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Interrogating the Interrogator by Mark Hatmaker

Paul, thanks for taking the time to have this conversation. We’ve spoken before regarding one of your other lives as a Western author. Today I want to get into another area of your expertise, your skills as an expert interrogator. Would you mind giving the readers a little about your background?

I had a 35 year career with the Los Angeles Police Department. For over 20 years I investigated sex crimes, including 15 years running a Special Assaults Unit of thirty detectives covering 25% of the city for everything from indecent exposure to child molest to sexual homicide. Our unit regularly produced the highest number of detective initiated arrests and highest crime clearance rates in the city. I was fortunate to be twice honored as LAPD’s Detective of the Year and received the Quality and Productivity Commission Award from the City of Los Angeles. Through my company Elementrix Consulting (, I currently conduct law enforcement seminars across the country and work with private companies faced with in-house data breaches, industrial espionage, or corporate sabotage.

With this wealth of experience in mind, what I want to hone in on is how we the common everyday Joe can see the world and our interactions with our fellow humans a bit more through your interrogator’s eyes. With that said, let me ask, have you found that your skills in the professional sense have had a bleed-over into your everyday personal interactions outside the job? If so, can you provide a few examples?

The harsh fact is everybody lies on average seven times a day. Most of these are small, white lies, which have become so automatic they no longer register. When was the last time you actually read all those Terms & Conditions? But I bet you regularly check the box saying you did. What husband hasn’t ducked for cover behind a lie when confronted with the question, Honey, do these pants make me look fat? These types of lies are relatively harmless. We accept them in stride, but they add up and provide us with the justification for larger lies.

As an expert in deception detection, I am acutely, empathically, aware of emotional bleed from everyone around me. I also pick up on tone and intonation like hearing fingernails on a chalkboard—not what is said, but the truth in the way it is said. If I called everyone in my private life on their lies, I’d have no friends left.

A core tenet of interaction is not simply being able to divine message, spoken and unspoken, but to put the person across from us at ease. What advice would you offer to the reader to better put the people we interact with every day in a better communication light? 

If I bring judgement into the interrogation room, the suspect is going to immediately sense it on a subconscious level. It’s hard to push judgement aside when we are dealing with people who are close to us, but it is necessary to the process. The same thing applies to personal agendas or blindly twisting the facts to fit a preconceived theory. Our natural tendencies to these behaviors has to be recognized and removed as barriers to communication.

To really communicate, we have to get out of the way of our ego. Are you consciously making the effort to listen to what somebody is saying, or are you just waiting fo your turn to talk? After you have listened to somebody consider paraphrasing back to them what you think they said. This shows the other person they have actually been heard, and allows for any corrections due to miscommunication.

Tangential question. You’ve been doing this for a long time and have a wealth of experience to draw from. It seems to my eye that the “Eyes down, phones in hand” culture is altering standards of communication a bit. Does your experience bear this out, or am I simply an old man grumbling?

I have long maintained if I put a twenty-something detective in a room with a suspect of the same approximate age and give them both phones, the interrogation could more easily be conducted via texts. Seriously, communication is a lost art. Verbal content is only 7% of communication. Gestures (58%) and tone/intonation (%35) make up the largest part of our communication skills. Both of these are lost in emails and texts (emoticons and shouting in capital letters don’t cut it).

A question to the core of what many want to hear. Are there specific tells that you look for to detect deceit? I understand these are not necessarily sure signs so people shouldn’t dissolve marriages over a simple interview, but is there a top handful of things you look for that signal, “Hmm, something is awry here”?

Everything I do as an interrogator is using anxiety to effect word choice (Is this about the stolen money?Is this about the missing money?), body language, timing, and gestures. I look for changes between how somebody behaves when I am asking non-anxiety raising questions (a baseline truth face) and what happens when I ask an anxiety raising question. If body language clenches, timing is suddenly filled with pauses (stalls) and questions repeated back (echoing), gestures become either tight or enlarged, words and phrases appear such as honestly or I swear on my mother’s grave (qualifiers—the truth doesn’t need to be qualified or dressed up), I’ve got a fairly good idea lies are flying. I look for clusters of these behaviors. One of these things by themselves means nothing, but if somebody is lying you will see and hear a number of these.

On the flip-side of things, are there a handful of signals you look for that demonstrate truthful behavior?

A person who has their torso turned to me, their arms low and hands open, and an irrefutable insistence on their innocence (the strength of a guilty person’s denials gets weaker…the strength of an innocent person’s denials always gets stronger—think about a time you were accused of something you didn’t do. Would you let anybody tell you that you did it?). If an innocent person is angry, they will be able to articulate a reasonable motive for their anger. A guilty person will not, Their anger is simply an act to control the interview/interrogation.

Are there specific tactics physical, or conversational that you find ideal to set interrogation moods?

How long do we have? My oft spoken mantra is: The success or failure of an interrogation is determined before the first question is asked...Try getting a room full of experienced detective to understand and accept that claim. Cops are all about show me, not tell me. I can show them, but it can take a while. However, I’ve never had anybody disagree with my statement by the end of a seminar. 

Are there surprising tells or quirks many of us [if not all] demonstrate day-to-day that we may not catch, but that strike you as “How do you not see this?” or “How do you not realize that you are doing this?”

All the time. My wife won’t let me watch reality based cop shows on TV like 48 Hours, because I end up yelling and throwing things at the screen because there is so much being done wrong. I’ve recently been researching the interrogation of Lee Harvey Oswald. This was arguably one of the most important interrogations in the history of the United States, if not the world, and it was totally, criminally, unbelievably screwed up from start to finish. All of this translates into the minutia of my everyday life.

Have you found the experienced immersion in interrogation has led to a sort of “Spidey-sense” in your daily life, where you sometimes get the “Hmm, something is a little off here” feeling before you are actually able to put your finger on what the “off” is? If so, could you provide an example?

Everybody has had the experience of taking either an instant dislike to somebody or an instant attraction. Our Spidey-sense is what makes the first three seconds of a job interview so important. You either get the job or you don’t in those three seconds, no matter how long the actual interview lasts.

In a controlled experiment based, a group of university students were asked to numerically rate the effectiveness based on an eight second lecture video clip, of ten different professors. At the end of the semester those ten professors were rated on the same numeric scale (1—10) by a different group of students who had taken their full classes. The compared results were almost perfectly matched.

In my case, I’m simply hyper aware consciously of this psychological response and try to understand it and moderate it.

In your opinion, does a knowledge of “deceitful” behavior allow one to better deceive? Or, are we simply prey to giving tells no matter the knowledge?

Those actions I view as deceitful are autonomic—physically and psychological self-governing behaviors which occur autonomously without an individual’s conscious effort. Attempts to consciously control these behaviors simply result in behaviors revealing those attempts at control. It can’t be done. Our bodies and our brain betray us every time. Watch professional poker players—they aren’t wearing big jackets, wide brim hats, sunglasses, and tons of bling to be cool. They are doing it to hide their autonomic responses as best they can.

What resources, besides your own work, would you point readers towards to have a better understanding of interrogation tactics or at least to better read communication?

What Every Body Is Saying by Joe Navarro and Telling Lies: The Clues To Deceit by Paul Ekman (whose work was the basis for the show Lie To Me) are both excellent standards in the field.

On the benign side of things, what advice would you give to the non-deceitful person who simply wants to be a better communicator?

Simple...Learn to listen.

Paul, thanks for taking the time!


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