Blue Line

EXPO – Investigative Interviewing

December 2, 2015  By Gord MacKinnon



Forming a necessary bond in the interviewing process

by Gord MacKinnon


An investigative interview, whether conducted by police or someone else, can best be defined as a conversation with a purpose and a consequence. This is not a random social conversation but rather a structured interaction between interviewer and interviewee with a view to answering the question ‘What happened?’

The best source of information in any investigation is usually people, including the culprit, and their eyewitness descriptions of the events being investigated. Documents can provide evidence, video can graphically depict an incident, forensic analysis can yield clues as to who attended a particular scene, but you need to hear the stories of the people involved to tie everything together into the who/what/how/why of an investigation.

Any investigator will tell you that sometimes the toughest part is getting some of the witnesses, including the victim, to speak openly and honestly about what happened. There are few things more frustrating than being willing and able to help someone injured or otherwise impacted by criminal behavior and finding them reluctant to cooperate.

The suspect or culprit can also be a reluctant witness. This is not surprising, given that the deal being sold by a police investigator goes something like this: “Tell me your deepest and darkest secret and in return I will send you to jail for as long as I possibly can.” Why would anyone tell their deepest secret when they face such a consequence?

We believe that the key to conducting a successful interview is to develop and maintain a connection to the subject. Known as building and maintaining rapport, it is a cornerstone to a successful interview. If done correctly it encourages a person, including the culprit, to tell the truth but still feel a ‘bond’ with the interviewer.

Listening to the words spoken by the subject, noting their voice inflection, watching their body language and any changes, all while selling yourself and maintaining a structured conversation, takes considerable effort and skill.

You need to respond to the subject’s needs, mirror their language and movements and convince them in a non-threatening way to cooperate and tell the truth. It’s not easy and requires skill, knowledge and practice.

If you are successful in keeping rapport with your interview subject, the results can be rewarding. Victims can provide open and detailed accounts of their experience, witnesses will give unbiased and honest descriptions of an event and culprits may admit to the most heinous of crimes as a direct result of the belief and trust they have in their interviewer.

Never was a result of this nature more apparent than during the interview of Colonel Russell Williams, base commander of CFB Trenton and highly regarded in both the military and his community.

The interview conducted by OPP D/Sgt. Jim Smyth stands as one of the truly classic cases of an interviewer building and maintaining rapport. When Williams decided to confess to Smyth he first asked him “what are we going to do?” before confessing to the abduction and murder of one of the women. He then went on to give a full account of his crimes.

It was obvious that the rapport between Williams and Smyth was an extremely important factor in the confession that was eventually obtained, to the point that Williams included Smyth in his attempt to solve the massive problem that he faced by using the word “we” rather than simply asking “What am I going to do?”

Smyth maintained rapport throughout the interview and, as a result, obtained a full confession that eventually led to a guilty plea and a very successful outcome to a tragic case.

Critical listening is an essential part of building and maintaining rapport. This does not mean just nodding your head at everything the subject says. On the contrary, critical listening is an approach by which we use all of our senses to seek out and observe everything which a subject is communicating.

A large percentage of communication is non-verbal. What we say is only part of the message being sent. Critical listening allows the interviewer to attune themselves to as much of the message being sent as possible. This requires using all of your faculties to decipher the complete message being sent by your interview subject.

Critical listening, also known as active listening, allows us to observe subtle changes in the body language, voice inflection, tone, tension, stress level and sensitivity of any subject during an interview. It also gives you a much better chance of observing micro expressions – fleeting expressions of rage, sadness, embarrassment or other emotions that a subject displays when talking that interviewers often miss. All of this information gives clues to sensitive areas of the story or deception by the subject.

Building and maintaining rapport is a key component of any investigative interview. Critical listening is one of the tools by which we maintain rapport. Together, the two go hand-in-hand to achieving successful interview outcomes.

We will cover the importance of RAPPORT and CRITICAL LISTENING at the Blue Line Expo and our seminar will expand on some of the points covered here. Hope to see you there.

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