It’s the way that detectives have extracted confessions from people forever: in a confined interrogation room, getting right up in the suspect’s face. But during a pandemic, being within six feet of a stranger—especially for a prolonged period of time in a small, under-ventilated space—can be deadly.
That’s why police departments are rapidly changing how they conduct interrogations these days, according to a Marshall Project survey of police chiefs and investigators across the nation. Detectives in Philadelphia, Miami and elsewhere said they are increasingly conducting interviews of suspects, witnesses and victims out in the street and six feet apart, instead of indoors. In Clearwater, Florida, for instance, they’re often doing so in the parking lot outside of their station.
And when officers do bring people back to the precinct, many have started questioning people from another room, via Zoom or Skype—or at least from the other end of a large conference table.
This is frustrating to some police who say they rely on physical proximity to intimidate suspects into telling the truth, or to read their facial expressions and eye contact for clues as to whether they are lying. The fact that masks are now largely required during interrogations, some say, is also obstructing this sort of nonverbal information-gathering.
“We’re social animals. We’re not wired to communicate at a distance, especially not about sensitive things,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a national organization of law enforcement officials. “That’s why we don’t just send suspects a list of written questions; no serious investigator would operate that way.”
Yet at a time when, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, many Americans are calling for an end to the kind of policing that’s predicated on force and coercion—especially of Black people—many policing experts say that the social-distancing of interrogations could be a blessing in disguise.
Once, beatings were a legally acceptable interrogation method. More recently, the Reid technique of interviewing has become prevalent, in which detectives start with the assumption of a suspect’s guilt and work to corner them, physically and psychologically.
Now, more outdoor interrogations could mean more bystanders’ eyes on what the interrogators are saying and doing—in other words, more civilian oversight of police. Similarly, more interviews conducted by videoconference between the rooms of a police station should leave little legal excuse for cops not to record the footage, in turn allowing judges and juries to see for themselves whether a confession was fairly obtained. It also allows a department’s best interviewer to conduct the interrogation even if he or she can’t be there in person.
And more reliance on verbal communication rather than on physical cues like eye contact—which studies have shown police are not as good at reading as they think they are—could actually make detectives better interviewers.
Protesters have been focused on the issue of police use of force out in the community, “but we’ve got to recognize that that same police culture is inside, in the interrogation room, too,” said James L. Trainum, a former longtime homicide detective in Washington, D.C., and an expert and consultant on interrogations and confessions. “It’s that same mindset of using physicality instead of really listening to and respecting citizens, and it doesn’t build the rapport with people that’s needed to actually solve crimes.”
But between the pandemic and the protests, some law enforcement agencies are already adjusting these practices. As early as mid-March, officers in Miami were weighing the health risks of every potential interrogation, according to Armando R. Aguilar, assistant chief of the Miami Police Department. They are now only bringing suspects inside—into their squad cars and offices—in the most serious cases, including murders, rapes and armed robberies.
“If it’s something like a single auto theft, and we already have the evidence we need, we’re foregoing a formal interview,” Aguilar said.
In Philadelphia, Chief Inspector Frank Vanore says the department’s practice now is to conduct many interviews in the field with a body camera recording, in order to preserve people’s statements. “We’ll probably continue this practice even after the pandemic is over, because we’re getting to question people on the scene when their memory is fresh and before they clam up about coming in to talk to us,” he said.
The main exception, Vanore noted, is in the most sensitive cases such as those handled by the department’s special victims unit, in which interviewees are so vulnerable that they need to come inside to be sure what they are saying is confidential.
Meanwhile, one of the nation’s leading interrogation-consulting firms, Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates, which has trained hundreds of thousands of local police and federal agents in interview techniques, says it is accelerating its ongoing transition to teaching more non-confrontational methods of questioning suspects.
Cops were historically trained to invade someone’s physical space to increase their anxiety, said Dave Thompson, vice president of operations at Wicklander. “That style was hopefully already beginning to be eradicated, but what’s happening with COVID is accelerating that,” he said.
Thompson noted that manipulative tactics meant to make interviewees feel physically vulnerable and therefore dependent on their interrogator’s mercy are more likely to make them feel they need to make a false confession.
To be sure, there are downsides to the dramatic shift in interview practices going on nationwide. Trying to convince a witness to a traumatizing crime to speak up is clearly more difficult in public than in private. And with victims, being in-person with a detective “shows them that we care—they can see it in our face, hear it in our voice—that we’re engaged with what they went through,” said Sergeant Reggie Williams of the Hampton Police Division in Virginia.
For suspects, it may become harder to have an attorney present if police are conducting interrogations immediately at a crime scene, or by phone.
What’s more, you might think that being interrogated outside the confines of a closed room would give people a greater sense of their right to just walk away. But research by Fabiana Alceste, a psychology professor at Butler University, suggests that many suspects will still feel the “perception of custody” even in the current circumstances.
Alceste has conducted experiments in which people in these seemingly “free” situations—talking to police openly, not behind locked doors, not handcuffed—still struggle to say no to an authority figure. They don’t want to look guilty, and they often don’t know their rights.
“The pandemic may actually heighten the legal tension between what is objectively versus subjectively a situation of officially being in custody,” she said.
As for the quality of information being gathered in interrogations during the pandemic many police officials said it’s too soon to know. Some, including Lieutenant Michael Walek of the Clearwater Police Department in Florida, point out that detectives are taught to present known facts—to tell the suspect that it is known that they were at a certain place at a certain time—and then to see if the person reacts by finger-tapping, toe-tapping, looking away, or getting evasive or angry.
Without those signals, Walek said, it can be more difficult to know where to go with the next question.
Other policing experts counter that this conventional wisdom about interrogations, widely taught at police academies and passed down among cops, is mostly pseudoscience.
“Police have a confirmation bias going on: They’re looking at a suspect as a suspect,” said Trainum, the expert on interrogation techniques. “A person could be experiencing anxiety for a completely different reason, like the fact that they are being interrogated by the police.”
Trainum added that the pandemic may actually offer an opportunity for greater rapport-building in the interrogation setting. Police, he said, could just openly say to suspects, “Isn’t this a pain in the ass that we’re trying to have this conversation through masks?” in order to get a laugh, start a dialogue and, ultimately, elicit information.