Op-Ed: A former patrol officer and police detective talks deception detection—what he’s learned from his years in the field (and in the interrogation room).
I have a habit of reading archived articles in Pursuit Magazine, and today I came across Kim Green’s December 2013 article, Up and to the Left: Myths about Lie Detection. The article was well-written, well-researched, and informative. However, it does not coincide with my experience in lie detection.
I’ve had a significant amount of training in deception detecting through the North Carolina Justice Academy as well as other credible institutions, and I’ve read several books and articles on the topic. Although the training was great and helped me develop effective interrogation techniques, nothing could replace my years of experience.
I started my career at twenty-three years old, as a patrol officer in Fayetteville, NC. Coming from a small Ohio town, I was young, naive, and still trying to make sense of the world around me. I hit the streets fresh out of the police academy and was given the education of a lifetime. I quickly realized that people lie, they lie a lot, and they really like to lie to police. People were lying to me every day, several times a day. They lied about their names, what they were doing, whose car they were driving, etc. They lied about practically everything.
I was lucky. I had a training officer who was very good at his job and would quickly point out deception indicators as they came along. It was a great training experience for me, and was always fun to see the deceivers’ faces when my training officer uncovered their deceptions.
As I gained more experience and honed my skills, I learned that people often give themselves away. They do this mostly by what they say, but sometimes it is body language, or a combination of both. For example, every time I stopped a car I would ask the driver, “Do you have any drugs, guns, weapons, missiles, grenades, C4, or rocket launchers in the vehicle?”
This sounds stupid, but the idea is to see the reaction. If someone has no contraband, they will generally respond with a laughing “no.” On the other hand, if they give an unsmiling answer like “not really” or “not that I know of,” then a further investigation is required. Sometimes they even glance toward where they are hiding the contraband. A quick look at the glove compartment or center console when asked the question will suggest to an officer where the contraband is located.
I don’t think PI’s will be doing any traffic stops, but the lesson here is to think about the questions you ask and how you might react if asked those same questions.
After a few years, I became a detective. One of my first cases involved interviewing a career criminal and crack addict at the local jail who was accused of stealing a boat. Again, I had a training officer—a really nice guy with a lot of experience, but his old-school interrogation tactics produced little results.
We sat face-to-face with this career criminal, and the old-school detective drilled him for information. He accused him of the theft several times, pressed him to tell the truth, and tried to intimidate him into a confession. I sat back watching, scrutinizing every word and movement. I knew the guy was lying by his reactions, by what he was saying, but I also knew he was not going to confess. I knew this because I would not have confessed. The detective was making me mad, and I wasn’t even being interrogated.
The next day, I knew I needed to do the interrogation on my own. The bad part about a two-person interrogation is that the other person always seems to chime in at the wrong time. My training officer left work early, and I took this as my chance.
I headed to the jail and sat down with the suspect. I started the interrogation by making small talk. We talked about everything good, bad, and interesting. He told me how he once had a good job, a house, and a wife he loved very much. But when his wife left him he turned to crack cocaine. Over time, he developed a nasty addiction, and he had to steal to support it. He wanted to get clean, and he even asked me to leave him in jail long enough for that to happen.
Finally, it came out: He told me about the boat he had stolen, and where I could find it. He told the truth, and the boat was recovered.
Improving the Skill
I ended up interrogating several people per week. Most of them were suspects in B&E cases, but others committed crimes such as assault, robbery, and even sex crimes. Over time I became more convinced that people usually give themselves away. There is no doubt that some people are better liars than others, but that challenge makes the results more rewarding.
I don’t do martial arts, but I compare interrogation and deception detection to that skill. You can go to martial arts lessons once a week for years, but you will not win a street fight until the skills become second nature. It’s hard to follow along in a conversation, listen to everything that is said, watch for body language, get the story, and know exactly how to respond to elicit a truthful response. It all has to come together for the perfect result, and this takes time and experience to achieve.
I am not here to tell you how to detect a lie; there are plenty of books, articles, and classes that can do that. What I am here to say is that it is absolutely possible. The easy part is detecting a lie, but the hard part is getting people to tell the truth.
Tap into your empathy. If you lack empathy, you might have a hard time getting a confession. Empathy allows you to connect with others. By seeing things from their point of view, it eases tension, shows them you are not there to judge, and allows them to trust and open up.
Treat people how you want to be treated. If your neighbor came over aggressively accusing you of not knowing how to use your leaf blower, and demanding you give it to him for the weekend, do you think you would? No, of course not. So, then why would anyone think belittling a suspect and demanding a confession would get them anywhere?
Never judge people. If you are sitting in an interrogation room, the other person most likely did something bad. This is embarrassing to them, and they don’t want to be judged. No one wants to be judged. And deception indicators work both ways—when you judge someone, they can see it in your body language and hear it in your words. So, no matter what you think, stop judging people. And always keep your mind open to the possibility that a person may be telling the truth.
In the end, the best advice I have ever received was from that first training officer. He said, “Never stop until your curiosity is satisfied.”
About the Author:
Christopher Borba owns Emissary Investigative Services, a Roanoke, Virginia investigative agency specializing in due diligence, corporate investigations, and executive background profiles. He served as an infantry paratrooper with the U.S. Army in Kosovo and Afghanistan. He also worked as a patrol officer and a detective with the Fayetteville, NC police department.