Police interrogation today

Law and Order and CSI fanatics are probably familiar with the various techniques used in police interrogation today. Such procedures involve psychological manipulation, polygraph test, the guilty knowledge test, even hypnosis. But there was once a time when interrogations weren’t so complex. Prior to the 1930s, physical abuse and brutality were acceptable methods of eliciting confession from a suspect.

So-called "third degree" techniques like “deprivation of food and water, bright lights, physical discomfort and long isolation, and beating that do not leave physical marks were usually admissible in court as long as the suspect signed a waiver stating the confession was voluntary. Fortunately, the Brown v. Mississippi case in 1937 and the infamous Miranda v. Arizona case in 1966 led to the crackdown on “involuntary confessions” extracted through coercive factors. Since then, suspects were informed of their constitutional right to silence and counsel, comprising what is now known as the “Miranda Rights” (Layton, 2007)

Getting someone to confess to a crime is not a simple task that is why interrogators have to be highly trained in the psychological tactics of social influence. Reid's "Nine Steps" of psychological manipulation is one of the most popular interrogation systems in the United States today. This technique begins even before the interrogator opens his mouth. The interrogation room’s layout is designed to maximize the suspect's discomfort and sense of powerlessness from the moment he steps inside. In the initial interview, the interrogator builds rapport then proceeds onto the first step, confrontation.

Here, the facts and evidence of the case are presented. Next is theme development, where the interrogator creates a story about why the suspect committed the crime. The third technique would be stopping denials by cutting the suspect off when he starts to deny involvement in the crime. Overcoming some logic-based objections that the suspect may offer is the next approach of the interrogator. And by appearing understanding and sincere, the interrogator is able to hold the attention of the suspect, another crucial step in this process.

Once the suspect's body language indicates surrender (head in his hands, elbows on his knees, shoulders hunched), the interrogator seizes the opportunity to start leading the suspect into confession. He then offers two motives for the crime by reframing the issue into being a socially acceptable (“crime of passion”) or morally repugnant. Once the suspect indicates one, the interrogator proceeds to eliciting a full confession, during which suspect confirms that his confession is voluntary, not coerced, and signs the statement in front of witnesses.

Before the “Nine Steps” were established by Reid, police utilized polygraph tests to determine if the suspect was being deceptive. The sensors attached to the person will record his vital signs which, if significant changes are observed, will generally indicate that the person is lying. But polygraphs and polygraph training are expensive and admissibility vary from state to state, that is why the guilty knowledge test was established. This test comprises ten multiple-choice questions, based on the fact that only the guilty will recognize scenes and events from the crime.

While it has pros and cons, the validity of the Guilty Knowledge Test is said to be promising. However, the suspect should be able to remember details surrounding the crime, and in such cases, the controversial hypnosis which aids memory recall can become handy. At the same time, the cognitive interview was developed. During context reinstatement, the victims are asked to recreate the crime scene mentally and report every single aspect they remember. Among the interrogation techniques mentioned, I believe that Reid’s Nine Steps has the greatest reliability.

If hypnosis is controversial and polygraph tests are inadmissible, then this psychological manipulation would definitely be the most effective technique that can be employed by interrogators today. Besides safeguarding the right of the suspect, the blueprint for this technique seems to be more successful in discovering the truth behind the crime.


  • Lecture Notes. Layton, J. (2007). How police interrogation works. Retrieved 10 May 2007, from howstuffworks http://people.howstuffworks.com/police-interrogation.htm