Prisoner Debriefings

Prisoner Debriefings:

Someone knows Something

By: Joseph Giacalone

 If you want to catch a fish would you climb a tree? Of course you wouldn’t.

An often overlooked or under utilized tool of law enforcement that can help solve cold cases is the prisoner debriefing. If debriefings are used properly, the police can obtain actionable intelligence from those that are in the know-the criminals themselves. Someone knows something, it is just up to law enforcement to find out by asking the right questions. However, there is a caveat to debriefings: the investigator must believe in the importance of the task or they will just go through the motions.

What is a prisoner debriefing? 

Simply put, a debriefing is a quick questioning of an arrested person on matters that have nothing to do with his / her charge – so Miranda Warnings are not necessary. The debriefing is a tool that gathers intelligence or HUMINT, from prisoners. The questionnaire is designed to ask about guns, narcotics, gangs, fencing operations, murders, etc., but how often do law enforcement officers ask specifically about cold cases? In order to ask about a cold case, investigators must be aware of them. I recommend a cold case review for all of the cases under the agency’s specific area. This way when an arrest is made from that part of town, investigators can key on specific cases and details. Investigating units should not be narrowly focused on their own jurisdiction. A list of all open cases that include a brief detail of the crime, Modus Operandi (MO) and a possible nexus for the killing(s) can be shared through law enforcement networks. If investigators don’t ask, the bad guy won’t offer!

A New Spin on an Old Technique

The prisoner debriefing can be used to gather more than just information on cold cases. It can be used to establish a nickname database and to identify new trends in social media. Does the law enforcement really believe that it will continue to be successful by using just Facebook and Twitter? The hardcore criminals have already moved onto new sites. How cool can Facebook be when your grandmother is on it?

Record Keeping

A record of prisoner debriefing must be kept – whether it is in a log book or an electronic database. If information is received that may prove useful for an investigation, an investigator’s report must be written to document what was received and who was notified.

Why would criminals talk?

No snitching? It doesn’t matter when they have to save themselves. Most bad guys have a reason to talk, its called self-preservation. Court consideration is the main reason, especially in states with the Three Strikes rule. Many perpetrators are slick and intentionally hold onto information that they may need some day. Think of it as a “get out of jail free card.”

Unfortunately, the prisoner debriefing form often turns into another “checkoff box investigation sheet.” I have noticed this trend more and more as micromanagement has crept into criminal investigations via the CompStat process. Supervisors must maintain an equal balance between making the downtown bosses happy and letting detectives do their jobs.