A Master Interviewer – Gregory M. Smith
April 19, 1953 – October 27, 2017
You’ve heard it before: Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.
As one who did and one who taught (and still does), I respectfully disagree. But, I won’t use myself as an example because that would be presumptuous. Instead, I’ll use as an example a guy named Greg Smith who just passed away a few months ago. Greg was a really special dude and I owe him a lot. In fact, since Greg was my partner in homicide for the better part of 14 years – and a great friend; fishing and drinking partner; and lifetime confidant – I’ll dedicate this issue’s installment of my column in his memory.
As I write this, I’m flying back from Hopkinton, Massachusetts, after teaching a class called “Interviews and Interrogations” at their police department. It was regional training, with officers from departments all around the area of Hopkinton, a small town which has the honor of being the starting point of the Boston Marathon. I taught this class at our police academy years ago when I wasn’t teaching the homicide investigation class for in-service personnel. I have a warm spot in my heart for this topic because I think understanding how to talk and listen to people and get them to tell you secrets they never thought they would tell is an essential, irreplaceable skill. It’s also something Greg was astonishingly good at. It’s important to be an effective communicator in police work – no matter your assignment. Uniform officers use their interview skills on every call and in every citizen encounter, including traffic stops. Your ability to spot deceit, elicit the truth and expose the meaning of what people are saying is critical. It can solve a case; protect a victim; recover a missing person; and, in some cases, keep you alive. In hopes that I can help the readers of this column tap into some hidden talent, I want to tell you what Greg Smith was all about.
I reported to homicide in January 1985 and, a year later, one of my cases thrust the two of us together. An unfortunate young woman who was addicted to freebase cocaine was found dead in a field and, after we noticed that two other women were found in similar circumstances, my sergeant decided that we should look closer at these cases, in the event that we might have a serial killer in the area. Greg was on the Cold Case squad at the time and the powers that be decided that I would be detached, as would he, and we would be a two-man team to work and examine these cases exclusively. Greg was different than most cops. He truly liked people and he loved nothing more than talking to folks. He never had to try hard to have a conversation with someone – anyone – and he spoke to everyone the same way whether they were a homeless person on a street corner or a multimillionaire. In the interview room, with his gentle, patient way of talking and his relaxed, slow approach to the question at hand, Greg was deadly.
“How ya doin’, I’m Greg,” he would say when he introduced himself to a suspect. It was never “Detective Smith.”
The department sent me to two very good training seminars: The Reid School of Interviewing and the Kinesic Interrogation Workshop, put on by the Southern Police Institute. Both of them were excellent and I learned a lot, but nothing could replace what I saw on a daily basis from my partner. Watching him and listening to him describe the conversations when he came out of the interview room taught me more than those seminars ever could. One of the most impressive attributes Greg possessed was his patience. As investigators, when we identify someone whom we are pretty sure is our offender, we can’t wait to get him (or her) in the interview room and start working him (or her). The idea of getting a confession is a thrill and, yes, when you get that confession, there are few things in this job which can rival that feeling. So, we want to get to the nitty-gritty as soon as we can, don’t we? But, I urge you to take a page out of Greg Smith’s book: Take your time. I’ve seen Greg literally sit and bullshit with a murderer for as long as three hours before actually getting into anything about the case facts, much less anything accusatory. He was a master at getting to know the person, talking about things they liked whether it was sports, music or whatever it might be. He would take his time, listening, chatting, laughing, and finding some common ground where you wouldn’t ever think there could be. He got people feeling so relaxed around him that they almost forgot he was a cop.
Gradually, he would work in his own knowledge of the case and the person would be in awe of the command Greg had of the facts and circumstances of the case. People don’t tell secrets to just anyone, especially someone sitting across from them who is projecting a single attitude: “I want to put you in prison.” When they looked at Greg, they saw someone whose face said, “I want to help you unburden yourself of this secret. You can tell me everything.”
And, they would. His reputation became well-known. I cannot count the times when detectives from other teams would run up against a brick wall with someone. They would search through the squad room looking for Greg and ask him, “Would you mind taking a shot at this guy?” Way more often than not, a confession would be the result.
When you spent time outside the interview room with Greg, you saw how and why he operated the way he did. He would strike up a conversation with anyone –tollbooth operator, someone on an elevator, taxi driver – and it was never an act. That’s when you realized that the interview room wasn’t an act, either. It was simply the way he was. He did some teaching in our police academy, too, but his real teaching was running down leads every day with me and the others he worked with, interviewing countless witnesses, suspects, and BSing with our server at a restaurant.
The thing which made Greg a great cop and investigator was his love of people. It was this same quality which made him a cherished friend and someone everyone in his family felt lucky to have. I was a better cop for knowing him and, when I stand up and teach “Interviews and Interrogations,” it’s really “The Greg Smith Show” in disguise.
Ramesh Nyberg retired from law enforcement in November 2006 after 27 years in police work. He now owns his own private investigation agency, Nyberg Security and Investigations, and can be reached at Ramesh@NybergPi.com. He enjoys getting feedback from readers.