I Know Your Secrets: An Interrogation Method That Works


Part of a police officer’s duty is to question suspects about their involvement in criminal activity. Of course, we’ve all seen TV shows and films where detectives rough up the person in question, hoping a few gentle love taps to the head will convince their prisoner to tell them where they’ve hidden their latest kidnap victim or the weapon they used to kill their cheating spouse.

But that’s not the way it’s done in real life. Well, it’s not supposed to work that way and there are laws against those sorts of tactics. Instead, interrogators must work within the confines of humane methods of eliciting information, and there is a bit of science behind good interrogation methods.

First, the basics. Human intelligence (HUMINT) collecting is nothing more than the gathering of information during the interaction of two or more people. Simple, yes? Well, it is simple, unless the only person willing to talk is the investigator. It’s when the others refuse to open up that things become a bit frustrating and less-than-fruitful, and that’s where skill and technique come into play. And, as they say, that’s when it’s time to “let the games begin.”

One extremely effective method of eliciting information is the Scharff method, and the secret to eliciting information using this tactic is twofold.

  1. The suspect must remain unaware of the investigator’s core objective and the detective must never reveal the information he/she actually knows and possesses, or does not know, about the details of the case.
  2. The suspect must, at best, underestimate or think very little of their own contributions of new evidence. They must not realize that what they’re saying is helping to piece together the crime-solving puzzle.

In other words, suspects must not suspect they’re supplying new information to the conversation, and one key to success in this scenario, I believe, is to try to think like the suspect. Place yourself in their position. What would they think in response to certain questions? Actually, there’s a psychological concept called perceptive taking that directly addresses considering the viewpoints of others.

Good investigators, while placing themselves in the shoes of their suspects, will know they must overcome the defenses already on the minds of many criminals, and they are:

  1. Don’t deny what the police already know. Instead, explain those things in a manner that excuses them or makes them seem reasonable, but not incriminating.
  2. Figure out what they want and do not give it to them.
  3. Do not say too much, but say just enough to sound as if you’re cooperative.

Armed with the above, investigators should begin the interview/interrogation knowing that suspects are wondering exactly how much police know about their involvement in the crime and, how confident the investigator is with his position/knowledge of specific facts.

The friendly approach to an interrogation works incredibly well, even for the most hardened (or so they appear at first) criminal. Sure, some are too tough to crack, but not most. Anyway, a relaxed, comfortable, and easy-going atmosphere helps set the stage. The suspect is far more apt to let down his guard when he’s at ease rather than having a large, red-faced, heavily-armed and sweaty cop thumping his chest and pounding his fists on the table.

Friendly, but not overly friendly to the point where actions and words are not believable. And definitely not the psychopathic faux friendliness as discussed in yesterday’s post. If so, a seasoned crook, who could very well be a psychopath himself, would see right through the act.

No, the friendliness I’m speaking of must come across as genuine. To put it another way, be a real person.

The officer must also give the impression he knows far more than he does and that he merely needs to hear those same details directly from the “horse’s” mouth. During this extremely productive and successful process of playing the role of Detective Nice Guy, the investigator should NEVER press for details by asking point-blank questions, such as “Did you do it?”

Interrogators should present the “I know everything about what you did” illusion with extreme confidence, much like David Copperfield convinced his audience that the Statue of Liberty disappeared, investigators  must convince suspects they know more than they’re telling. But it’s a trick that takes a bit of practice studying seasoned experts to perfect.

Interestingly, and most helpful to police, is the fact that many criminal suspects, when exposed to the above method of interrogation, are somewhat quick to disclose and verify information they believe officers already know. And, once this information is revealed detectives may use it to embellish upon other areas of their pretend knowledge of details. It truly becomes a snowball rolling downhill once the first few truthful details are exposed.

Having a suspect repeat what he’s said several times throughout the interrogation helps the detective pinpoint inaccuracies and inconsistencies that will need to be addressed at a later point in the interview. Soon, though, it all comes together and the suspect will never know what hit them until it’s too late. Actually, many times they don’t have a clue that they’ve revealed intricate details about their activities and crimes.

This Detective Sweet N. Sugar method of interrogation was definitely my favorite method of eliciting confessions and other information from suspects. I studied it and used it more often than not, and it’s extremely effective.

But the tactic is not new. Not even close. In fact, it was used and developed by Hanns Joachim Scharff, a German Luftwaffe interrogator during the Second World War.

Much of the success of Scharff’s technique is attributed to his personality, a trait that cannot be taught. However, much about the tactic can be passed on to interrogators. In fact, the method I so often used is currently being presented to government agents with the hope that the method will help to reveal terrorism plots.


‘‘What did he get out of me? There is no doubt in my mind that he did extract something, but I haven’t the slightest idea what.’’ ~ Hubert Zemke