body Language
It makes sense for the police to look out for physical signs a suspect is lying, but the clues aren't always what one might expect. For example, a potential indicator of dishonesty is less about how twitchy and uncomfortable a person is, and more about if they exhibit specific signs.
Sergeant Brian Harris, who appeared on the TV show Criminal Confessions, notes several signs of potential guilt. Playing with hair often shows a suspect is attempting to delay a response. Sex offenders tend to place their hands in their groin area before telling a story. People who distractedly try to clean the interrogation table are likely guilty and uncomfortable, looking for an out.
Shoulder shrugging frequently indicates somebody is lying. And finally, if a suspect puts their head in their hands, they're probably pretty close to giving up on their fake story and just telling the truth.
Police Act As If The Evidence Already Points To The Suspect
One of the hallmarks of the Reid Technique is manipulating suspects into believing the police know more than they do. An interrogator implies the evidence points to the suspect as the perpetrator. Of course, the official website for the Reid Technique says to only pursue these methods when one is confident a suspect is involved. However, police aren't necessarily expected to have concrete evidence.
The goal is to have a suspect believe lying is pointless, and continuing to do so will hurt their chances to receive a lesser sentence. The suspect should feel if they confess - or rat out somebody else - they can garner leniency.
Police Try To "Justify" The Crime
When using the Reid Technique, it's important for interrogators to build rapport with the suspect. One of the primary ways they do this is by providing "alternative" justifications for why somebody would commit a crime. The second, fifth, and seventh steps of the Reid Technique all help the suspect feel as if the rationale behind the offense is understandable.
The second step involves placing the moral blame on something or someone else besides the suspect. If the interrogator believes the suspect committed a murder, they might suggest the reason was that the victim cheated on the suspect - after all, crimes of passion make a lot of sense.
In step five, the interrogator furthers the theme, drawing attention away from focusing on any potential punishments. And finally, in step seven, the interrogator presents the suspect with a choice of two different reasons a crime may have happened, with one sounding a whole lot more logical and staying consistent with the aforementioned moral reasoning.
An example using the above hypothetical: "Did you hit her because you were so upset by her infidelity, or were you planning to murder her for years?" It's a false choice, but it can often lead to a confession as suspects want to appear in a better moral light.