Just the Facts…
The percentage of audiences – in print or in person – who recognize the name Joe Friday or the TV show “Dragnet”are dwindling faster than my eyesight. For that reason, allow me to provide a quick preamble to this column.
Sgt. Joe Friday was the hard-nosed, no-nonsense LAPD detective from the show “Dragnet,” one of the most popular police shows of all time. Friday was famous for conducting interviews of witnesses and, when they rambled too much, interrupting with “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Interviewing is an indispensable police skill. It is very much an art form, since no two people are alike and the investigator conducting the interview needs to tailor the conversation to the individual’s personality type, age, gender, race, and a host of other variables. There is no one rubber stamp formula for conducting a successful interview of a suspect or a witness. Interviewing people was our bread and butter in homicide and we always tried to get better at it. The department sent us to interview/interrogation seminars and training schools, but I always found two things were going to make you a better interviewer: a) watching the best interviewers work, and b) getting in the interview room yourself and doing it as much as you can.
The importance of this aspect of police work cannot be overstated, especially since good interviewing skills are getting harder and harder to find. In fact, I will go out on a limb and say that the future of the police interview is in danger. Hear me out.
Today’s teenagers don’t read or write as well as they did just 12 years ago. I don’t have all of the data, but I taught high school from 2010 to 2013, took an eight year break, and came back to teaching last year. I teach juniors and seniors. Writing scores for high school students around the country are down. From time to time, I call on students to read aloud from our text books. Some of these kids have a tough time reading simple sentences. When my assignments have called for them to write, they struggle even more. Many of the papers I get are rife with grammar and punctuation errors. In class discussions, I see that many (not all) have difficulty expressing themselves verbally. I fear this has been going on for a couple of generations. Today’s kids will have less examples of good communication to pass on to their kids.
Folks, today’s teenagers are tomorrow’s cops. To believe that they will be skillful interviewers is pure fantasy.
Gee, Nyberg, you’re saying by now, thanks for the cheery predictions! It’s not all gloom and doom, alright? In the last issue of this magazine, I celebrated the kids in my Mock Trial team. I talked about how well they communicated and I stand by that. But, they are the outliers in today’s schools. The gap between them and the rest of the student populace is wide and the ones in the lower rungs are barely cutting it when it comes to literacy and verbal skills. Interview room scenarios aside, police officers need to communicate effectively on the average “disturbance” call. If our law enforcement ranks get worse at discourse, verbal problem-solving and writing reports, then the most routine calls – domestic fights, etc. – will result in an increasing number of major events, including injuries to civilians and officers. I don’t think I’m overanalyzing this. We as a profession are suffering from a decade or more of negative public image, volatile incidents and seemingly endless bad propaganda on social media.
When I teach my interview techniques class to regional law enforcement audiences (if you’re interested, contact Training Force, USA), I contrast the outdated witness interview methods with today’s “cognitive” interview strategies. In cognitive interviews, the focus is on the witness; their comfort level, establishing a welcoming, nonstressful environment which helps them in the process of recall. Rather than chop the interview into questions which restrict the witness to certain answers, we are supposed to encourage them to tell the story of their experience, before and after the incident. A good example might be if I asked you where you went on your last road trip and you said, “We drove from Miami to Atlanta.” You might tell me how long it took (if I asked), but not much else. In a cognitive conversation, I want you to tell me where you stopped for gas or to buy boiled peanuts, and how the weather might have changed during the trip. Maybe the guy who sold the boiled peanuts on the side of the road was weird or interesting and you had a conversation with him. What was that like?
I’m sorry, Sgt. Joe Friday, but “just the facts, ma’am” is not what we are looking for. We want the witness to ramble a bit, to tell us details which might not be terribly important, but that will assist the witness in filling in the details of the picture. Those details help sustain and bolster something neurologists call “pattern completion.” If a witness can’t remember exactly when she heard the gunshots, maybe we need to find out what time she got up, when she started watching her favorite soap, and when she vacuumed the living room. Those events, pieced together, might just allow for that missing piece to drop in and pinpoint the activity she was involved in when she heard the shots. These things, the experts say, complete the patterns our brains need to sharpen recall.
My fear is that it’s going to be much tougher for present and future generations to conduct sound, effective, productive interviews, whether it is at someone’s door or in an interview room. I fear this because my perception is that the overall communication skills they will need in the future aren’t being used or cultivated now. My perceptions might be completely off-kilter and I welcome feedback from any of you who would like to tell me that I’ve lost my mind (my wife would welcome the company).
And, if these concerns we have for the state of education in our country weren’t enough, we have AI entering the scene. Maybe we won’t have to worry about all the things I just wrote about. Maybe a highly adept AI program will conduct the interview for us. If that day comes and I am in my grave, don’t knock on my casket, because I would rather truly rest in peace than know what we’ve become.
Ramesh Nyberg retired from law enforcement in November 2006 after 27 years of police work. He lives in Miami and teaches criminal justice at a local high school. He also teaches regional law enforcement courses through Training Force, USA. He enjoys getting feedback from readers and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, Ram has recently announced his newly published book, The Ten Must-Haves to Be a Great Detective, available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle eBook. You can find it by visiting https://tinyurl.com/hwc2xajm