Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tips on interrogation from an NYPD pro

Elizabeth Zelvin

Joseph L. Giacalone of the NYPD enlivened a recent meeting of the New York chapter of Sisters in Crime with a nuts-and-bolts talk about the art of interrogation. Joe is a supervisor whose varied positions over almost twenty years have included Commander of the Cold Case Homicide Squad. He has an MA in Criminal Justice and teaches investigations and interrogations at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He’s also the author of The Criminal Investigative Function: A Guide for New Investigators, a textbook meant for law enforcement students but also of interest to mystery writers.

Joe is an engaging speaker who can make an audience laugh while imparting a great deal of information about what to do and not to do in an interrogation (or fictional scene about an interrogation) and—as we have come to expect from law enforcement professionals—busting a number of myths that our whole culture has come to believe thanks to TV cop shows. Here’s some of what I learned.

The interrogation (not to be confused with interviews) is the last step of the investigation, after the investigator has gathered as much information and evidence as possible. It’s not a fishing expedition but the way to use the answers the investigator already has to get an admission or confession from the suspect.

One investigator asks all the questions, in order to gain maximum rapport with the suspect and keep things from getting confused. The other investigator takes notes and stays silent. No double-teaming. No good cop, bad cop. No yelling at or bullying the suspect. The purpose of good interrogative technique is to get the suspect as comfortable as possible and therefore ready to spill the beans.

Custody + Interrogation = Miranda. On TV, the cops pounce, snap the handcuffs on, and tell the suspect he or she has the right to remain silent, whether it’s on the street or in the suspect’s home. Not in real life. They may have the suspect in custody, but the interrogation is going to take place on police turf, in the “box,” the carefully prepared small, windowless room with the uncomfortable chair for the suspect. And that’s where the Miranda warning is issued.

Once the suspect demands a lawyer, the interrogation is over. That detail, used frequently in fiction, is true. Up to that point, the police are allowed to lie, mislead, and set traps for the suspect. But they cannot fabricate evidence. (Allowed: “We found your fingerprint at the scene.” Not allowed: “See this paper with your name and a fingerprint on it? That’s your fingerprint, found at the scene.”)

Joe talked about the difference between open-ended questions (“Do you know why you’re here?” “Why don’t you tell your side of the story?”), with which the interrogation opens, and questions meant to elicit facts (“At what time did you get home?” “Do you own a gun?”), which can then be used to trip up a suspect who’s been lying. He suggested a good way to get the suspect to contradict a lying narrative, eg a story about where he was and what he was doing on the day of the murder: ask him to tell it backwards. No leading questions—that one I knew—and no unclear or compound questions. (Not “Where did you go, and what did you do?” but “Where did you go then?” and wait for the answer before asking the next question.)

The investigator avoids words that will keep the suspect closed up and on the defensive, such as “murder,” “kill,” “rape,” or “dead.” Rather, there was “an incident” in which “something happened” or “someone got hurt.”

One detail that surprised me: only recently has the NYPD started recording interrogations, using video in a pilot program. On the other hand, the investigator will want to get a written statement from the suspect at the end of the interrogation (“Don’t you want to get your side of the story on paper?”)

Joe Giacalone is due to retire soon and thinking about what next—maybe even trying his hand at fiction. He told us that someone asked him if he thought he could sell cars. “Are you kidding?” Joe said. “I’ve been selling jail for the past twenty years!”

You can find more about Joe Giacalone on his website at


Kathleen George said...

He is an interesting guy and you summarize his comments really well. How much does fiction benefit from knowing the rules (I think a lot!) and breaking them while knowing you are breaking them and having characters who know they are breaking them (I think a lot!) But aren't police who are articulate and forthcoming just great?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

This particular cop is also very, very funny--although he claims his wife doesn't think so. ;)

Sandra Parshall said...

Great post, Liz. Wish I could have been there to hear him in person.

Jeri Westerson said...

That's excellent information, Liz.