The Art of Interrogation on TV

The Art of Interrogation on TV

Carol E Jordan

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Over the last decade TV shows like NCIS have taken over the airwaves; their depictions of no-nonsense cops who always catch the bad guy have become a mainstay in American entertainment.  Initially I was skeptical of the phenomena, but was quickly drawn into the media frenzy as I watched, with baited breath, the intense interrogation of a murderer who broken down into tears as he was smartly interrogated by Agent Gibbs.  I was amazed at how quickly the terrorists, bombers, murderers, and drug dealers confessed to heinous crimes.  I, along with millions of Americans across the country, became enamored with the perception of policing in a federal agency.

The interrogation tactics employed on shows like NCIS are not terribly far from the reality of real-life policing.  Intimidation tactics and deception detection techniques are integral tools investigators use to catch the actor in any situation, no matter how serious the crime.  The science behind these tactics and techniques is easily decoded; even for the amateur investigator.  Investigators across the country use many of these same techniques and tactics because they have been proven to work.

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One of the intimidation tactics seen most frequently in the interrogation rooms at NCIS, is the invasion of the “intimate zone” when the suspect refuses to admit the truth.  Many people feel crowded, uncomfortable, and anxious when strangers enter this space (approximately 0”-18”).  Having an unknown person, or a person of greater power than oneself, enter this zone can cause great discomfort that you would want to escape.  The idea presented in NCIS is that the individual will confess, to even the most heinous of crimes, when presented with this type of discomfort.

Another frequently used intimidation tactic relies on the Principle of Space and Access.  Regular watchers of NCIS can tell you that the interrogation rooms are on a higher floor of the NCIS building, located down a secluded hallway, possibly at the back of the building.  In order to access these rooms, the suspect must be escorted past offices, cubicles, and other rooms to reach the isolated interrogation room.  The individual is frequently left to sit, alone, in a room outfitted with only a table and three chairs.  The restricted access to this area indicates the agent who occupies the room has significantly more power than the individual being interviewed.  The wait the interviewee endures further reinforces this power difference, and serves to intimidate the individual before the interrogation even begins.

Similarly, the Principle of Intimidation and Threat can be employed, and frequently is by Agent Gibbs.  According to this principle steady, unwavering gazes can be used to intimidate and threaten an individual.  Many times during the show Gibbs will sit and stare at the interviewee for an extended period of time.  This technique was very well exemplified in “Ravenous” which aired in March 2006.  In this episode Gibbs sat in the interrogation room with Jason Edom, the suspect, and stared at him without speaking for an extended period of time.  The would-be-suspect did not break under the pressure, which lead Gibbs to believe he was innocent.

While many of the techniques employed by the very special agents at NCIS may appear, to the casual viewer, to be unrealistic and ineffective in real life, the reality is that these tactics are based on proven research.  Each of these techniques, and more, depicted on the very popular cop shows are all techniques used by investigators in real life policing and investigations.  If nothing else, we can at least give credit to the producers for getting this aspect of policing right!

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