It's a Guy Thing

Relationship Riddles

The truth and other lies

By Ian Kirke

Twitter @ianjkirke

I was fortunate to grow up exposed to some of the best cop programs ever. The immortal lines of those TV detectives were pure gold: “Book ’em, Danno!” (Steve McGarrett, Hawaii Five-0), “Elementary my dear Watson” (The adventures of Sherlock Holmes), and, my all-time favorite, “Just one more thing” delivered so brilliantly by Lieutenant Columbo.

Who hasn’t watched a police series, especially when the suspect is being questioned, and thought, ‘I can do better than that!’? If you have then you are probably right as TV has created an illusion that police interviewing is somehow an adrenaline-charged game of cat and mouse devoid of any legal safeguards. The reality is that real-life police interviews are pretty laborious, often foreseeable, and lack the excitement that many amateur sleuths associate with this discipline. How confidently can I say this? Well, I’m an ex-senior cop and have since specialized in the postgraduate research of investigative skills.

However, I would like to take this opportunity to blow away some of the many myths and legends that surround this subject and give you the heads up on how easy it is to develop a pretty robust skillset in a matter of moments enabling you to improve your critique of the pretend cops but perhaps better still apply it to the domestic investigations that you encounter on a regular basis. For example, kids fibbing, things not adding up with a partner, or even a workplace issue that you are managing. I will commence with the presumption that you are a pretty effective interviewer already without even knowing it. If you like talking then you are almost there!

Initially though let’s debunk some of the crap that circulates about this not so dark art. Getting to the absolute truth of the matter is, at best, whimsical. Firstly, the truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. In the same way that history is written by the victors, a suspect will create their own narrative. Sensory perception will also affect what people recall and the importance they place on something. Two people looking out of the same window will inevitably note differences. As William Christopher, a partner in Kingsley Napley, London, once said to me, “There are ‘6 truths’; Truth perceived by the defendant, truth articulated by the defendant’s counsel, truth perceived by the victim, truth stated by the prosecution, truth maintained by the jury and, of course, the truth itself.” So, if you are seeking the 100% copper-bottomed truth then please think again because it isn’t going to be forthcoming. Getting somewhere close to the truth is, however, achievable. More of that later.

Secondly, all democratic criminal justice systems have a legal safeguard against self-incrimination. In other words, the right to silence. For example, in the UK the police caution reminds all suspects of this legal right. Sure, it may harm the defense of an accused if they do not mention when questioned something which they later rely on in court but that doesn’t undermine the fundamental right to say absolutely nothing. The historical context of this protection dates back to the times when the common person was considered too thick to understand the gravity of an alleged crime and needed to be represented by someone a lot smarter. From personal experience, I can testify that many real-life police officers struggled with this concept since very often the follow-up narrative to a successfully delivered caution were various incentives to deviate from this rule of law including, for example, “This is your opportunity to tell us what happened” or even coercive statements that are wholly illegal. I never tired of the look of astonishment on some officer’s faces that after four repetitions of the caution (on arrest, notice when in custody, advice by the duty solicitor, and prior to the first question) some suspects actually decided to say fuck all! So, if someone decides to opt for this route how the hell can you get an account (truthful or otherwise) unless that is you beat it out of them? Just for the record, this is unlawful too. Thirdly, despite many of us claiming that we can sniff out a liar just by looking at them, we are actually pretty crap at this! Eyes up, down, to the right or left, scratching the nose, shuffling in their seat. Yes, even I believed that bollocks at the commencement of my law enforcement days. As a newly promoted Sergeant, I recall opening the heavy cell door at High Wycombe to remove a prisoner for questioning. Of Indian heritage, the young man immediately rose to his feet and looked directly down at the floor. ‘Ah-ha, a liar! How clever was I?’ It was only when a wise sage informed me that this was a cultural response to authority that I felt like a pillock.

50-years of lie-detecting research have concluded that our ability to detect deception by observing behavior and listening to speech has a 54% success rate (Vrij et al, 2011, p. 28). Marginally more than tossing a coin. The jury is still out on the use of polygraph tests too. Although many people believe that the use of this equipment in the U.S is mainstream only 23 of the 52 states employ it and 5 of those mandate that both prosecution and defense must agree beforehand. If you are, like me, susceptible to a nervous twitch if anyone or anything comes within a whisker of your asshole (polygraph sensors are attached to various parts of the body including the abdomen) then naturally elevated stress levels will provide a false positive.

To round this nonsense off I must give some credit to a guy who shall remain nameless (although if you ever meet me and ply me with copious amounts of alcohol I may crack and tell you) who made the most ludicrous claim ever. His golden rule was never ask a question that you don’t know the answer to. Can you imagine applying that to, for example, a murder investigation? “Where have you disposed of the body?” Doh! What a complete brain donor. Believe me, there are a lot of them about masquerading as professionals. So now let’s look at planning your interview, predictable dialogue, and how we can easily improve our questioning skills and ultimately reach a more reliable decision.

In all approaches separate as best you can your interview plan into as many separate themes as possible and jot them down on a piece of paper. When undertaking a domestic investigation try and commit them to memory as appearing to be unprofessional, sloppy, and unprepared has many advantages. Ideally, you want the suspect to think that you aren’t primed and that they have the ascendancy. Your role model should be Lieutenant Columbo. Let us use this case study where you suspect that your partner wasn’t actually at a business meeting that particular evening. Your themes would be: pre-meeting, meeting agenda, location, participants, outcomes & conclusion. This simple methodology can be duplicated for all future investigations too.

People communicate in very predetermined ways. In fact, 4 modes: they can be honest, lie, say absolutely nothing, or choose a mixture of all three. As an interviewer lets be predictable too. In my professional opinion, the primary objective is simply to ask questions. Rudyard Kipling nailed it when he said, “I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); their names are What and Why, When and How and Where and Who.” In short open questions.

I frequently ask delegates on the workshops that I facilitate to rank those choices in order of perceived difficulty, excluding the mixture since if you can deal with the other three, by definition, that outcome is a fait accompli. Silence always comes top followed by lies then the truth. I counter this since an uncooperative suspect is the easiest, a liar is the most fun and truth is the toughest. Absolute silence is, in my experience, as rare as rocking horse shit. Typically, the interviewee will be compelled to grunt something usually ‘no comment’, ‘I can’t remember’ or similar non-committal responses. I acknowledge that this will piss any interviewer off, but this is the time to keep your cool and launch the full range of Exocet Mr. Kipling missiles, those beautiful, simplistic yet highly effective open questions.

I recall being asked to review an interview of a particularly nasty suspected robber who had preyed on old ladies collecting their pensions and was later acquitted at court. In the first taped interview, conducted by an experienced detective, he made no comment as was his constitutional right. Towards the end, I could detect the bubbling anger within the copper’s vocabulary and tone. In the second interview, this spilled out into a barrage of statements that disclosed that he knew the suspect was guilty as he was seen by several witnesses at key locations wearing specific clothing. Again, the suspect said nothing in response. Surprisingly, there was a third interview requested by the suspect’s solicitor. On this occasion, the suspect found his tongue, and graphically explained how the robberies had taken place. At court, his defense team successfully persuaded the jury that all the suspect had done was simply repeat back to the officer what he had blurted out in the second interview.

In our case study, your opening statement would be: “Tell me about your business meeting” then simply listen. Let us imagine that on this occasion your suspect chooses the silent route and adopts a mafia-style composure. Don’t fret, just ask open questions about each theme in turn [pre-meeting]: ‘Where were you beforehand?’, ‘Who was with you?’ ‘What did you talk about?’, etc. ensuring that after each question you pause (imagining that the other person is responding). The power of the pause can be deafening. To really confuse them frequently thank them. Thanking someone for being uncooperative and saying nothing or little at all is a legitimate way to burden the other side with the stress. Remember that your primary objective is simply to ask questions. By maintaining this patient and repetitive formula I have witnessed even the most daunting suspects of a hitherto fixed mindset to simply crumble part way through and admit their deed. However, at the conclusion, and assuming they have on this occasion been wholly evasive and non-committal, we can make a better-informed decision on whether we believe them or not. But more of that in a moment.

On to my favorite: the liar. Typically, a liar will be reasonably honest in response to the themes that aren’t that threatening. In our working example perhaps the meeting agenda (that, notwithstanding they were never there, would be easy to describe based on previous ones). What a liar will often do is put distance between themselves and the scene of the crime. So being elsewhere they will create a narrative that can be their undoing. Thus, having said they were at a business meeting you can have great fun by putting a nuclear bomb under the themes of location, participants, and outcomes. Your ability to explore these issues with open questions far outweighs their ability to lie. For instance, what room were you in? Where did you sit? Who did you sit next to? Who was sitting directly opposite you? What were the agreed outcomes? What actions did colleague X end up with? etc. At the conclusion thank them and summarise back to them the lies. They will readily nod in agreement, thinking that you have swallowed this hogwash, until you tell them that you will check out what they have said. That’s when the house of cards will usually topple over. Even if they have tried to cover their tracks with an accomplice their collusion can never be more effective than your ability to ask open questions.

Finally, the truth. Often hard to deal with as by virtue of initiating an interview your suspicions are already raised. Also, the truth can often yield unexpected consequences that, on reflection, you may have wished to avoid. Having said that, continue with the standard formula and keep asking those wonderfully powerful open questions. If the accuracy of the account can be validated by simple cross-referencing then you can be reassured that it’s probably nothing to worry about.

Deciding what is more likely to be factual and what isn’t requires a decision-making tool. For those in the criminal justice system that burden of proof is pretty damn high. Beyond all reasonable doubt requires a certainty in the region of 95%. Yet most of you reading this piece won’t be a cop. You will be the reasonable person sitting on the sofa trying to reach an outcome that doesn’t rely on the slide rule accuracy of a Judge led inquiry and here I can offer you a pragmatic solution. The civil burden of proof engages with the notion of the balance of probabilities. In other words, is it more likely than not that whatever you are reviewing has happened? As I refer to it, the 51% rule. A good example of the distinction between the two was highlighted in the prosecution of the former actor and sportsman O.J. Simpson in America. In The People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson, the defendant was charged with the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. The Jury was not convinced that the bar for conviction had been reached and he was acquitted. The 95% rule failed. Latterly relatives of the deceased filed a related suit against Simpson in which the civil court found in favor of the plaintiffs. The 51% rule succeeded.

In conclusion, before you unleash your newfound skills of investigation please bear in mind one crucial thing. Wait until you have, at least, a hint of suspicion. A perspiring partner may just be hot. A child who looks nervously towards the ceiling may have just seen a spider. A colleague whose voice unexpectedly falters mid-sentence may have a touch of indigestion. Of course, if your patient application of the standard approach yields a result then there is only one final thing to say: “Book ’em, Danno!”