An investigative interview versus an interrogation
I learned that most people have a need to confess. I also learned that they don’t always confess to what they did in a troublesome past. Often enough, they will confess to what I tell them they did. Detective, NYPD
The above quote, by a New York Police Department detective, sums up the not uncommon result of an interrogation technique used by police throughout the United States: the Reid technique of interrogation.
The Reid technique of interrogation has been sharply criticized of late for its production of false confessions. Once a confession has been obtained, the legal system makes it extremely difficult to overcome almost automatically imposed repercussions, virtually all of which are negative for an interrogee but positive for an interrogator.
Success in law enforcement is measured through criminal confessions, while the production of a false confession rarely receives scrutiny or opprobrium. The incentive is therefore in one direction. The interrogee, on the other hand, faces the negative consequence of losses, i.e. fines or imprisonment, etc. This is commonly true even if a confession can be shown beyond doubt to have been made to impossible circumstances, for example a suspect was later shown to be out of town at a conference on the day of the robbery, yet they confessed to the robbery.
How does this make any sense? It makes sense if one accepts that a confession represents far more than the rational; it represents something primal– an exhibition of psychological strength or weakness, and there is a propensity to punish psychological weakness while rewarding “strength.”
What are the biochemical dynamics that propel an interrogative environment? The human brain, by its nature, has variable strength to resist unwelcome beliefs, but that strength is exhaustible. For example, studies show that the more one resists the temptation for chocolate cake during the day, the fewer reserves remain at night; the cake eventually wins. The brain is a malleable organ. With the proper effort, imposed stressors and time, domination can prevail in terms of modifying a suspect’s beliefs.
And what about the opposite side, the interrogator? He has the advantage of time and lack of stress. And he has a biochemical reward in addition to career rewards if a confession is obtained: elevated pleasurable brain chemicals.
Because a standard interrogation delivering a false confession via the Reid technique is a clear detriment to society in terms of costs and the failure to capture an actual perpetrator, progressive countries like England, Finland and Norway have abandoned the Reid technique. The PEACE method (Prepare and Plan, Engage and Explain, Account, Clarify and Challenge, Close, Evaluate), an investigative interview technique, has replaced it.
The PEACE method does not include the need to raise anxiety, bizarre, disconcerting theatrics, or reliance on outward manifestations of the nervous system (tics, eye movements, body language), almost all of which have been shown to be irrelevant to someone’s guilt or innocence. This method is more likely to expose reality and the truth, at the expense of preconceived notions, prejudices and possibly less than honorable motives.
The following is a description of an interrogation by Swiss police, authored by the scientist at issue in this blog. Was it an investigative interview of an interrogation of the Reid type? The reader can decide.
An afternoon with the Swiss police
– a scientist’s description –
I understand architecture as art on a grand scale. As with conventional art, the intent of good architecture is to embrace the soul, to send the spirit soaring. Whoever designed the state’s attorney’s office building had thoughts other than art in mind, starting with an impression of cold and hostility: several stories tucked below a flat-roof; rectangular, raw, dirty-gray poured concrete embellishments. Looking unfinished, it may, in fact, have been finished perfectly.
The sense of architectural despair carried over beyond the main entrance, into me, despite the sun that shone brightly that early October day.
I had already started asking myself, would I exit this building as a different person?
A securitized, black steel door welcomed no one. At its flank stood a loudspeaker on a pedestal. It served to communicate with the internal, invisible powers that were accustomed to changing lives. A steel-mesh speaker grill, smudged with abuse, separated a tense outside from a wary inside. A thin, tinny, remote voice screened entry whenever the button was reluctantly pushed.
A woman with stringy blonde hair and a black leather jacket adorned with silver shoulder studs lingered at the entrance. She was anxious looking and silently weeping.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She flinched at my approach, then nodded silently. I immediately felt that I was intruding on what she had decided would be invariably unpleasant about the day. I backed-off, saying no more.
There were no windows to be seen on the ground floor; no hint of what went on inside, other than what could be conjured from the darkest recesses of the mind that was about to be mined in the building’s depths. Once inside, a mood of being abandoned was upheld by a wispy, aged female receptionist seated behind a pane of heavy glass. In fact, on this day, at this time, I was her lone visitor.
My registered letter of invitation slipped through a slot cut in the glass that separated us. She examined my reason for being there without comment.
I had been invited for questioning by Detective P, my letter read, on a matter concerning libel. In the background, however, there hovered another issue, silent but ominous. An accusation of sexual harassment had been put forth against me at a Swiss university. The accusation had been a ruse, a long-awaited excuse to remove me from the university. Two lawyers had examined the charge made by my accuser and the university, and found it to be false; we then filed suit against my accuser and three professors, for their pronounced but false claims. The police had never been officially informed of the accusation. But, of course, they knew.
In response to the false accusation, and in defense of my reputation, I had written essays for university associates and friends, exposing malevolent conduct by three professors. Those essays, accusatory and naming names, were the reason I now faced questioning, for libel.
The receptionist picked up the phone.
“Take a seat,” she instructed. “Someone will come for you.”
Temporary seating amounted to plain plastic chairs with a few plastic tables that wobbled when demands were placed on them. I was confined to a narrow space devoid of distractions while awaiting service personnel. Late by fifteen minutes, a taller, middle-aged man casually dressed if not scruffy finally provided instructions from the far side of a glass partition separating us.
“Pass through to this side by entering the capsule,” he ordered dourly while gesturing.
Somewhat incongruously, the diameter of the glass capsule did not seem much beyond the girth an average-size person. I wondered how larger people fit inside. A claustrophobic’s nightmare, it swallowed a body whole for about five seconds, then purged it to the other side: metal scan.
I entered a world in which my host was now firmly in control. Detective P greeted me like an octogenarian greets one more birthday. He escorted me into an elevator and up to his office, wordless from one end to the other. The route included no visual relief: cold, steel, concrete. The bowel of the building was hollow, a square donut. Offices comprised the perimeter. Guardrails ensured that no one took an easy route out.
P mastered a large office much like him in appearance: spare, gloomy, grey-white walls devoid of warmth except for one plant that drooped sadly in a corner by a window. It pleaded but had already concluded, “no escape.”
Providing minimal eye contact, Detective P wore a light blue, baggy, front-buttoned sweater washed many times too often. His jeans matched. While not fat, he also wasn’t muscular. There was a heaviness to him, a weariness to his stride and bearing, his greying mustache thick and not unlike the plant awaiting attention in the corner. Perhaps he worked undercover.
Questioning began at 13:22. The two of us faced one another only obliquely as we sat at a diagonal made necessary by P’s focus on a wide computer screen between us. He typed away, attention constantly on the screen even as he asked me questions.
Following standard name-, age-, nationality-, and occupation-type questions, the essays directly related to the case made their gradual appearance.
“Is this your email address?”
“Does anyone else have access to, or use, your email address?”
“No, not that I am aware of.”
“Did you write this email… ” on such or such a date?
After examining each of many emails, one by one, I universally replied, “Yes. I have not read every word, but it looks familiar.”
And on it went like that, a review of each essay that I had sent, along with an unsolicited explanation of my motive, which invariably led back to: I was defending myself to people who knew me. I wanted my name cleared. The accusation of sexual harassment was false.
After about two hours of this sort of thing, P said something odd:
“I want you to know that you are not now accused of sexual harassment. I want to make that clear.” It was impossible to confuse his message, his voice firm, his gaze aimed directly at me.
I only agreed. That was not news. I had been accused of sending unwanted emails to a woman. But no such emails had been written, and the accusation by the university fell dormant after we demanded to see the evidence. Ostensibly, that subject was not the purpose of this visit in the first place. The letter of invitation by the district attorney concerned essays I had written, accusing professors of unethical, unprofessional conduct in an inappropriate dismissal from the university. Nevertheless, P began examining, in detail, emails (there were twelve-weeks worth), related solely to my relationship with the woman, my erstwhile accuser. Oddly enough, she had made her accusation nebulous, without any reference to a specific offense or improper email. The three professors had falsely materialized that vague accusation. I never heard from her again.
After about two hours of interrogation, P intensified what had been a perfunctory rhythm to the questioning. His voice drifted toward command status. After some minutes of mild crescendo he abruptly made a semi-understandable comment– something about someone else “coming here to join us now.” I had not fully understood what he had said. It seemed like more of an aside. I asked no question and made no comment. I sat quietly.
P shifted his chair’s position to face me, directly across on his side of the desk. He began to pick-up and organize papers. I assumed he was finishing his part of the interrogation. A moment later the door opened. A large, prominent head with ample, coal-black hair, face shaven but nevertheless dark, peeked cryptically inside as if he knew he were intruding. There was no expression of recognition of my presence; he spoke not a word as the door stood open only partially. After a moment, he opened the door fully and entered.
This man, better dressed than P in a white shirt and dress trousers, walked in slowly but mystifyingly; he clung as far as possible to the far wall, to my left, as if a magnet in his pocket were pulling him. He strode still pasted-up against the adjoining wall as he passed, opposite me, making it appear as if he wished to be as far from me as possible. He had from the start fixed his attention firmly in his direction of travel, not toward me. But as he passed by he swiveled his head toward me, robot-like, with a look a physician might give a patient dying of an infectious disease. This behavior was utterly bizarre, confusing and disturbing. My assumption at first was that he was a lawyer, an assistant D.A., someone who decides whether criminal charges will be filed.
P finished collecting his papers and exited the room without a word to our visitor or to me. The air crackled with uncertainty. The mystery man had still not introduced himself. He walked a few steps to the far side of P’s chair, toward the window, beyond where necessary and without physical purpose. Then he returned, sat down as hard as a bag of concrete, slouching slovenly, his legs spread apart. He shot me the briefest, furtive look.
Still not a word.
Mystery man concentrated intensely on the computer screen, apparently scrolling through what P had just written. The thought had occurred to me earlier that someone might have been monitoring P’s screen from another room, prompting P’s questions, which P seemed to have been reading. Now, this eavesdropper may have had what he needed to continue the interrogation, but at a more substantial level? Thanks perhaps to something that I had inadvertently said? Mild paranoia set in. Had I said something stupid to inspire interest?
I sat still. No words passed between us. He continued reading. About eight minutes later P returned. Not a word spoken. The strange, “dark” man left the room, still silent. The tension that he radiated remaining suspended in the air.
P continued the interrogation as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. I began to suspect that I had witnessed rehearsed theater and not a spontaneous event. Regardless of the intent, the incident raised considerable anxiety. The behavior had been intentionally rude. A few minutes later I said that I wished to go to the rest room.
“I can no longer allow you to leave the room,” P said ominously. I was surprised, but again I said not a word. Earlier, before the mystery man had appeared, there had been no objection to a rest room visit. I did not repeat my request. The thought was planted; I decided that being told I would be held would not faze me.
P returned to examining his computer screen. Questioning continued about my relationship with the woman. Now P’s voice became strident. Dividing his attention between me and the computer screen he finally said, “I am telling you, Mister (X), that you are guilty of sexual harassment, based on emails that I see here.”
Without hesitation I retorted, “No, I think that you are mistaken. I have already had all of the emails checked by two legal authorities. There is no harassment and no sexual content. And the exchanges were mutual in nature, as you can see if you read fully, rather than quoting select passages.”
P ignored my remark.
He went on, bold and challenging and in control: “I am the one, here,” he exclaimed, “who decides what constitutes sexual harassment, and this, Mister (X), is sexual harassment.”
Again, I shook my head: “No, I contest your assertion.”
In his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, the eminent psychologist William James described the physical and psychological manifestations of anxiety states in subjects who experienced dramatic religious conversions. Existential discomfort presaged what became swift, astonishing shifts in beliefs, as if a light had switched on to illuminate an entirely different landscape in view for the first time. James described the unease as accompanying deep, personal questioning and doubt: Who am I? Why do I feel empty, lost, and alone? What could end this personal, mental anguish? Am I wrong about how I have seen the world until now?
Such conversions were not unusual in religious settings. The explanation given for the dearth of such conversions today is that the environments of fear of hell and damnation are milder today and include fewer theatrics and heightened emotions.
If there were to be such a conversion now, with me, this would have been the moment when P would have reached for it.
Many months later, while walking under a full moon in a farm field and reviewing this experience, I suddenly comprehended what could have happened to me at that moment of psychological stress, how I could have unburdened myself, but not in relation to any sexual harassment: “Okay, OKAY! I didn’t mean to be bad! I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I want to belong. I want to be liked… by you… now. (upheaval, tears, acquiescence to a greater power… to achieve absolution).
I was atop a fulcrum that see-sawed emotions and beliefs; up could turn to down in an instant depending on the slightest movement; the truth was rendered relative now, its definition separable from reality and at the command of the commander.
As I walked under that moon, I asked myself, “What would I have become, as a person, had I undergone a shift there in that office, as James had described?” The past would have been disowned, disembodied. My memory of the event would have been altered to feel shame. I would have been reborn in the presence of a new master: The Police.
Conversion becomes complete when the master manipulator has briefly become a new friend, someone to admire, someone to even be protected, someone to respect and confess to. Authoritarianism, in fact, does have its appeal.
I had witnessed a number of people who had undergone just such a conversion, and by the police. Invariably, there was the look of distance in their eyes afterwards, when I asked them about their experiences. Facial expressions turned somber. There was regret, yet accompanied by the hope that always accompanies rebirth: “But I can be a better person, today.”
In his book, Battle for the Mind, author and physiologist William Sargant describes how battle fatigue resulted in drastic changes in beliefs, in nervous systems. An assault on one’s beliefs, where a superior force proclaims how wrong we are, is analogous to battle, even though not severe physically. However, under no circumstances should the void, the abyss into which one is forced to gaze be underestimated for its terror, when alone, when frightened, when that which one knew to be certain and true requires too much effort to defend, effort no longer available because it has been drained from the brain.
Truth becomes weary after a while. Resisting the opinion of another requires effort and energy, which depletes. It has been shown, for example, that if a day is spent resisting temptations… a fine glass of whiskey, buying a new whatever, the ability to resist diminishes with time. An interrogation is like a tug of war, but where the other side is permitted greater resources. That is why relaxing breaks, which are not afforded, can make a difference when being interrogated– the difference between, “I will give them what they want now, because I am exhausted and alone, but I will let the facts speak to my innocence later,” versus, “I won’t let them lead me into unreality” – a decision that can change a life in an instant.
Detective P rose to the occasion, compelled to remain on his path until I truckled:
“I will show you, then, what sexual harassment is, if you need to see proof, Mister (X), from this book… right here.” He swiveled confidently in his chair, his intent on evident, dramatic display. He reached for a squat, fat tome on the shelf immediately behind him. It was at this point that I felt crawling in my gut, which, not by chance, includes the largest concentration of nerve cells outside of the brain.
P self-assuredly placed the book onto the desk, focusing between it and me. He began paging through the book, never telling me exactly what kind of book it was.
Why would P make such an electrifying assertion against me, straight on, without good reason? It made no sense, unless he knew more than I. Mentally, I began to review what I knew were the facts, to reassure myself as I sat there, accused and getting more worried. Yet, I was determined to retain what I knew was reality, and to remain placid regardless of what P said.
It should be recognized that, just as a turning point in that office would have represented a significant shift in my beliefs, P would have been equivalently rewarded with the same jubilance felt by the fire and brimstone preacher, when he wins a new convert.
What could I do while P paged his fat book, the book that now determined my future? Nothing. So I leaned back in my chair. I began to read The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, which I had brought along. I noted one of her quotes: “Very few people really care about freedom, about liberty, about the truth, very few. Very few people have guts, the kind of guts on which a real democracy has to depend. Without people with that sort of guts a free society dies or cannot be born.” We were, of course, in Switzerland, the very model of democracy.
While P perused the book, I perused him. From the corner of my eye, I watched surreptitiously as he continued leafing through his fat book. But wait; I began to sense a change in his expression and urgency. His effort turned desultory. Something wasn’t right here. The self-assurance and intensity initially shown in his search for my guilt was dissipating.
I talked to myself, quietly. I said that P was wrong, but that surely this detective also knew that he was wrong. What was he up to, then? I became more relaxed as the minutes went by. He obviously wasn’t finding what he was looking for if, in fact, he was looking for anything. His turning of the pages became leisurely, then stopped altogether, seemingly random. The effort was clear now: it was a bluff, a calculated gamble. The evidence that he claimed was lacking; he had wanted to fake me out.
How could P retreat from his confident, challenging assertion without losing face? This thought concerned me mightily. He had put himself in an awkward position vis a vis me. He would be deflated, in my presence, if he didn’t follow through. I was careful to remain plaster-statue still.
After about ten minutes P gave up. No further search for his claimed legal evidence. He rose from his chair and headed to the door. Almost there, he turned abruptly and announced quietly, “Someone else will now be joining us.”
Oh, how wrong I was! He had found something after all! But he would let someone else explain it to me. Someone with legal background? The assistant D.A.?
Or another mystery man?
A middle aged, uniformed, well-nourished, sturdy blonde woman entered the room just as P left. Again, she did not introduce herself but smiled wanly. Her gaze remained fixed on me longer than would normally be polite, as if she were concerned about the painful vaccination she was about to administer.
The woman held papers conspicuously in her hand. I smiled pleasantly and continued reading. She sat down and began to shuffle her sheaf purposefully, head twisting slightly left or right, examining this page or that. I had the feeling that those papers were about me, and there were many of them; I think that was what she wanted me to imagine.
P was gone for about ten minutes. Not a word passed between the woman and myself. Finally, just before P returned, I decided to take charge of the situation. I rose from my seat purposefully and extended my hand graciously to the woman.
“I’m Mister (X). Glad to meet you,” I said, smiling and genuinely pleasant.
Clearly taken aback, she nevertheless smiled with sincerity after her mild shock; she was forced to introduce herself. I do not recall her name.
P came back and sat down again. The woman left. No mention was made of the sexual harassment allegation or the supposed proof from the book, which remained closed and sitting on his desk.
No, I wasn’t wrong after all. I had been a part of what was well-rehearsed theater, high theater, meant not to establish facts but to frighten, to gain concession based on practiced psychology. Of course, all reference to this remained unspoken. But P had implemented aspects of what is known as the Reid technique of interrogation. (see below)
I asked myself, why had my belief not been shifted by P? The answer is not simple. It is often said that religious converts are more steadfast in their beliefs than original believers. I understand this. I had already been converted, now long ago, to a belief that was resistant to the anxiety that Detective P had at his disposal in his office. I was solid in my resolve and understanding, based on my earlier conversion. That conversion was at a time when I faced the death of my child. Overwhelming loss had tempered me. The only thing that could convert me again would be a fear of loss even greater than that earlier one; I doubt that it exists in this world. Well, there is, in fact, one other way that I might have been converted: if I had been untrue to my values, and if I had, indeed, sexually harassed that woman; P might have had me. I would have succumbed. I might have confessed. The point is that many people who are innocent will confess under such circumstances.
Questioning continued for several more hours. Finally, P had collected 27 pages of computer-drafted information. At the end of his interrogation, at 18:30 or so, P stated that someone would now recite all of my recorded statements to me, statements I had made in bad German.
I remained silent. The same blonde woman reentered the room. P left.
“I will now read back everything you have said today,” she said, repeating the information that P had just given me.
She began reading and continued for about half an hour. I made a few minor corrections and comments along the way.
Finally, P returned.
“I am not going to sign off on this statement, unless I can take the pages home with me to examine them carefully,“ I said in advance of being asked. “It was impossible for me to follow all of the details in this reading,” I explained. “German is not my best language.”
The blonde objected, then tried to persuade me.
“Detective P has spent a lot of time with you, working on this. He has recorded 27 full pages. That was a lot of effort on his part. He needs you to sign.”
I found her comment interesting and disingenuous. Was it my task to feel sorry for Detective P for his lengthy day and his effort? I should help him with his work, like a child might wish to help daddy? Yes, I think that was exactly the point. We were, after all, child, mother and father in that room. Well, perhaps Freud was also there.
“Under no circumstances will I sign this statement unless I have full understanding of its content, after my careful review,” I repeated forcefully. I wish to examine what you just read without time pressure.”
My request was reasonable. What was their hurry?
The blonde looked at P. The finality of the statement may have impressed him; he did not object.
I signed no papers and was given no copy of the 27 recorded pages.
“Now, these emails of yours are going to stop,” P warned.
“Things happened at the university that were wrong, and maybe illegal. I was defending myself,” I objected. “Funds were misappropriated, for one thing.”
“You are not at the right place, for making such accusations,” P instructed.
What was that he said? Not at the right place? The police? Why not? I kept my cynicism to myself, however.
Out loud I then said, “In that case, I guess the media is my only solution.”
Glaring straight at me and in a firm voice, P said, “Now I have warned you, Mister (X). If you continue with this, do not think for a minute that I will not personally drive to Interlaken, to pick you up.”
Drive to Interlaken? Even as he said it I must have had a smile on my face, for the joke. Only in a country the size of Switzerland would a detective assume that Interlaken was far away and require extraordinary effort. P was clearly a man of his culture. Three American U.S. Marshals had traveled halfway around the world at one time, to New Zealand, for writing a book that exposed corrupt American cops and lawyers, mind you, and they had reserved eight seats on an airplane for our trip.
Well, P’s statement was clear enough. Wrongdoing at, and criticism of, the university was not welcome at the Staatsanwaltschaft. It should be kept “between lawyers,” as he recommended.
I said not a word to his warning. But “kept between lawyers” was code for deceiving the public.
Then, as a continuation of the agony, further questioning ensued: requests for employment history, more about my level of education and so forth, similar to the start of the interrogation.
By the end it had been a long and interesting day. P and his costars had played mind games. In fact, they had good reason. According to empirical studies, one in three individuals, or even more, will confess to crimes they never committed when interrogated under stress. Anxiety and fear and cultural conditioning are far more effective at mind alteration, regardless of the facts, than most people understand or are willing to accept.
They had employed classic police tactics, accusing me of having committed a crime under intentionally imposed, adverse circumstances, raising the tension, hoping for a confession or at least a concession from me as relief to the pressures of the moment.
Statistics compiled in Japan, for example, show that an astounding 70% of individuals accused by police of a crime they did not commit will confess, even though innocent. It quickly becomes apparent that any system that countenances an excess of anxiety in its interrogations has a goal other than determining facts and who is actually guilty of a criminal. The Alpine Democracy may have need to conduct a review of its methods.
Only the “weak” confess, it has been said. I despise the word “weak.” I have often seen the “strong” falter and fall, groveling. And the “weak,” having been wronged, to have picked up the pieces later and turned to dignified resilience. But the human species is cruel and often dead wrong in its immediate appraisals.
What happened that day, at the D.A.’s office, should concern every Swiss citizen. Of course, the detective will deny it; it is also less frightening to believe his denial.
It would be boastful to say that I had not been concerned as their staging unfolded before my eyes; I had been. In fact, without any reason or rationale, I had prepared myself to spend the night, right there with them. That was my response to the anxiety. Fighting with them and anger at that juncture would have been counterproductive and exactly what they wanted.
I cannot tell you what was going through their minds, but I can imagine that the Staatsanwaltschaft was seeking a way out of an embarrassment for the university, an institution of some importance there. Any concession on my part could help keep the story under control, perhaps. After all, had the effort of the interrogation been used for “fact finding?” Hardly. They had accused me of a crime that they themselves had stated I had never been accused of in the first place. What sense does that make? It didn’t have to makes sense. If the intention of the interrogation was to redefine history, then its effort would utilize psychology, not concern itself with seeking facts.
At the end of the interrogation P escorted me to the exit of his concrete mausoleum, his manner now softened. We spoke at ease. He helpfully suggested a shortcut to the train station. He knew, of course, that I now knew what he had tried to do.
We shook hands amiably before I left. As the gloom of the evening invaded with each step toward the train station, I happened to recall an anecdote, recorded from Gestapo headquarters in Munich long ago. They kept a sign affixed to the wall, for visitors: “Breathe deep and try to relax.”
Good advice to this day, even in Switzerland
Fast forward exactly one year, to October 2014. We received official word from the D. A. There was no mention of sexual harassment. literally, no mention of sexual harassment. Not only was I not guilty of sexual harassment (the charge had never officially reached the police), but there had never been an accusation of sexual harassment by the university, it was claimed! Thus, my protestations in writing, embarrassing professors and the university, were deemed libelous.