Dealing effectively with suspect ultimatums during police questioning

Kerry Watkins
February 15, 2019
By Kerry Watkins
It is not unusual for a suspect who is being questioned by police to issue an ultimatum; to say to the investigator that if they persist with a certain line of questioning, the suspect will fully exercise their right to silence and stop talking. The question for investigators is how to deal effectively with such ultimatums.

Police have a duty to investigate, which includes questioning suspects, and the law is clear that they may be persistent when doing so. However, persistence alone, unless guided by an informed questioning strategy, can result in suspects who make good on their ultimatums and shut down entirely when questioned about certain issues. In response to this type of resistance some investigators simply give up, while others adopt verbally aggressive approaches. Neither type of response is likely to be successful in maximizing information from suspects during investigative interviews. However, there are a number of steps investigators can take to deal effectively with suspect ultimatums.

Professor Deepak Malhotra, of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, suggests that the best way to deal with an ultimatum is to simply ignore it. Ignoring an ultimatum prevents it from becoming a defining feature in an interaction, a stumbling block over which it is difficult to pass. If it is possible for an investigator to ignore the suspect’s ultimatum by simply continuing on with their line of questioning — assuming the suspect continues to engage in dialogue — that is what they should do. However, in circumstances where the suspect is insistent and their ultimatum cannot be ignored, there are four steps investigators can take to improve their chances of creating and maintaining a productive dialogue with suspects.

Step 1.) Positively acknowledge the suspect’s ultimatum. An investigator might say something like, “Thank you. I appreciate you telling me that if I continue to question you about certain areas you will stop talking to me. It shows me that you understand your legal rights — including your right to silence — which you may exercise at any time.”

Step 2.) Validate the suspect’s concerns. An investigator might say something like, “I am not in your position and I never have been, but I imagine that if I were, I might feel the same way you do about being questioned by police.”

Step 3.) Reframe the suspect’s ultimatum from an absolute position to one that is contingent on the stage of the interview and the information the suspect currently possesses.

An investigator might say something along these lines: “I understand that with the information you have right now, you feel it would be difficult to continue talking to me if I ask you certain questions, and I respect that. All I ask for the moment is that you listen carefully as I share some information about the investigation with you.” Reframing the suspect’s ultimatum transforms it from a fixed position, to a position that is contingent on the suspect’s current understanding of the investigation, which may, of course, change as the interview progresses and the investigator shares more information with the suspect.

Step 4.) Give the suspect options about how they may choose to respond during the interview.

An investigator might say, “I am going to explain why you were arrested and why you are a suspect in this matter. And I am going to share some of the evidence we have gathered. You can comment as I am explaining things; you can respond when I have finished sharing the information with you; or, you can choose to say nothing at all. It’s entirely up to you.”

Typically, the suspect will already have a basic understanding of the issues, but that understanding may change as the investigator shares more information with them.

Research suggests that “priming” certain interviewee motivations (such as trust and feelings of security, for example) leads to increased disclosure of information. In this case, emphasizing to the suspect that they are free to engage with the interviewer as they learn more about their situation, can increase the chances of them doing so by priming their feelings of autonomy and bias for action in response to the disclosure of information. It can also result in the suspect feeling less like they have “given in” if they choose to talk to the interviewer (and it, therefore, increases the chances of them doing so), because their choice was made freely and on the basis of a better understanding of their situation than they had when they issued their ultimatum.

When giving the suspect options about how they may choose to respond during the interview, the investigator must be careful not to make any quid pro quo offers; that is, any threats or promises that are contingent on the suspect’s choice of whether or not to talk. Any inducements of this kind, particularly if they infer a legal benefit, will be closely scrutinized by a court in determining the admissibility of the suspect’s statement should they choose to give one.

When introducing evidence during a suspect interview, it should be done strategically. Research indicates that evidence should be introduced later in the interview process, not at the beginning. When introducing evidence, an investigator should do so incrementally: moving from the weakest, least specific to the strongest, most specific evidence. And care must be taken not disclose any “hold back” evidence.

Investigative interviewers can deal effectively with suspects who issue ultimatums by following the four steps described above. Those steps can be easily remembered using the mnemonic AVRO: acknowledge and validate the suspect’s position; reframe the suspect’s ultimatum; and, provide the suspect with options about how they may proceed during the interview.

References
Malhotra, D., (2016) Negotiating the Impossible. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Oakland: CA.

Neequaye, D., (2018) Subtle Influence and Information Disclosure: How Priming Works in Intelligence Interviews. Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats. Comment. June 4th, 2018. crestresearch.ac.uk/comment/neequaye-subtle-influence-how-priming-works


Kerry Watkins conducted more than two thousand interviews during his 30-year career, the majority of which was spent as a criminal investigator in specialized units investigating a wide range of matters, including police corruption, corporate fraud and homicide. He is currently director of The Interview Group, a professor at Humber College and an adjunct faculty member in the Ongoing Professional Development Program at Osgoode Hall in Toronto.

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