Interviews & Interrogations

Daniel P. Higgins describes the different techniques used by interviewers and interrogators when investigating suspected arson cases.


It's 1:30 in the morning. A Molotov cocktail crashes through a bedroom window. Fortunately for the occupants, the bottle's landing is cushioned by bedclothes, preventing it from breaking and spreading its deadly contents. Photo by Therese R. Rasnick Information gathered at or near...


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Photographs should be taken of the subject at an interview or an interrogation, before and after, to identify the subject and to show their physical condition. The investigator also will want a record of what transpires. This can be done with written notes, tape recorders or video recording. Many investigators avoid doing any recording or note taking at the onset of the interview, as nothing works to silence a person as quickly as the sight of a tape recorder or a notebook. Instead, they let the subject talk the incident through once. Then, the subject is told the investigator needs to make notes or a tape recording, so the account will have to be repeated.

Controlling The Process

The initial impression on a potential witness will often determine the degree of cooperation and amount of information obtained. Good interviewers start slowly, asking for background information, name, address, age, etc., to find some common ground with which to establish a conversation. The more the subject identifies with the investigator, the more helpful he or she is likely to be.

Without appearing too authoritative, the investigator must control the interview, not letting the subject wander too far afield. The interviewer must always be able to return the interviewee to the subject without being rude or appearing indifferent. Controlling an interview can often be a difficult balancing act but it is one in which the investigator must become accomplished.

In most cases, initial interviews will take place on the street at or near the scene of the fire. The information gathered at this time will often be critical in determining the direction of the investigation. While the investigator may not have the luxury of using all the ideas set forth above, he should attempt to employ as many as possible to ensure obtaining the best information.

The investigator should also take into account who is being interviewed for example, the age of a witness will affect the ways in which he or she will recall and describe events. Children between 6 and 10 may be keen observers and lacking in motives and prejudices but they have a tendency to distort their perceptions; middle-age people are keenly aware of the world around them and, with their mature judgment and unimpaired faculties, often make the best witnesses; while physical impairments and a tendency to regress can affect the value of older people as witnesses.

When conducting an interview, the motivation of the witness must be considered. Complainants, persons complained of, informants and victims will have different agendas. In these interviews the investigator is cautioned to "stick to the facts."

At a fire scene, interviews should be conducted with (but not limited to) firefighters, property owners, employees, residents and neighbors. Later, investigators will speak with insurance agents or adjusters.

At the conclusion of the interview, the subject should be thanked for his or her help and provided with information on how to contact the investigator in case other information is recalled.

Arson In The United States

  • Arson is the nation's leading cause of fire.
  • Over 65% of arson fires are set outside. 20% are set in structures, and most of the remainder are set in vehicles.
  • Arson accounts for 14% of all fire injuries and is the second-leading cause of fire deaths. Arson is the leading cause of property damage.
  • Motives for arson: vandalism, spite, revenge, intimidation, concealment of other crimes, financial problems, civil disorder, hate-related crimes, gang initiation, excitement, suicide, murder

Source: U.S. Fire Administration

Intensity Of Questioning

An interrogation is the questioning of a person suspected of having committed an offense or of a person who is reluctant to make a full disclosure of information in his or her possession that is pertinent to the investigation.

The difference between an interview and an interrogation is often in its intensity. In an interrogation, the investigator has information which in some way links the subject to the crime. The purpose is to substantiate that link and expand the information toward the ultimate goal of closing the case.