Conducting Successful Interrogations

By David Vessel, J. D.

This article originally appeared in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Oct. 1998, and appears on the internet at

SA Vessel

Obtaining information that an individual does not want to provide constitutes the sole purpose of an interrogation. A successful interrogation results in a guilty or involved criminal suspect’s making a confession or admitting participation in an illegal activity. However, interrogators frequently do not acquire information critical to successful case resolution. Often, guilty suspects leave the interrogation environment without making the smallest admission. Many experienced officers leave an interview or interrogation knowingly outwitted by the suspects. When these situations occur, criminals go unpunished and remain free to strike again, causing the entire community to suffer.

Interrogations can fail for any number of reasons. Some reasons are foreseeable; some are not. However, interrogators can increase their success rates by eliminating or minimizing identifiable causes of failure. Once investigators have identified these factors, they can consider and act upon them to increase the probability of successful interrogations. These major components include preparing for the interrogation, distinguishing between interrogations and interviews, developing persuasive themes and arguments, establishing a set plan, building a good relationship with the interrogation subject, allowing enough time for the interrogation, acquiring adequate interrogation training, and understanding that some interrogations will fail regardless of any amount of effort employed. While not all-inclusive, these factors prove vital to successful interrogations.

Preparing for the Interrogation

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.

Setting and Environmental Considerations

Interview SettingSuccessful interrogations mandate that interrogators, not subjects, control not only the topics of discussion, but also the physical environment.1 Officers should not conduct interrogations unless they can guarantee privacy and control of the environment. A good setting is a small, controlled, sound-insulated room void of distractions. Investigators should avoid environments with windows, telephones, clocks, pagers, and intercom systems. A setting free from diversions forces the subjects to respond only to the inquiries. It also gives investigators a much better opportunity to observe the subjects’ verbal and nonverbal responses to the issues presented. Accordingly, interrogators know that these reactions result from the issues and not from any extraneous stimulus. The further the situation gets from a controlled setting, the higher the chance that the interrogation will fail. If investigators cannot guarantee this environment, they should conduct the interrogation at another time and place. Often, only one good interrogation opportunity exists. Risking that opportunity in an unacceptable environment may be a poor investigative decision.

Case Facts Knowledge

Understanding case facts remains critical to any interview or interrogation, but some facts may prove more important than others. Knowledge of how a crime occurred can be an effective persuasion tool.2 If investigators can tell subjects how the crimes were committed, the subjects may give the reasons for their involvement in these incidents. However, interrogators must exercise caution in using this technique. In presenting crime facts to subjects, interrogators must ensure that all prove correct. Otherwise, interrogators will risk losing credibility, which greatly increases the chance of interrogation failures.3

Familiarity with Subjects’ Backgrounds

Acquiring adequate background information about subjects constitutes another critical factor in achieving successful interrogations. Subjects’ feelings, attitudes and personal values directly impact successful interrogations. Individuals often make the choice to confess based on their emotions, then defend their positions or choices with logic.4 Therefor, the more officers know about the subjects they interrogate, the better their chances for success. When interrogators understand subjects’ goals, needs, and conflicts, they can use this information to persuade subjects that confessing the truth is in their best interest.

Documenting Confessions

Officers should resolve the critical details of documenting the confession before beginning the interrogation. Once the procedure starts, interrogators should not be involved in extraneous activities, such as changing audiotapes or searching for needed forms. These actions distract subjects, make them feel less important then the interrogation process, an greatly decrease the possibility of successful interrogations. Although interrogators document the process by audio or video recordings, they should obtain a signed, written statement as an accurate summary of the essential facts. Moreover, if the audio or video recordings prove defective, this written record can be admitted as evidence and examined by a jury.

Distinguishing Between Interrogations and Interviews

Investigators must make a clear distinction between the two processes of interviewing and interrogating subjects. An interview should precede every interrogation. Through the interview, officers learn about the subjects and their needs, fears, concerns, and attitudes. They then use this information to prepare themes or arguments to use during interrogations.

During interviews, subjects answer questions from investigators about the crimes, themselves, and others involved in these incidents. Through this nonthreatening initial inquiry, investigators identify non-verbal and verbal behavior exhibited by the subjects, build rapport and find common ground with them, determine if they should be interrogated (if doubt exists about the subjects’ involvement, no interrogation should be conducted), and obtain additional case facts.

Conversely, interrogations bring investigations to a close. Investigators use different skills in interrogations, confronting subjects with statements rather than asking for information. In interrogations, investigators lead, and subjects follow.Investigators do not seek information. They do not take notes. They only want to obtain truthful admissions or confessions.