Do’s And Don’ts Of Questioning Young Suspects In Major Crimes

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The 8-year-old Arizona boy recently alleged to have fatally shot his father and another man with a .22-cal. rifle is not the first child of tender years to be accused of a brutal crime. Nor, given today’s pervasive violence, will he likely be the last.

If the next strikes in your jurisdiction, how can your agency most effectively—and least controversially—elicit the facts of what happened from a grade school-age suspect who’s deceptive or uncommunicative out of fear or sheer willfulness?

There’s little if any known research in the U.S. on interviewing very young children as suspects, says Dr. Edward Geiselman, a psychology professor at UCLA and one of the nation’s leading authorities on crime-related questioning techniques. But at the request of Force Science News, Geiselman shared the procedures he would follow if tasked with the challenge of getting the truth from a pre-teen thought to be involved in a serious offense.

“When events like this occur, the toll on a community and the investigating agency involved is tremendous,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center. “There are a variety of philosophies on how to approach a young suspect to determine what happened, and more research is needed before we can say with certainty what is likely to produce the most benefits. But based on what it is we now know, the questioning techniques described by Dr. Geiselman appear to reflect current best practices for this rarely needed but vitally important investigative art.”

Geiselman is co-author of the book Memory Enhancement Techniques for Investigative Interviewing and is a faculty member for the certification course in Force Science Analysis, conducted by the Force Science Institute. He has extensively researched and experimented with communication and memory-retrieval methods under DOJ grants, and consults frequently with federal, state, and local LE agencies on improving interviewer skills.

The techniques most likely to be productive in questioning child suspects who want to keep from you what they have done, he believes, are adaptations of those that have proven effective in interviewing young eye-witnesses and crime victims.

Indeed, he says, “The basics of this approach to information gathering is often most effective even with suspects who are adults.”

Based on his experience, Geiselman cautions that “you should never start out, especially with a child suspect, using a confrontational, accusatory, we-know-you-did-it-so-you-might-as-well-confess approach.”

Instead, there are 2 preliminaries that need to be thoroughly addressed before attempting to solicit any information about the crime under investigation:

  • rapport development, and
  • interview preparation.

“You need to patiently spend time setting them up for questioning before asking anything about their version of what happened,” Geiselman says.

STAGING THE ENVIRONMENT

In picking the person to question a child suspect, rapport-building and interviewing skills are initially more important than gender, Geiselman says. “As the conversation proceeds, the child’s behavior, body language, or responses may indicate a need for the qualities of one sex over the other. Research has clearly shown that with kids, men tend to symbolize strength, while women are usually regarded as more compassionate and comforting. But an officer’s interviewing skill will generally far outweigh gender as a decisive factor, so pick your best interviewer for this job.”

The interview room should be as free of distractions as possible; you want the child to concentrate. And you want to appear as non-threatening as possible. “Casual clothes, no tie, no gun, no badge,” Geiselman suggests. “Anything intimidating just adds to their nervousness and makes them more likely to clam up. The more comfortable and familiar the setting, the more recall kids are likely to express.”

Ideally, it’s best to be alone with the child. If the questioning must be witnessed, perhaps observers can view it through a one-way window, with the right to interrupt with a knock on the door or by phone if there’s an urgent need to talk to you. “Kids are used to phone calls coming in the middle of conversations,” Geiselman says.

If a parent or attorney must be in the room, try to position the young suspect “so the kid can’t look at them for cues.”

RAPPORT BUILDING

You want the child to like you and to trust you, Geiselman says, “to see you as another person, even though you’re older, rather than as a representative of your agency. If they shy from conversation, keep at it to see if you can win their confidence.

“Regardless of what you think they’ve done, this approach works much better than confronting them right off. Even Saddam Hussein gave a lot more information to an interviewer who spent time building rapport with him than to interrogators who came in bad-mouthing him from the beginning.”

Geiselman favors 3 subjects for starting conversations with kids: family and friends, school, hobbies and interests. “Look for common ground. After all, you were a kid once, too,” he says. “But keep the focus primarily on them. People tend to like you better if you are interested in them and their world.”

With some youngsters, you may be able to get an easy conversation flowing within 10 minutes. Others may be reticent to offer more than very brief responses after half an hour. Because of short attention span of most kids, it may be necessary to take frequent breaks, or even resume the effort another day.

Once the conversation is flowing freely, with the child answering your inquiries without significant hesitation, you’re ready to move on to the second preliminary phase.

INTERVIEW PREPARATION

You may start by asking, “Why do you think you’re here today?” This will probably establish, in the child suspect’s own words, the relationship he perceives to the incident you’re investigating.

Without challenging his answer, tell him that the 2 of you need to talk about what happened. “You want to recruit the kid as your teammate in finding out more information, ” Geiselman explains. “In effect, you’ll appear to transfer control of the interview to the subject.”

This is done with statements along this line: “You have all the information about what happened. You were there. I wasn’t. So I need you to help me know what happened.”

Encourage them to relate events in great detail. For example: “I want you to tell me everything you can remember, from the beginning to the middle to the end. Tell me even little parts that you don’t think are very important. I don’t want you to make anything up or guess about anything, but tell me as much about it as you can.”

Geiselman explains: “Most people, especially kids, are used to giving just highlights. Encouraging detail has a lot of value, especially when you don’t know if the suspect actually committed the crime. People who are making up a story have trouble relating it in detail. Whatever details you can get them to provide will give you more information to check out.”

You need to prepare young suspects for the interviewing style to follow. Geiselman offers these key points to cover:

  • “What I’m going to ask you to do requires a lot of effort. It’s not easy. But I want you to try very, very hard to remember as much as you can, without telling me anything you don’t truly remember.” This puts them in the frame of mind to expend effort, and helps create an atmosphere similar to what they may have experienced in a classroom.
  • “It’s ok to say you don’t know if you really don’t know something. No one can remember everything. If you don’t remember, we can just go on to something else.” This is especially important with kids, who may be inclined to invent answers to be ingratiating.
  • “My memory isn’t perfect, so I may ask you the same things more than once. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like what I heard.” This is important, Geiselman says, because young children especially may automatically assume you didn’t like their answer the first time and change their response to try to please you.
  • “If you don’t understand what I’m asking you, tell me. I’ll try to use different words. Don’t give me an answer if you don’t understand.” You may need to adjust your vocabulary or make your questions simpler than you would with older suspects.

NARRATIVE FLOW

With the groundwork laid, you can get into the young suspect’s story by establishing a certain time or a place where he was relative to the incident, and then directing him: “Tell me from that point on exactly what happened. Don’t wait for me to ask questions. Just tell me everything you can, in as much detail as possible, and take as much time as you need.”

“It’s very important not to interrupt with questions during the kid’s response,” Geiselman says. “Let him get his story out, and only when he’s finished should you ask questions or deal with inconsistencies.” With this approach, you don’t disrupt his line of thought and risk missing something he was intending to tell you but then forgets when you interrupt.

When he mentions something you want elaboration on, jot down sketchy notes, incorporating the language he used. “When you ask for more information on these primary scenes later, try to use his words and phrases, to help re-create an image of the memory in his mind,” Geiselman suggests. “Ask about what seems to be his most detailed memory first and exhaust that image of its contents before moving on.”

Questions delivered slowly and softly tend to be least disruptive, and you should strive for open-ended questions to provoke more extended and revealing responses. “Closed-end questions encourage the suspect to take a passive role, which you are trying to avoid,” Geiselman notes.

Child suspects under 11 years old “as a group will probably give you a less complete narrative” than older ones, Geiselman says. But even a skeletal report provides you opportunities to ask: “What happened next?” or “Tell me more about….”

In probing for more though, you need to be careful. “Kids are more suggestible. If you inadvertently lead them or insert information into your questioning, they’re more likely to latch onto it and believe it.”

MEMORY JOGGERS

Asking the young suspect about the physical environment surrounding the event (room, weather, time of day, lighting, smells, etc.) may help stimulate memories.

You can also think of the information you’re seeking as falling into 1 of 4 categories: people, the scene, actions, conversation. One at a time, direct the young suspect’s attention to these subjects and ask if thinking about the people who were present, for example, “reminds you to tell me about something more.” Researchers who’ve used cards hand-printed with these categories as visual prompts have been able to improve recall by young children by more than 50%, Geiselman reports.

Another useful device is to ask them to go back mentally to a time shortly before the incident or before some scene you want elaborated. Have them describe in detail what was going on then. “If they can get a strong reconstruction of those circumstances, it may give them momentum to keep moving forward with a better recall of what you’re interested in,” Geiselman says. “This technique can work with any age.”

Some memory-jogging techniques that frequently prove effective with adults, however, won’t work with young suspects, Geiselman predicts. One example is where you ask the subject to view a scene in his mind from the perspective of another person who was present and detail what that person likely saw, in the hopes this switch in viewpoints will stir up new memories. “This works with about 80% of adults of reasonable intelligence,” Geiselman says, “but young kids don’t have the cognitive capability of taking on someone else’s perspective. Unless you’re dealing with a cognitive genius, don’t even try it under the age of 10.”

CONFRONTATION

As protection against “leading” a child suspect’s statements, some observers claim that an interviewer should know very little about the case before questioning begins. Geiselman disagrees. “There are more advantages to boning up on the facts as much as you can,” he says. For one, you’ll be better equipped to detect deliberate deception.

“You want to maintain a ‘soft’ approach as long as possible,” but when the child becomes uncooperative or won’t back off from lying, “then you may need to become more confrontational.”

If you’re well-grounded in the facts, one ploy you can try is to offer “themes” for why the child committed the crime you’re investigating. These are reasonable hypotheses for the illegal behavior, reasons that are more socially acceptable than purely malicious intent.

This technique is popularly taught for interrogating adults, but it can work for kids, too, Geiselman says. “But don’t dish out themes that don’t credibly relate to the facts, just to see what happens.” Being suggestible, kids may transform elements of your themes into false memories, thereby complicating your case.

Even with the best interviewing approach, Geiselman says, “you may hit a brick wall and have to go out and dig up more information” before you can come back and break through to the truth. With child suspects, as with adults, there are no guarantees.

“There are people, as hard as you try, who continue to be deceptive or evasive,” Geiselman says. “Unfortunately, there is no ‘gold-standard’ protocol that assures truthfulness and completeness. In the end, all you can do is use optimum templates as we currently understand them and hope they work.”

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