How Canadian Police Try To Get You to Confess to a Crime
We spoke to an RCMP investigator about the psychology behind the modern approach to “interviewing” suspects.
Bad-mannered American cops, Bunk and Mcnulty. Photo via HBO.
If you commit a major crime in British Columbia, there’s a good chance you come face-to-face with RCMP Sergeant Darren Carr in an interrogation room. There’s also a good chance that this hypothetical interaction will be a lot more friendly than you expect.
The foul-mouthed, sandwich-eating, finger-pointing detectives of yore have been replaced in recent years by a softer, smarter use of police power in Canada, and that’s thanks, in part, to Sgt. Carr, who helped reform the RCMP’s approach to interrogating suspects. In fact, interrogations, as we know them on TV dramas and YouTube rabbit holes, are not even referred to as interrogations anymore, but “investigative interviews.”
Moving away from the accusatory and widely used Reid technique of interrogation, which is prone to deception, unconstitutional coercion, and, in many cases, false confessions, the RCMP has implemented a more conversational style based on the UK’s PEACE (Preparation and Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure and Evaluate) model.
Prompted not by legislative change, but by his own experience, which includes more than a thousand interviews, Carr and other RCMP officers were “instrumental” in creating a PEACE hybrid that fit within the parameters of Canadian law.
The result is the Phased Interview Model for Suspects and it hinges on the premise that accusatory interviews might be conducive to a confession, but they won’t necessarily get you any closer to the truth. Instead, investigators let the evidence and the suspect do the talking, constantly bouncing their conversations back up against the existing facts of a case.
We spoke to Carr about the psychology of “interviewing” suspects, minimizing the risk of false confession, and what interrogating criminal suspects for a living will teach you about human frailty.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
VICE: Hi, Sergeant Carr.
Sgt. Darren Carr: Call me Darren.
Sure, Darren. What is the goal of an interrogation?
To learn the truth.
It’s not about incriminating someone?
That’s the problem with the old Reid model. It’s very guilt presumptive. If you think broadly about interviewing subjects, you’ve got to think about accusatorial approaches and non-accusatorial approaches. If you approach the interview with the mindset that it’s about breaking the guy or getting him to confess and you start challenging things that he’s saying, the interview could go very badly. In a custodial situation, they can’t walk out of the room, but they can shut down.
How does the PEACE model offer a better alternative?
The PEACE model is much more focused on gathering information, which might include a confession. The Reid model is designed to be an accusatorial approach to get people to confess, which creates two problems. One, what if the person didn’t commit the crime and you believe that he did and you just say “I know what you did, tell me why you did it.”? That’s an unproductive way to communicate with someone and it also creates false confessions. It’s a recipe for disaster.
You seem to avoid using the word “interrogation.”
We call it an investigative interview because an interrogation conjures up images of browbeating and low-hanging light and it’s not about that. The talk that I’m having with you right now is the exact same tone I would have with a suspect. I might become slightly admonishing at times and say, “Nick, do you really believe that’s true?” I would never deviate my tone because it’s an ineffective way to communicate with people and in Canada we have to think about the voluntariness of the confession.
How do you deal with a suspect who is exercising their right to remain silent?
If you’re arrested for a particular crime and you say, “Darren, I appreciate what you’re doing, but I’m going to take my lawyer’s advice and not answer questions.” I’m going to say, “That’s fine, Nick. That’s your legal advice and that’s entirely up to you. But, I’m sure you do appreciate that I have a job to do and I’m just going to share some things with you and give you my perspective and I just ultimately want you to make some informed choices and I’m fine with it either way.” Interviewing suspects is probably one of the most unusual interchanges you’ll have because you’re often being told don’t speak to the police, but the more information I get from the person, the more I can objectively assess it.
Can you give an example?
Let’s say there was a break and enter in a house and in that house there is a fingerprint and that fingerprint comes back to a particular suspect who was no lawful reason to have been at that house, that’s pretty good probative reason. If I interview the suspect and he says he’s never been in that house, now that fingerprint is more probative. If the person committed the crime, it’s a bit like a poker game. There’s the police’s agenda—to explore their possible involvement in a crime and gather evidence against them—and the suspect’s agenda is to get away with it, assuming that he did it.
You’re using facts instead of accusations to get to the truth?
That’s really how we do interviews now. This idea of just shouting at people to get them to confess, we still try to get confessions, but we’ve really reframed how we think about the utility of the suspect’s interview. It’s less about getting people to confess and more about having a narrative discussion around the crime and having very clear objectives and broad understanding of our evidence. It’s more of a complex way of thinking. It’s not just about proving guilt, but being able to eliminate people from culpability as well. I think that gets lost in the whole dialogue surrounding interviewing suspects.
How did you help reframe this approach?
Interviewing is about relationship building. If you want somebody to share something intimate or very damning, where it’s not in their interest to talk about it, you have to develop some kind of relationship with them, right? You’ve got to reassure them and make them see you in a certain light. If you expect somebody to share something intimate with you, you’d better have an intimate relationship. At the end of the day, that’s what interviewing is about, it’s about being kind, using empathy, being honest with people.
Do you think that, on some level, suspects want to confess and be forgiven for their misdeeds?
We’re all capable of making mistakes. Somebody does something contrary to what they would normally do, they drink and drive and they kill someone, it’s going to be devastating. A guy who lashes out and, in a moment of frustration, shakes his eight-month-old daughter and causes brain damage.There’s going to be a lot of conscience drivers there. It’s probably quite cathartic for someone to confess in those situations. But then there’s gangsters and sociopaths. Is there any emotion there? They’re just doing it for some practical reason. It’s complex. My experience is that it’s a combination of the empathy and the evidence and the relationship with the person in the room. That’s why slamming the table and calling them names is not how you get people to talk to you.
Why doesn’t that work?
There’s the potential of a coerced false confession where you tell police what they want to hear because of an unpleasant experience. There is a heightened risk of that. Coerced false confession is the leading cause of false confession. If you get someone to tell you what you want to hear, how valid is that confession? In our legal system, if it’s not voluntary, it’s useless. It’s not going to afford any evidence. If you’re a journalist and you’re interviewing someone about the SNC Lavalin scandal and you say, “I know you’re absolutely corrupt, I know you fucking did this you piece of shit, just fucking tell me what happened!” That’s not how you would interview someone as a journalist, right?
Correct. What are you looking for in a good interrogator?
All the good interviewers I work with are good communicators, compassionate people, and understand empathy. They know how to hold a conversation, they come across as charming, and they know how to modulate their personality and the room depending on who they’re with. Some will be emotional, some will be cavalier. You’re dealing with the complexity of human beings, mental health, poverty, drug addiction, sexual deviance, organized crime, and a lot of very ordinary people who’ve made bad decisions. It’s all about being a good communicator. It’s a very unique skill and there’s not a lot of police officers who are good communicators.
How do you deal with a suspect who you know for a fact is lying?
If you’re trying to talk your way out of it, what I’m trying to do as an interviewer is maintain the countermeasure that you’ve chosen and doing everything that I can to keep you talking. I want you to feel disarmed. It’s very much the Columbo play, like, “Just one more question, I’m confused...” But Columbo absolutely knows that the person committed the crime and the person who tries to spar with Columbo is foolish. He’s all about the strategy and the play. In fact, we often call it the Columbo play. In the past, it was the Kojak play; scream and shout and get into people’s faces. It just doesn’t work.
You’re more Peter Falk than Telly Savalas.
Any advice for a journalist trying to get a good quote for a story?
Everyone throws the word “rapport” around, but I don’t know if they truly understand what rapport is. It’s more than just being nice to people. It’s sharing something of yourself, humanizing yourself, getting them to see you as an equal. From our perspective, we almost want them to forget that we’re a police officer, but see me as Darren first, and Sgt. Carr second.
Like you did with me at the beginning of this interview?
Yes, exactly. Personalize the experience. I always tell cops, “Drop the cop!” They walk into the interview room and it’s all, “This is file number 217 dash 49631, I have Darren Carr sitting with me, that’s charlie, alpha, romeo, romeo. Time is 14:32 hours. OK, Mr. Rose, why don’t you tell me everything?” It’s like, “Jesus Christ! Be a normal person!” Find commonality and connections. It’s like two friends hanging out having a coffee or a beer. Don’t interview people, have a conversation with them.
It seems like a lot of these skills could be useful outside of police work.
Of course they are! It’s about how you brand yourself and how you want to come across. You want them to see you as a human being, an equal. With police, it tends to be an unbalanced relationship, a dominant interaction, because we’re the interviewer, but we want to remove the dynamic of interviewer and interviewee. We want to create reciprocity.
Are you ever tempted to use these techniques outside of a police setting?
I suppose so. As a police officer, the job tends to make you a little distrustful. Maybe that happens in your world a little?
Because of the context you’re in all of the time, right? I try and not be like that. I always see everybody as having an agenda and I tend to be distrustful. I think that’s one of the bad things about policing, it changes you as a person. If I’m talking to someone and my bullshit bell is ringing in the back of my head, I wouldn’t challenge them on their bullshit, I would just keep them talking about it. Then, I would test what they’re saying; how realistic it might seem and compare it to things they’ve already said and see if I can’t identify an inconsistency.
If you expect somebody to share something intimate with you, you’d better have an intimate relationship.
I was lied to recently and instead of being accusatory, which was my immediate reflex, I let the person talk and talk and talk instead, until it just kind of fell apart in front of me.
That’s interrogation. That’s an excellent example of accusatorial versus non-accusatorial. The problem is that accusatorial makes us feel good, like venting. It’s the same in policing. Police are invested in their investigation, they’re proud of it, they have a lot of empathy toward the victim. Once they arrest the suspect, they want to get in the bad guy’s face and say, “You’re not getting away with it, you’re fucked!” I don’t want to make it sound like I’m this perfect cop who’s never lost his shit in the room, because I have and we’re all human. But a key thing about being a police officer is keeping your emotions in check.
How valuable are things like body language and speech patterns in this context?
Useless. At least in terms of assessing veracity. If I’m using spoken word and body language to assess your veracity, I’m going down a very, very dangerous path. There’s so much research that’s been done around this and it’s a coin toss. We’re bad at it. The problem is that we tend to focus on things that validate lies, like, “Crossed arms is not because he’s self-conscious, it’s because he’s lying.” There’s a confirmation bias there to look for things. The other thing is that we tend to think we’re good at it when we’re not.
But I’ve watched a lot of police interrogations and there is a clear change in body language before and after a confession.
If you’ve been interviewing someone for an hour and they’re acting very normal, good eye contact, body language, appropriate emotions, articulate and very detailed in the questions they’re answering and all of a sudden you get into an area of the interview that has caused them some concern. You see a deviation; their arms are now crossed, they’re looking at you in the eye, answers are less detailed, they’re dismissive, trying to move the conversation along, clearly you’ve hit a nerve, right? There’s nothing wrong with being curious; there’s something going on there. That’s how we would use it in policing now. It’s not about truth or innocence. It’s about recognizing moments in the interview that warrant further exploration; you should linger there and spend some time exploring what’s going on. Don’t make absolute decisions about veracity, it will get you into a lot of trouble. We do not teach people to read body language, it’s extremely dangerous and I’ve seen it go sideways so many times.
Are there any reliable indicators for when someone is lying?
No. Only objectively. If you tell me you were at home, and I have a witness and cell phone records and your car on video that say you weren’t at home, that’s what I’ll rely on. The only thing I’ll rely on is objective information. There is nothing that you can rely on subjectively.
Also, just because someone is clearly lying during an interrogation, doesn’t mean they’re guilty of that specific crime either.
We can’t fall into tunnel vision, there could be a logical explanation. I interviewed a guy one time, it was a murder and he was lying his face off. His cell phone records didn’t match up with where he said he was. It was obvious that he was lying and the investigators thought they had the killer. We did some more investigating and what we were able to figure out was he was lying not because he committed the murder, but because he was a drug dealer. Obviously, he can’t be honest with what he was doing at a material time because he was committing a crime, not the crime that we’re investigating, but another crime.
What are some of the lessons police can learn from the false confessions and wrongful convictions of the past?
If you look at all the wrongful convictions in Canada, whether it’s Milgaard or Sophonow, it’s an element of tunnel vision that got us into trouble. Tunnel vision is when police become fixated on a theory of the crime; the investigation is no longer about investigating the crime, it’s about proving that Mr. X did it. I’ll discount things that push away from the suspect and focus on the things that tend to suggest he did it. An accusatory interview is exactly the same thing, “I’ve read your body language, I don’t like what you’re saying to me, I don’t like the way you’re holding yourself, and the goal of my interview is to fucking break you now and get you to confess.” That’s the problem with accusatory interviewing; it actually causes tunnel vision on the part of of the interviewer. We have to disabuse ourselves of that.
What can police do to minimize the risk of tunnel vision in an interview setting?
We’ve got to go in with our minds wide open and we have to accept that sometimes circumstances might look damning, but there’s actually a logical explanation. If we don’t give that suspect a reasonable opportunity to explain it away, there’s a big piece of the puzzle missing.
What would your advice be for someone who is being interviewed by the police?
Obviously, I wouldn’t be comfortable commenting on that. Again, it goes back to my agenda as a police officer and their agenda as a suspect.
We’re all different but we’re all the same. We’re all fallible. We all make mistakes. We make bad choices. We make bad decisions. We’re corruptible. We’re naive.
What has this job taught you about human nature?
We’re all different but we’re all the same. We’re all fallible. We all make mistakes. We make bad choices. We make bad decisions. We’re corruptible. We’re naive. The whole gamut. When you watch all of these TV shows about policing, you get the idea that criminals are shrewd and sophisticated, but really that’s not the case. Most of the time, you’re dealing with people who’ve made bad decisions, poverty, mental health. It’s mostly arguments over women, alcohol’s involved, drugs, or overly charged emotions.
It seems like you need to have a pretty high level of emotional intelligence to do your job, which could also lead to feeling bad for criminals.
When you’re a police officer, you see the bad side of human nature on a daily basis. As much as some people have done horrific things sometimes, I do have empathy toward them as an individual. One thing I’ve realized as a cop is that just because somebody does something bad, doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. You can’t define people by that one thing, as bad as it may be.
It sounds like a lot of these crimes are the result human weakness, not innate evil.
You see that they’ve kind of been set up to fail their whole life; they never had good role models, no father figure, they grew up in abusive situations or in poverty, and the life cycle just goes down that path. I think back to when I was a patrol cop and young kids that were problem children went on to become very, very dangerous adults. You can see it happening. There’s probably some ten year old kid who’s doing bad shit in some city somewhere and fast forward ten years from now and he’ll be doing serious crimes. We fail. We fail as a society time and time again.
And then we fail as individuals.
We’re complex as people and the reason why we do things is complex. We’re all capable of making mistakes and screwing up. But the screwups that some people do are on an entirely different level; it takes someone’s life and or irreparable damage of some kind. We’re all one step away from doing something really bad, I think, under the right circumstances.
Heavy. Thank you, Darren.
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