You'll probably hear a lot about the importance of interviewing people
you arrest regarding any relevant information they may possess about
other crimes. Arrest debriefings can be extremely valuable in
developing useful information; however, the way the interviews are
conducted; documented and processed means everything. If your
department has no formalized process in place for conducting the
interviews; documenting and tracking the information developed, the
usefulness of your debriefings will have limited success.
In 1998, I was a special operations lieutenant where I had my district's
drug and vice enforcement units under my command. I had directed the
officers in both units to debrief all their arrests for information
regarding crimes other than drug distribution or vice related activities.
Homicides and robberies were at the top of the list.
Easier said than done.
You'll soon learn, particularly in a police department of any size, that
police officers have little interest in developing information outside
their areas of expertise. Drug enforcement is particularly susceptible to
this phenomenon. When you begin your career as a patrol officer,
you'll see patrol officers who make large numbers of drug/cds arrests.
You'll also notice that the total number of arrests those officers make
are almost exclusively arrests for drug distribution or possession; even
though, patrol is fertile ground for all kinds of arrests.
Realizing that my efforts would take some time – through a like
thinking sergeant in the department's homicide unit – I was able to
arrange the temporary, though full time, assignment of a homicide
detective to my unit. For the next eight months, that detective
debriefed/interviewed every misdemeanor drug and prostitution arrest
made during his tour of duty. The outcome was dramatic. The homicide
detective identified 18 eyewitnesses to 13 separate homicides. That was
just the best part. He uncovered a ton of other information; for
instance: a prostitute riding in a car with two men while she listened to
the passenger describe to the driver, in detail, a drug related murder
he'd recently committed.
While impressed, I wasn't surprised. Drug users see and hear
everything. They're constantly on the street seeking their drugs of
choice, and they frequently witness serious crimes. What was really
impressive about the eight month undertaking was the process
developed. If one investigator – in one police district – could produce
such success, just think what nine investigators over the city's nine
police districts could produce. I distributed the results widely, and I did
get one comment from the department's Chief of Patrol, "Impressive."
But...that's as far as it went. While disappointed in the worse than
limited response, again, I wasn't surprised.
The project did have the desired effect on the officers in my vice unit.
They would go on to develop, database and distribute tons of useful
information, from the arrests and debriefings of prostitutes, to relevant
recipients. As for the drug enforcement unit, that same level of
interest and production never materialized.
You might wonder why the officers in the drug unit didn't follow the
lead of the vice unit? The answer is simple. The sergeant of the vice
unit became a believer in the process; the sergeant of the drug unit did
not. While the drug enforcement officers would intensely debrief
regarding drug distribution information, they had no interest in digging
for information on other crimes. Now...you might ask why I didn't
replace the drug unit sergeant with a supervisor who would show more
interest in pleasing his lieutenant? First, one does not replace a
sergeant who is supervising the most productive drug enforcement unit
in the entire police department, and secondly, the officers in the drug
unit wouldn't even be there if they didn't have that "Drug Bug"
phenomenon I referred to earlier.
While I would strongly encourage you to start developing your
debriefing skills right from the beginning, as a patrol officer, you'll be
limited in the time you have to corroborate information a suspect gives
you, before you book and charge the suspect. Remember, any time a
person you arrest is willing to provide you information, that person is
looking for a "get of jail free card."
If you're really interested in getting good information from your
debriefings of those you arrest, I'd suggest the following:
1. Keep yourself familiar with the details of all serious crimes
committed in your district/precinct.
2. Keep contact information for investigative units and individual
3. Target drug addicts for arrest to enhance the probability of obtaining
maximum amounts of useful information for the time expended.
Let's look at these suggestions individually:
Number 1. If you don't know the details of crimes, how are you going
to ask questions? Some police officers may simply ask, "Do you know
about any crimes in the area?" The suspect answers, "Na, I don't know
noth'in." End of debriefing.
Another officer, thoroughly familiar with all crime activity is going to
engage the suspect in conversation at length. The officer is not going to
be arrogant or overbearing. The conversation is going to be two way
with the officer constantly evoking responses from the suspect. As the
officer asks questions about different incidents and players in the area,
the suspect may well at some point ask, "What's in it for me?"
Number 2. Developing valuable information doesn't do a lot of good;
unless, it gets to the right place. Let's say your suspect has expressed a
willingness to provide information on a homicide to secure his release
from your arrest. First, he expects to be interviewed by a detective.
Remember, drug addicts watch television too. The information he's
provided thus far has convinced you – from your knowledge of the
homicide in question – that your suspect has good and relevant
information about the homicide. Your ability to quickly get your
suspect face to face with an appropriate investigator will result in
maximum results for your efforts.
If your goal at some point in your career is to become a detective,
there's no better way for you to introduce yourself to your department's
investigative units than to bring them witnesses that possess good
information. The more the better. However, always make certain that
you only provide investigators with potential witnesses that you're
convinced can provide relevant information. You want investigators to
come to know you as knowledgeable, reliable and conscientious...not a
Number 3. You might wonder why I would recommend drug addicts as
sources of reliable information. First, as I stated earlier, they're always
on the street and ever present in areas of high crime. Secondly, they
are extremely reliable. However, their level of cooperativeness and
reliability depends upon when you get them. The right time is not a
hard thing to accomplish. If you arrest a suspect for possession of
drugs, the fact that he's still in possession of the drug means he needs
his fix soon. While you might think a 24 hour stay in a lock-up would
not be a big deal for a drug addict, you'd be wrong. Even though you
would consider his stay for processing and subsequent release on the
minor charge as short, that 24 hours will be an eternity for the drug
addict deprived of his drug. He'd much rather spend a few hours telling
an investigator everything he knows about anything to secure an earlier
Any successes you achieve in debriefing people you arrest will depend
solely upon the skills you develop as an interviewer. Remember, you
just arrested the person, so you're not going to be all that popular with
that person. However, good interviewing skills will trump that
disadvantage every time; unless, your arrestee is really pissed off with
you. In those instances where there's clearly no rapport to be
established, just get another, equally skilled officer, to debrief your
Don't ever forget...police work is about solving crimes and catching bad
guys, and information is the life blood of that endeavor.
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