If you took the money, would you tell us?
April 28, 2014 4:37 PM   Subscribe

Someone I know was called in for questioning about some money that disappeared at the workplace, and told me about the kinds of questions asked. I can't figure out what the police were after with one of them.

U.S. citizen here. A fair amount of money disappeared at the workplace of one of my friends. I got to hear about some of the questions asked. One of them was "if you took the money, would you tell us?", which actually made me laugh. If it had been me being questioned, I probably would have had trouble not laughing at the police; it just strikes me as such a stupid question. (I mean, really. What person would commit a crime and then tell the police about it? And who hasn't ever lied, even if it's just about whether you're bothered by some trifling thing that annoys you but that you don't want to make a big deal out of?)

Then I began to think of this as kind of a barbed question, and I can't figure out what the "right" answer would be.

In various discussions of interrogation techniques, some people emphasize looking for honesty, and others emphasize looking for "duper's delight." What if your honest reaction to this question was to laugh and/or say "wow! what a stupid question"?

Is this question the kind of thing where if someone did it, s/he would say "of course I'd tell you" to try to convince the police of their (feigned) honesty? Or is this the kind of thing where admitting that you wouldn't tell the cops about a theft is taken as "proof" of inherent dishonesty?

No, "someone I know" is not code for "me." No, I'm not in any legal trouble. No, you are not my lawyer. No, you may not be a lawyer at all. I would, however, appreciate some knowledgeable perspective on this, if any is available.
posted by johnofjack to Law & Government (27 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
This is actually a brilliant question to ask. It's designed to shake someone up. When someone is shaked up, all sorts of interesting fruit starts dropping down. To the police, they're just looking for clues--this fruit contains all sorts of morsels they would like chewing on.

Congrats to whomever invented the question.
posted by Murray M at 4:47 PM on April 28, 2014 [8 favorites]

You might be interested in this detailed rundown of how police interrogations work.

This sort of jumped out at me: the suspect may offer logic-based objections as opposed to simple denials, like "I could never rape somebody -- my sister was raped and I saw how much pain it caused. I would never do that to someone." The detective handles these differently than he does denials, because these objections can give him information to turn around and use against the suspect. The interrogator might say something like, "See, that's good, you're telling me you would never plan this, that it was out of your control. You care about women like your sister -- it was just a one-time mistake, not a recurring thing." If the detective does his job right, an objection ends up looking more like an admission of guilt.

So maybe what the police were fishing for was something like "Of course I'd tell you, I'm an honest person! ~sweats profusely~" "Yes, you're not a bad guy at all, it was just a momentary lapse of judgement, wouldn't you like to remedy it by confessing?"
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:52 PM on April 28, 2014 [7 favorites]

I agree with the folks above. It's probably some kind of mind-fuckery technique used to gauge a person's reaction.
posted by SpecialSpaghettiBowl at 5:02 PM on April 28, 2014

The 'right' answer? Possibly just sticking with ''I did not take the money, if I knew anything about it I would tell you''. On repeat.
posted by edgeways at 5:27 PM on April 28, 2014

There is no "right" answer I can think of except "Talk to my lawyer."

The trick is probably to ease the person into hypothetically dealing with "what ifs" about having taken the money, and then go from there into getting them to admit something real about the alleged crime. Or, as others have said, it's just a pure mindfuck to throw him off balance.

If I believed in speaking with police without an attorney present, I'd say the "correct" answer would be, "I did not take the money," end of sentence. Don't accept the premise of the question.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:34 PM on April 28, 2014 [15 favorites]

Best answer: They were screwing with his head by giving him a question with no right answer. One would have to assume, in your coworker's position, that a "yes" would not be believed while a "no" would only make him look more guilty. Pausing to think this over makes it look like he's trying to game the interrogation by searching for the "right" answers (which of course he is doing, every test you've ever taken at school has trained you to do this, but it's still "suspicious").

Either way, he comes off as a liar, and looks more suspicious. An unanswerable question like that is unsettling, and unsettling the subject is one of the main ways that police try to find things out; nervous people aren't very good liars, on the whole. They also tend to look and act more guilty, even if innocent, but that's not something police usually care about.

It's a mean trick to play, but a common one. People assume that when police interrogate them, they are looking for factual answers to each question. A lot of the time that's not true -- they oftentimes are just fucking with you. It's not a nice thing to do to a presumed-innocent person (nor is lying in order to manipulate the subject, another common and legal interrogation tactic) but that's how it works. They weren't looking for a particular answer, they were just attacking his self-confidence and morale.

Just one more good reason not to talk to the police without a lawyer, even if you're as innocent as new-fallen snow.
posted by Scientist at 5:38 PM on April 28, 2014 [7 favorites]

In addition to the good points above, I also think this may be a form of pattering to maintain control or momentum during a conversation. There is no right answer and they may not even really care what you say. They just want to see how you react and keep the answers coming.
posted by juliplease at 5:41 PM on April 28, 2014

Upon further reflection, they want to put the person into the mindset of a guilty person, regardless of actual guilt or innocence.

An innocent person who *feels* innocent is not very useful to interrogate. Someone who feels guilty may confess, or they may give up the actual culprit or any of a million other useful things. Basically someone who feels guilty and scared is useful to them.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:44 PM on April 28, 2014

This is part of the Reid technique, which is scientific mindfuckery so effective that it often results in false confessions. It's routinely used by police. Nice collection of articles examining false confessions & Reid technique here. As others have stated above, this is why you never talk to the cops without a lawyer--because you can only hurt yourself by doing so.
posted by HotToddy at 5:51 PM on April 28, 2014 [11 favorites]

Like some others have said, I agree that the answer is more or less irrelevant (unless the answer is 'yeah, it was me').

A person's reaction (body language 'tells' etc. may give them clues as to whether they're barking up the wrong tree or not. I imagine they'd just be doing due diligence to mark you off the list of suspects more quickly by being tricky like that.

Don't get between them and the donuts, man!
posted by SpecialSpaghettiBowl at 5:55 PM on April 28, 2014

the right answer, after the laughter has finally subsided, is "no more questions without my lawyer here. lawyer, lawyer, lawyer, lawyer, lawyer. abogado."
posted by bruce at 6:04 PM on April 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

I don't think it's mind-fuckery except to the extent that that's what you'd call a double-bind. People who don't realize they don't have to talk may often think they have to give a yes or no answer to it, but as drjimmy smartly points out above, you just reassert your innocence or "not without my lawyer" them. It's a hypothetical, which is a waste of the person's (but not the questioner's) time.
posted by rhizome at 6:06 PM on April 28, 2014

I am not a cop but if someone began giggling or talking in rhymes, I would probably assume they were intoxicated or mocking me. If I were an HR person observing the interview, and someone acted like the company's inquiries were beneath contempt, I might wonder how interested that person was in keeping their job.

I would presume the way to handle such questions would be the same way you handle so-called "bullshit questions" during a job interview. Something plain but sincere, treating the process with respect but not dwelling on it. So I might say: "I guess if I were a criminal, I would probably try to be covering my tracks. Beyond that, I don't know what to say. If I knew something about who took the money, I would have definitely shared that information by now." Then just a half-smile and wait for the next question.

Personally I have been questioned by police or similar authorities about ten times in my life. My general strategy is to cooperate for 5-10 minutes, then start asking if there is anything else (subtly suggesting we wrap it up). They always let me go, but if questions would have continued then I would have done the equivalent of ask for an attorney. I realize there are psychological tricks to prolonged questioning (books about interrogation can be purchased at Amazon), but I think a reasonably secure person can "stay strong" for a few minutes to resolve a simple inquiry.
posted by 99percentfake at 7:20 PM on April 28, 2014

99percentfake, your answer fails to apprehend the difference between a job interview and a criminal interrogation.
posted by bruce at 7:30 PM on April 28, 2014 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Is this question the kind of thing where if someone did it, s/he would say "of course I'd tell you" to try to convince the police of their (feigned) honesty?

Yeah, I think so.

Quoting from the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon, a 1991 non-fiction account from a Baltimore Sun journalist who spent a year embedded in the Baltimore homicide division:
"Homicide detectives in Baltimore like to imagine a small, open window at the top of the long wall in the large interrogation room. More to the point, they like to imagine their suspects imagining a small, open window at the top of the long wall. The open window is the escape hatch, the Out. It is the perfect representation of what every suspect believes when he opens his mouth during an interrogation. Every last one envisions himself parrying questions with the right combination of alibi and excuse; every last one sees himself coming up with the right words, then crawling out the window to go home and sleep in his own bed. More often than not, a guilty man is looking for the Out from his first moments in the interrogation room; in that sense, the window is as much the suspect's fantasy as the detective's mirage.

[. . .] the majority of those who acknowledge their complicity in a killing must be baited by detectives with something more tempting than penitence. They must be made to believe that their crime is not really murder, that their excuse is both accepted and unique, that they will, with the help of the detectives, be judged less evil than they really are."
So, obviously, we're not talking about murder, here, but I think the same approach is at play. The "right" answer, guilty or not, is "Of course I'd tell you." And for someone who's genuinely innocent of the crime, that's the end of it. But the person who did the crime may see that question as their opportunity for the Out, their opportunity to say more that will convince the police that they're not guilty. I mean, now the cops trust him, right? Now the suspect and the cops are on the same page about how honest the suspect is. Of course, they're not, the cops are just using that question as bait to see if more will come out of the suspect's mouth.

And the more they talk, the more chance that they'll let slip supposed facts and hard information that can be checked out by the cops. The police, meanwhile, are using their supposed belief in the suspect's honesty to start subtlely suggesting that if this honest guy was maybe just a little more honest maybe he'd actually admit to stealing the money. And they make it seem like it'd be a good idea to confess by a combination of horror stories about how awful arrest and jail are (the detective wants to help the subject avoid this awfulness, but he just can't if the suspect won't tell the truth) and downplaying the actual crime and the consequences ("Hey, 10 grand is peanuts these days, right? Probably not even a misdemeanor. Look at what those Wall Street guys got away with.") The suspect's trying to convince the police of his honesty, the police are trying to convince the suspect that admitting to the crime is actually in the suspect's best interest.

The question's a subtle way to give a suspect a bunch of rope and see if they hang themselves.

What person would commit a crime and then tell the police about it?

From that book (which has a lot more to say on interrogation techniques) and lots of other non-fiction or thinly-fictionalized books I've read about police work - lots and lots, apparently. The physical evidence/CSI stuff might be useful as proof in court, but it's often not very useful in figuring out who did the crime in the first place, and the police still rely very much on asking a bunch of people a bunch of questions to figure that out.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:00 PM on April 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think this is a question that is designed more to give them insight based on how the answerer responds, and not so much with a yes vs. no response.

There's also a possibility that the meta-ness of it will confuse the person being interrogated, and further hypotheticals could cause them to tip their hand or potentially give themselves away.

People are way dumber than you'd think. While I think very few people would say, "Yeah I'm obviously lying and took the money," this is a question that is much more likely to break someone's brain than you'd think.
posted by Sara C. at 8:01 PM on April 28, 2014

It's like if they ask "Do you know why I pulled you over?" or "Do you know how fast you were going?" The officer doesn't care if you know. What would he do with that information anyway? It has no relevance to the matter at hand. There's no legal or logical reason to ask it. He asked it to ascertain if you pose a threat, or if you are intoxicated, etc.
posted by humboldt32 at 8:27 PM on April 28, 2014

It's like if they ask "Do you know why I pulled you over?" or "Do you know how fast you were going?" The officer doesn't care if you know. What would he do with that information anyway? It has no relevance to the matter at hand. There's no legal or logical reason to ask it. He asked it to ascertain if you pose a threat, or if you are intoxicated, etc.

Um, no, if you admit you were committing an illegal act ("yeah, I was going 88 in a 50 zone") that will be evidence should you later try to contest the ticket/offense.
posted by vegartanipla at 9:02 PM on April 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

"Did you take the money?" might get a lie or the truth back. "If you took the money, would you tell us?" isn't just a surprising and unsettling question; it's also one that, if answered in the negative (which anyone would do) is truthful and if answered in the positive (which most people wouldn't do) is a lie. That gives the interrogator a baseline for what you look/act like when you're answering a stressful question truthfully or otherwise, and they can compare it to your previous responses.
posted by davejay at 11:06 PM on April 28, 2014

Incidentally, establishing a baseline for behavior when telling the truth versus lies is a very important part of interrogation. The easiest way to see what I'm talking about is to watch an episode of Judge Judy: she will start by asking questions she knows the answer to, and that the subject will of course answer truthfully (their name, the date of the incident, things that are acknowledged on the subject's own report of the incident.)

If the person looks at her, and calmly tells the truth, she has a baseline to compare against if he or she starts telling lies. If the person has trouble looking at her or speaking up or staying on topic -- while still telling the truth -- she now knows those aren't tells that the person is lying (like they would be if the person was calm and made eye contact when telling the truth), and so she'll look for different tells.
posted by davejay at 11:11 PM on April 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

My answer would be "I don't know."
posted by LiverOdor at 7:49 AM on April 29, 2014

Best answer: These kind of questions are the bread and butter of interrogation technique. A closely related sort of question is "Can you think of a reason why anyone would say that you took the money?" In general, they are looking at your demeanor and style of answer. Truthful answers are more likely to be direct, brief and helpful, where deceptive answers are more likely to be vague and elaborate or evasive. In your specific example, either "Yes" or "Of course not" would both be reasonable answers from an innocent person, where a question that offered some kind of "Maybe or maybe not" would be suspicious.

Another, somewhat more specific aspect of interrogations that seek to produce confesssions is to identify as early as possible what the person's motive for commiting the crime were and what they most fear as a consequence of confessing. They can then offer a path to confession that either presumes to agree with the underlying basis of your motivation (Everyone would steal to feed their children, nothing wrong with that) or pretends to offer a path to confess without the feared consequence (If you just admit that you took it and give the money back, you won't have to go to jail). Questions about a hypothetical motive are designed to identify your motive and questions about barriers to confession are designed to figure out how to give you an out to confess.

Google Books has an excellent reference called Practical Aspects of Interview and Interrogation, Second Edition online that is searchable and has a good deal of this information explained in an easily understandable fashion.
posted by Lame_username at 7:53 AM on April 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's like if they ask "Do you know why I pulled you over?" or "Do you know how fast you were going?" The officer doesn't care if you know. What would he do with that information anyway? It has no relevance to the matter at hand. There's no legal or logical reason to ask it. He asked it to ascertain if you pose a threat, or if you are intoxicated, etc.
Um, no, if you admit you were committing an illegal act ("yeah, I was going 88 in a 50 zone") that will be evidence should you later try to contest the ticket/offense.

Worse, if you say you don't know how fast you were going, they can write that you made that statement on the back of the ticket. Then you can't go into court later and say you were quite sure you weren't speeding.
posted by ctmf at 7:55 AM on April 29, 2014

I'm with LiverOdor on this one" "I don't know."
posted by Dolley at 9:10 AM on April 29, 2014

Hi there johnofjack, I'm a cop in a medium sized Canadian city and I'm going to try to answer your question.

When I pull over a car at night, I will ask a question to see if the driver has been drinking alcohol or not. But I'll never ask "have you been drinking alcohol" tonight because a person who is planing on lying to me will have a very fast "no" on the tip of their tongue.

I might ask instead, "how long since your last drink of alcohol". Even sober people often pause and have to actually think about their answer. Breaking their mental train of driver's license, registration, deny drinking, by making them think about their answer can lead to all sorts of useful indications of their state of mind and sobriety.

In the example of your question the honest answer is "no, if I stole the money I wouldn't tell you" or "ha ha of course not". Anyone who says "yes, I'd tell you because I'm a good person" is getting looked at harder. Like you said, you'd have a hard time not laughing. The guilty person would have a really hard time faking that response, under all the pressure they'd be feeling during that interview.
posted by BlueSock at 2:28 PM on May 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

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