September 20, 2000

Retina Enlarger

We Get Confessions contains more typos than any book I’ve ever read. This is one of the reasons I like it: one gets the feeling that it was written by a person who couldn’t care less about piddling stuff like grammar and spelling. I like that. Too many of us care too much about piddling stuff. But not Lieutenant Albert Joseph Jr. No, what the Lieutenant cares about are bottom line issues such as what to do when a suspect begins crying during an interrogation. Here is what he has to say on the subject:

Crying is the best thing that can happen. In the majority of child abuse cases, sex cases, and homicides where the suspect cared for the victim, the suspect will usually cry before he confesses. By using these techniques I know that you will get suspects to cry. When the suspect starts to cry don’t make the MISTAKE of allowing him to gain his composure. You’ve got him where you want him. You have convinced him that he will feel better if he confesses so continue what you are doing. When he starts to cry he will probably have his head down but you will see the tears falling. Keep the same tone of voice but move in on him and touch his shoulder or hug him and tell him that you can understand how he feels. BUT continue the interview and very shortly he will tell you that he did it. When the suspect is crying it will take longer to get the details. He may sob during the rest of the interview but that is OK. Please don’t rush him because you’ve got him where you want him. This is what you have worked for. I love it when I see tears falling from the suspect because I know I’ve got him and a confession will be forthcoming very shortly.

Before I say anything else about Lieutenant Joseph or his book, I must confess that I love it when people use capitalization for emphasis. Yes, the technique is considered bad form, but I happen to enjoy it VERY MUCH. Lieutenant Joseph is a big-time capitalization guy, and so by my way of thinking he can do NO WRONG. It almost doesn’t matter WHAT he’s CAPITALIZING, I simply MARVEL at his EXCESSIVE and UNPREDICTABLE use of BIG LETTERS.

Okay, that said, the man is a genius of human psychology. I mean this. Not a make-it-so-complicated-that-people-don’t-know-what-you’re-saying genius, but an even-a-child-could-do-this genius. For example, here is my haiku-like summary of the Lieutenant’s technique for getting suspects to confess:

Treat kindly.
Downplay crime.
Place blame elsewhere.

What could be simpler? What could be more effective? NOTHING.

Before Lieutenant Joseph became a cop, he was a vacuum cleaner salesman. When I first read this, I laughed, but then as I read further, it stopped seeming so funny. Lieutenant Joseph himself considers the two professions identical in terms of the proper techniques for success. As he puts it, capitalizing the entire sentence to show how important it is, “TREAT THEM WITH RESPECT + BULLSHIT THEM A LITTLE + GET THEM TO LIKE YOU = SELL THEM THAT VACUUM CLEANER OR GET THAT CONFESSION.

We Get Confessions is a treatise on how to deceive and manipulate people into admitting their wrongdoings. To ensure that the “deceive and manipulate” part is not lost on his readers (a readership of cops), the Lieutenant repeats a certain phrase over and over again throughout the book, much like a mantra, drumming it into our skulls until we feel certain that we are going to EXPLODE from the PRESSURE. And what is this phrase? “WE NEVER TELL IT LIKE IT IS.

No, we do not. However, Lieutenant Joseph is careful to distinguish between legal and illegal deception, and at no point does he advocate the latter. Still, it might surprise one to learn how much leeway cops have when it comes to the truth. Although they cannot use threats, promises, or coercion to obtain a confession, nothing restricts them from simply lying to people. Thus the classic ploy of telling two suspects in a two-person job that the other confessed. But Lieutenant Joseph goes beyond the commonplace to introduce a level a creativity not often associated with law enforcement.

For example, here is Lieutenant Joseph’s account of how he and his colleagues employ what they call “suggestive evidence”:

One of the Investigators that works with me was interviewing a suspect in a robbery in which the suspect wore a mask. The victim was positive who the suspect was just from his voice. Of course that would not be enough to convict the suspect. There were ‘rinky dink’ cameras in the store that was robbed. The Investigator told the suspect that his voice had been positively identified by the victim. (That WAS true.) The Investigator then told the suspect that one of the cameras in the store was State of the Art and had a RETINA ENLARGER and his eyes had been positively identified, even though he wore a mask. (That WASN’T true.) The suspect confessed.

As well he should have. Anyone dumb enough to believe in a RETINA ENLARGER deserves to go to prison. The same can be said for the man who believed in the made-up science of Neutron Activation Analysis (I kid you not).

However, while tricking bad guys is all well and good, how do you determine who the bad guys are? After all, innocent people are sometimes brought in for questioning and it is your job to distinguish them the guilty. How are you to decide who is telling the truth and who is lying?

The method is surprisingly simple. First you determine how the suspect answers when telling the truth, and then you ask some tough questions and watch for deviations, in particular non-verbal deviations.

A certain intimacy between you and the suspect helps. Lieutenant Joseph conducts all his interrogations (he prefers to call them “interviews”) in a small plain room with the suspect facing away from the door (no thoughts of freedom). The Lieutenant sits just two to three feet away, and although there is a desk in the room, he never goes behind the desk, as that would take the pressure off the suspect. The desk is a prop and is only used for eating and, if all goes well, the writing of the confession. Before entering the room Joseph stands just outside the door and yells down the hall for an imaginary colleague to call his wife and tell her that he won’t be home for a very long time. He yells also that he has only one side of the story and is now going to talk to [insert name of suspect] to get his side.

The Lieutenant rarely allows a second cop into the room, as suspects are more apt to confess to a single person. On entering the room, he carries a folder filled with useless paper so that he can have something to point to when he says, “Listen, [insert name of suspect], we have positive Neutron Activation Analysis that proves that you [insert crime].”

True story: Many years ago I was in a bank with friends while they were withdrawing money (this was before ATMs). To amuse myself in my boredom, I took to “acting suspicious.” This performance, which was staged for the crusty security guard standing across the way, consisted entirely of wandering around the bank and making nervous-seeming head movements. I soon lost myself in the role and decided to write a robbery note. To say the least, this was a grave mistake, for as soon as I finished scribbling “This is a robbery” on a blank deposit slip, the crusty security guard had his hand on my shoulder. No amount of explaining could convince this man that I was not a bank robber. Instead he led me by the arm to a back room to await the arrival of the police, who appeared less than thirty seconds later.

This happened at one of the big banks in midtown Manhattan, so the cops were probably just a block or two away when the call came. They were soon followed by two more cops, and then two more. The four latecomers stood to the side while the first two asked routine questions. I don’t count this as the interrogation; that began when the two detectives arrived.

The detectives, who were considerably smarter and better looking than their street patrol brethren, decided to play “good cop, bad cop” with me. It was all I could do not to laugh. They recognized this of course and did not appreciate my half-concealed smiles. In fact Bad Cop said that scum like me shouldn’t be allowed to walk the street. Whereupon Good Cop said that if I “played ball,” they’d go easy on me.

All this time, someone somewhere was checking if I had a record for bank robbery. I don’t have a record for anything; I’ve never even received a parking ticket. I knew this, and I knew too that I wasn’t going to be arrested for “acting suspicious,” nor even for writing a note that said, “This is a robbery.” Writing such a note, while criminally stupid, is not a crime.

The two detectives asked the same questions over and over, alternating between mundane inquiries about me (employer, address, phone number, years in New York, etc.) and more pointed questions about the “incident.” If you’ve ever been asked the same questions over and over again, you know that after a while it gets very annoying. Thus I took to reporting the number of times a particular question had been asked.

Looking back I’m amazed how dismissive and disrespectful I was. But then, in another sense, it was an understandable response, because of course I knew the cops were wasting their time.

In the chapter entitled TRUTH AND DECEPTION, Lieutenant Joseph provides some key “indicators” that reveal whether a person is being truthful. “A TRUTHFUL person,” he writes, “will be emphatic. He may bang on the table, may raise his voice, may TELL YOU that you are wrong, your witnesses are mistaken, your fingerprints are wrong…. [He] will exhibit anger when you accuse him of doing something that he did not do and he will stay angry for a long time. Even when you tell him to relax, the anger will still be noticeable. HOW WOULD YOU ACT IF YOU WERE FALSELY ACCUSED??” A deceptive person will be considerably less emphatic. “[He] may show anger,” writes Joseph, “but it will be an act to see if he can get you to back off. He will calm quickly when you tell him to relax. When a person becomes angry while you are talking to him, just tell him to relax and you will notice the difference between true anger and feint anger.”

I never became angry with my interrogators; I became snide. Had I actually committed a crime, or had planned to do so, I never would have dreamed of trying this. But of course I wasn’t trying anything; I was responding to the ridiculousness of the interrogation.

It’s worth filing away for future use. When questioned (and guilty), remember to be disrespectful and dismissive. Whenever possible, raise your voice and bang on the table. When told to relax, do anything but relax. And whatever happens, fear not the Retina Enlarger.