Shifting an Interview Goal from Confession to Information
Written by Dr. Susan Brandon   

THE SYSTEM DESCRIBED IN THIS ARTICLE is a science- and rapport-based information-gathering approach to interviewing and interrogations. This system of interviewing shifts the goal of an investigative interview from confession or admission to information gain. While many police and military interrogation manuals recognize the importance of rapport, this system is unique in its orientation away from accusation towards information.

In 2009, the U.S. government launched a major research initiative on interrogation methods sponsored by the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG). The HIG is an inter-agency (FBI, CIA, and DoD) entity that also has a worldwide operational mission to interrogate individuals believed to have strategic-level information against the U.S. or our allies.

Initially, we thought that the HIG research — which focused on trying to learn what detained terrorist suspects planned to do in the future (rather than seeking confessions to past activities) — would have little relevance to law enforcement criminal interrogations. But it became apparent that driving toward information rather than a confession was powerful, and that the methods worked whether the individual was a known terrorist or a criminal suspect. In fact, the HIG research program — the first such government-sponsored program since the 1960s — revealed a multitude of methods for eliciting information from human sources that are not part of current law enforcement training programs. The methods have been scientifically validated as useful for interrogations, interviews of victims, witnesses, and suspects, as well as debriefs of human sources.

A rapport-based approach to information gathering is backed by sound science rather than anecdotes from the field. It has been tested in real-world conditions and found to result in more cooperation and more information gain than the methods commonly used by American police officers and investigators, which are confession-oriented.

How does shifting the goal from confession to information change the process and substance of an interview? If a confession or admission is the goal, then:

  • the interviewer must know what the suspect needs to confess to;
  • the interviewer must be convinced the suspect is the guilty party;
  • the interviewer presses the subject to comply with the interviewer’s story of what happened;
  • the interview ends when the suspect confesses;
  • evidence contrary to the confession tends to be disregarded.

Consider the 1987 case of Barry Laughman, a man with the mental capacity of a 10-year-old, who confessed to raping and murdering an elderly neighbor after police falsely told him they found his fingerprints at the scene. After the confession, the police ignored all other evidence, including neighbors who offered alibis for Laughman. His blood type was B, but the only blood at the scene was type A, so the forensic expert proposed that some kind of “bacterial degradation” changed the type from B to A. Laughman spent 16 years in prison until DNA evidence finally cleared him (Starr, 2019).

Since the first DNA exoneration in 1987, there have been 367 persons released from prison after serving an average of 14 years. Of those, 21 were on death row, and 41 had pled guilty to crimes they did not commit. Of the total, 28% involved false confessions.

In another example, Huwe Burton confessed to killing his mother after discovering her body. New York City police threatened and cajoled him for hours — and he finally told the police what they wanted to hear. But then he recanted, assuming that the justice system would clear him. Instead, he was convicted of second-degree murder and received a sentence of 15 years to life. He was 16 at the time. After 20 years in prison, he was released on parole. A decade later, the Bronx Supreme Court vacated Burton’s conviction, based on the recognition that the police interrogation had resulted in a false confession (Starr, 2019).

If information is the goal of the interview, then:

  • the interviewer elicits as many details about the event as the suspect can provide;
  • the interviewer recognizes the possibility that this suspect may not be the guilty party;
  • the interviewer does not press the suspect to the point of compliance and getting false information;
  • the interview continues on even after a suspect confesses, collecting additional evidence;
  • unanticipated, relevant information about other events is gained.

Build Rapport to Obtain Information
How does this approach work? The cornerstone is rapport between the investigator and the suspect. Rapport doesn’t mean friendliness or the investigator handing the suspect a cup of coffee. Rapport means mutual attention, working toward a common goal, and showing the other respect. Rapport is established by the investigator reinforcing a sense of autonomy in the suspect (because the opposite — giving the suspect a sense that they are being pushed into a corner — results in pushing back and resistance), and being adaptive, accepting, and empathetic. It means drawing out the motivations and beliefs of the suspect in order to understand the how and why as well as the who, what, when, and where.

The system builds on that rapport to elicit detailed information from the suspect about what they know regarding an event or events that may have already happened or will happen in the future. The elicitation tactics are based on 21st Century science of how human memory and interpersonal communication work. These tactics help the suspect recall details that he may have thought he forgot, using a systematic series of mnemonic prompts. As the narrative unfolds, the investigator uses cognition-based cues to discern which details are likely true and which are likely not true (rather than nonverbal, anxiety-based cues, which are unreliable). Additional tactics are applied to separate out truths from lies. The more the suspect talks, the more cues are available.

Conversation Closes the Case
In January 2012, two feet, a hand and a head were found in the California Hollywood Hills. The remains were those of a 66-year-old retired airline ticketing agent and art collector named Hervey Medellin, who had been missing since late December of the previous year. The police zeroed in on the victim’s younger roommate, Gabriel Campos-Martinez, who told investigators he was Medellin’s boyfriend. However, all the evidence was circumstantial, and the detectives knew they needed more. Two years later, two Los Angeles Police Dept. cold-case detectives (who had been trained on the HIG methods) called Campos-Martinez and asked if they could meet to talk.

According to an article in Wired magazine, the detectives structured the interrogation to “prevent Campos-Martinez from feeling cornered or trapped in any way.” They suggested that he was the victim who had suffered a loss. “When he grew more comfortable, Campos-Martinez started to reminisce, telling stories of how he and Medellin used to go on walks together in those hills near the Hollywood sign — the same area where the remains were found,” wrote Wired author Robert Kolker. Campos-Martinez began to describe his walks in vivid detail, including smells and sensations. But, when “the conversation moved to the hours around when Medellin was killed, the detail and color drained out of his recollections.” The detectives understood the drop in detail not as a lack of memory but as a lack of candor. Campos-Martinez made false statements about phone calls he’d received — calls that police knew never happened. Later, he shared information about a plant that “could cause someone to be incapacitated.” At the end of the interview, Kolker wrote that “Campos-Martinez looked relaxed. Considering how long he had voluntarily lingered with the cops, he may have thought he had nothing left to worry about. After all, it hadn’t felt like an interrogation. But later that same day, the Los Angeles district attorney’s office issued a warrant for his arrest.” (Kolker, 2016)

Campos-Martinez never confessed to the crime. But the detectives got him talking and kept him talking long enough that he revealed details that were sufficiently incriminating to put him behind bars.

Leverage Evidence
Studies have shown that evidence is the most powerful influence a police investigator has to get a suspect to talk about their involvement in a crime. Often, it is the suspect’s perception that the officer has evidence that persuades the suspect to talk. The scientific approach includes using evidence strategically, rather than “showing your hand” at the beginning of an interrogation, to increase the suspect’s perception that the investigator has incriminating evidence — without any need to deceive the suspect about what evidence is available. Rather than driving toward a confession, using evidence strategically reveals more about what the suspect knows.

If evidence plays such an important role, then why is this system rapport-based? It’s because evidence may lead a suspect to provide information relevant to that evidence, but there is little chance he or she will provide additional information that may or may not be relevant to the case. However, such information can be useful not only in the current investigation but also in other investigations. Rapport increases the likelihood that a suspect will divulge and report those other important details.

High Costs of Coercion
Current traditional police interview and interrogation methods have been implicated in police misconduct cases that have surged in recent years: ten cities with the largest police departments paid out $248.7 million in 2015, up 48% from $168.3 million in 2010 (Elinson & Frosch, 2015). In the first eight weeks of 2018, Chicago paid out $20 million in such lawsuits (Farmer, 2018). Bruce Godschalk served 15 years in prison before DNA testing cleared him of the two rapes for which he was convicted. He settled for $2.3 million, alleging that two detectives tricked him and coerced him into confessing. Additionally, according to the Innocence Project, wrongful convictions cost taxpayers in California at least $221 million from 1989 through 2012.

Rapport-based methods have not only proven to be more effective than aggressive or coercive techniques for gathering information and evidence from victims, witnesses, and suspects, but they also do not pose ethical issues and do not breach legal rights. This alone helps protect officers, departments, agencies, cities and states from litigation and lawsuits.

About the Author
This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it was the Research Program Manager for the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) from early 2010 until December of 2017, which resulted in more than 160 publications in scientific journals. She is currently the Director of Research at AEGIX, which provides research-based and field-tested interrogation and interview training: Rapport-Based Intelligence Collection (R-BIC). The training was developed via a partnership of scientists and intelligence professionals to enable law enforcement and military/intelligence to obtain valid, actionable information. For more information, visit

Elinson, Z. and D. Frosch (2015). Cost of police-misconduct cases soars in big U.S. cities. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved online 6 Feb 2020:

Farmer, L. (2018) Police misconduct is increasingly a financial issue. Governing. Retrieved online 6 Feb 2020:

Starr, D. (2019). The confession. Science, 364(6445), 1022-1026. doi:10.1126/science.364.6445.1022

The Innocence Project. DNA exonerations in the United States. Retrieved online 6 Feb 2020:

This article appeared in the January-February 2020 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
You can view that issue here.

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