Interviews & Interrogations

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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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.

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Photo by Therese R. Rasnick
Information gathered at or near the scene of a fire often will be critical in determining the direction of the investigation.

When fire marshals arrive to investigate the incident, they immediately see the potential for horror. Interviews with the homeowners and neighbors produce no eyewitnesses to the crime. The case becomes one of establishing a list of suspects and eliminating them one by one until only the perpetrator is left.

Over several weeks, the marshals question friends, relatives, co-workers and acquaintances of the homeowners. In time, the investigation focuses on a former boyfriend of the homeowners' 16-year-old daughter. During the course of several interviews, the young man makes statements that move him from witness to suspect. It is only the marshals' ability to switch from interviewers to interrogators that enable them to obtain the information needed to arrest the arsonist.

Differing Dialogues

Although interviews and interrogations are similar in method and purpose, investigators must always be aware which type of dialogue they are involved in. The simplest way to differentiate between the two is to remember that a witness is interviewed and a suspect is interrogated.

One of the most difficult times in an investigation occurs when there is a crossover (i.e., a witness makes a statement that moves him or her into the suspect category). The investigator must be prepared to make the switch and carry on without losing ground. Certain characteristics are shared by the interview and the interrogation. For both, preparation is key. The investigator should first establish the location of the meeting. If possible, it should be held at the investigator's office, placing him or her in a position of authority.

The room should be free of distractions, containing a desk and two chairs, with the investigator seated a little higher than the subject. The desk and walls should be bare, leaving nothing for the subject to focus on. Windows should be covered. Ideally the room should be painted a strong color, such as green, avoiding aggressive colors (red or orange) as well as relaxing colors (pastels and earth tones). In such a setting the subject is forced to concentrate on the interview, making it easier for the investigator to obtain information.

The investigator must also be prepared physically dressed comfortably, not hungry or thirsty and mentally for the interview or interrogation. The mind must be clear of all distractions and focused on the matter at hand. The investigator also must fully understand the case and what information is being sought. Unless the investigator knows what is needed, the subject may be allowed to ramble, leaving the investigator confused. The attitude of the investigator should be one of professionalism and confidence, remembering that he or she is a fact finder and must remain detached, no matter what is heard.

When these conditions are met, the investigator is prepared to begin the session. In most instances, a one-to-one situation is preferred but there are circumstances that call for a second interviewer for example, when the investigator is male and the subject is female or when a case involves an adult-child relationship. When two interrogators are present they may want to use a "good cop/bad cop" routine to gain the subject's cooperation, although this rarely works on any but first offenders. It is better for the second questioner to remain silent until the interview is complete, then ask for certain points to be cleared up or expounded upon. The idea of two or more persons firing questions at a subject leads only to confusion and is a waste of time.

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.

The legal difference between an interview and an interrogation is dictated by the circumstances under which each is conducted. If the interrogation is done in a non-custodial setting, where the subject knows he or she is free to leave at any time, the investigator is under no obligation to advise the subject of his or her rights. For example, near the scene of a fire you stop a man on the street who matches the description of a suspect seen running from the building. You ask him to tell you where he was at the time of the fire. He refuses to answer and walks on. If you stop him and continue to question him, you are conducting a custodial interrogation and you must advise him of his rights. If you fail to do so and he turns out to be the perpetrator, anything he tells you from that point on will be unusable. If, however, you let him walk away and as he reaches the corner he turns and yells that he was burning the building down, you may use the statement but when you catch him, you must advise him of his rights before further questioning.

If in the above scenario, had you smelled gasoline on the man's clothes when you stopped him, you would have probable cause to detain him for questioning. Again, you would have to advise him of his rights as soon as you determined that he was not going to walk away without answering your questions. If it were to turn out that he just looked like the suspect and smelled of gasoline because he worked in a service station, you would then let him go; if, however, this was the man you were looking for, you would have protected your investigation.

Once it is determined that an investigator is conducting an interrogation, several rules must be followed. After the subject is advised of his or her rights, a "knowing and intelligent waiver" must be obtained before questioning can continue. This means the subject must have clearly understood what he or she was giving up. A person who is drunk or under the influence of drugs cannot make an intelligent waiver. At times, it may be necessary to have an interpreter present to explain the rights in a suspect's native language, even if the suspect appears to understand English. An investigator cannot cajole, threaten, or trick a suspect into waiving his or her rights.

If the suspect chooses to remain silent, the investigator must honor that choice. If the suspect asks for counsel, all questioning must stop until counsel is present. The answering of questions by a suspect prior to invoking his or her rights does not waive them; the suspect may stop talking or request counsel at anytime during the interrogation.

Assuming a valid waiver has been obtained, the interrogation can begin. The physical and technical preparations are similar to those needed for interviews. In addition, the investigator must gather as much information as possible beforehand. Questions should be framed in the interrogator's mind.

The investigator should not indicate any suspicions immediately; rather, a rapport should be established that lets the suspect feel the investigator is sympathetic to his or her problems. The investigator should remain professional at all times, and encourage the suspect to speak. The subject of an interrogation will probably lie, but a loss of temper could cost the investigator what might otherwise be a productive interrogation. An investigator who knows the facts of the case can contradict the suspect. Caught in a lie, most people have a hard time continuing it.

Further Applications

While obtaining a confession is one goal of an interrogation, it is not the only goal. Interrogation is an investigative tool of far wider application. Some of its other purposes are:

  • To induce the subject to make admissions revealing the facts and circumstances surrounding a crime.
  • To learn of the existence and location of physical evidence.
  • To learn the identity of accomplices.
  • To develop additional leads for the investigation.

In court, a confession without supporting information is not enough for a conviction.

Both the interviewer and the interrogator must possess certain qualities. They must be adaptable, able to fit on Park Avenue as well as skid row. They must also be prepared to take unusual answers in stride and continue the interview/interrogation. The investigator should be courteous, poised, persistent and persuasive.

Being a good listener, able to comprehend what is being said, not just hear it, is also a prerequisite, as are being unbiased, able to determine the reliability of witnesses, and being observant and knowledgeable. These qualities along with good verbal skills make up the complete interviewer/interrogator.

It is a truism in criminal investigation that most crimes are solved by "information." Nowhere is this truer than in arson investigation. It is rare that circumstantial evidence is enough to obtain a conviction. The effectiveness of an investigation depends on the investigator's ability to obtain information from complainants, witnesses, informants and suspects.


Daniel P. Higgins recently retired as a supervising fire marshal assigned to the FDNY's Juvenile Firesetters Intervention program.

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