Note: Next month (September 13-19), we’re teaching a class on surveillance here at Savvy Authors. Our surveillance class offers techniques for your fictional sleuth to surveil someone by foot or by vehicle, along with tips for surveiling in the summer or winter, legalities of surveillances, using GPS devices and more. Check it out at http://www.savvyauthors.com/event.cfm?EventID=177
Now, for today’s blog, read on…
Interviewing vs. Interrogation
“Now, sir, we’ll talk if you like. And I’ll tell you right out, I’m a man who likes to talk to a man who likes to talk.” -Man to Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon
Let’s visit how a private investigator might be different in how he/she interviews a witness versus how a public investigator (for example, a police investigator) might do the interview. What’s primarily key is that a real-life PI doesn’t already have a suspect in mind or a foregone conclusion. That is why a PI interviews whereas a police officer has a suspect in mind and they interrogate. Just to confuse the issue, there are also times that a private investigator might choose to interrogate in an attempt to either get at the truth or to shape his version of the truth.
So what is the difference between interviewing and interrogating? Interviewing relies on open-ended questions (who, what, when, where, why) with the goal of obtaining a maximum amount of information. Interrogation is a way of using closed-ended, leading questions, posed in an accusatory tone so as to get a witness to agree with the interviewer.
Interviewing Witnesses Is an Art
Every art form has certain unchanged rules that come into play each time the art form is employed. The same holds true with investigations generally, and with interviewing. Let’s check out some of these rules:
- The first unchanging rule in the art of interviewing is that people like being likable, and they like being liked. An individual (this includes adversaries and suspects) will talk to an interviewer because they like being liked, and they love being given attention.
- The second unchanging rule of interviewing is that most people want to be close to and help anyone who is cloaked with the official title investigator (whether it be a public investigator, such as a police officer, or a private investigator).
- The third unchanging rule of interviewing is that no one wants to testify in court. Face it, most people are scared to speak in public. This translates to a real disdain to being given a subpoena to testify in a courtroom, under oath before a judge. Therefore, if given a choice, most witnesses will agree to an interview with an investigator in lieu of testifying in court.
- The fourth rule is that even while there is no such thing as speaking off the record, people love to say, “Hey, this is off the record,” to put others in their confidence and share secrets. Guess what? There’s no law that says “off the record” stuff is excluded from court. (Your fictional PI can keep the tape recorder going, knowing all that “off the record” stuff is pure gold.)
- The fifth rule is that most investigators, at the drop of a hat, are happy to tell a witness that their answer to a question is “strictly off the record.” Shaun has seen lawyers who are stunned when they learn that something they said “off the record” (where is that record kept, anyway?) is going to be the subject of testimony. If it is your voice on my tape recorder, then friend, it is not off the record. Period. Thank you, however, for sharing your secrets.
As we stated earlier, there is nothing that is off the record, and it does not matter if the witness likes us after all is said and done, so long as our client does not go to prison. A fictional PI might have such a mercenary attitude too.
Tight Lips and Loose Lips
Some witnesses are naturally conversational, and most often they are inquisitive. The same person, more than likely, has a lot to share, because they have a lot of interest in a lot of things. Our experience is that the more intelligent the interviewee, the more likely they are to bring up a plethora of topics. The trick with getting this kind of person talking is to ask open-ended questions, and let them know they are being listened to (which can be simply done by echoing back a few of the last words in their most recent sentence: “So the car turned around and drove right at Billy and his girlfriend? How wild!”) Such echoing encourages witnesses to pick up where they left off and share more information. All the interviewer has to do is to steer the general direction of the flow of information.
Far more difficult, however, is the reticent witness--the one who is partisan, scared, sick, or afraid of being dragged into something that they do not want to testify about. The first course of action with these people is for the interviewer to honestly acknowledge that the interviewee is scared, reticent, afraid, and that the interviewer empathizes with them. These witnesses need to be led around a little, primarily by the use of leading questions, with occasional reminders that the interviewer is concerned, interested, empathetic. Also, it doesn’t hurt to let them see, or identify, with the interviewer’s difficulty, and why the interviewer needs their help (“Billie, I know that you are scared, and I bet you can see how nervous I am. I need to get all the information I can to help keep Donnie Lee Jones out of prison for thirty years for a robbery that you and I know he did not commit. We both know that right? So tell me, he was at your house until the five o’clock news came on, right, the day he was arrested for the robbery?”).
The interviewer, in the instance of the tight-lipped witness, is a salesman, a psychologist, and a redeemer. Just as a lot rides on the outcome of our investigation agency’s interviews, your fictional PI might also be passionate about the outcome.
Colleen Collins is a PI by day, a multi-published author by night. Her articles on private investigations have appeared in PI Magazine, Pursuit Magazine, Romance Writers Report (RWR), and other publications. A member of the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA), Mystery Writers of America (MWA), and Romance Writers of America (RWA), she's written 20 novels for Harlequin and Dorchester and has spoken at regional and national conferences about writing private eyes in fiction.
Shaun Kaufman has worked in and around the criminal justice field for nearly 30 years, as a former trial attorney and a current investigator. Shaun is a popular speaker at conferences, entertaining and educating writers with his insights and expertise about investigations, crime scenes, how PIs effectively testify in trials, and more. His father always told him to be a writer, not a lawyer.