|The Systematic Gang Member Interview|
|By Andrew Eways, Aurora, Colorado Police Department|
Since law enforcement agencies and correctional facilities first dedicated officers to gang-related duties, these personnel have sought out and interviewed gang members whenever the opportunity arose. Gang members have been interviewed during traffic stops, during field contacts, during criminal investigations, during intake and booking at city and county detention facilities, and in state prisons. The list goes on…
Due in large part to a lack of fundamental training, however, many officers are not making their gang member contacts as productive as they could be. For law enforcement purposes, most gang member interviews fall into one of three major categories; field interviews, custodial or intake interviews, and debriefings; each with its own rules and special considerations.
A properly documented field interview (FI) is a valuable investigative tool. It is also probably the most important initial step in developing accurate information about gangs. Contrary to popular belief, almost all useable police intelligence on gangs, gang members and their criminal activities is generated through contacts made by patrol and uniformed personnel. These officers interact with gang members during traffic stops, calls for service or simple consensual contacts. Although depending on the nature of the field contact a subject may have the right to refuse to be photographed, officers should not be afraid to ask for consent to take pictures of the gang member, tattoos or clothing. Proper documentation of field interviews, coupled with the photographs and other evidence the officers gather, may assist in solving more serious crimes.
While conducting field interviews with gang members, officers must also be aware of their surroundings and conscious of officer safety. Field interviews will most often take place in open, public areas frequented by other gang members. Be aware that gang members may be hesitant to talk or may cry harassment in the hopes of inciting others around them. This is also where an officer’s inter-personal skills and tact will come into play. If an officer identifies a potential informant or cooperator during a field contact, they should keep the field interview brief and make arrangements for a follow-up interview with the subject in a more secure location out of sight of others.
Custodial and Intake Interviews:
Unlike field interviews, custodial and intake interviews are usually conducted in a safe and controlled environment. In these instances, officers are speaking with subjects who have been arrested and are at a police station, booking facility or detention facility. The custodial and intake interviews are a chance for the officer to obtain specific information about gangs, gang members and their criminal activities while the interviewees are at a disadvantage.
In the experience of many gang officers, the most opportune time to conduct custodial and intake interviews is during the booking process at a police station or during the intake process at a detention facility. In these instances, the gang member is likely to be at an emotional low point and more likely to answer questions about their gang and criminal activities. Further, many gang members who have just been arrested will be cooperative out of fear or in hopes of lessening or avoiding prosecution for the charges they face. The stress of being arrested or the immediate desire to cooperate with law enforcement and garner favor often does not last more than a few hours, so gang officers should take full advantage of this situation and, whether day or night, make arrangements to conduct custodial and intake interviews as soon as gang members are identified. It is also important to remember, however, that some gang members may appear cooperative and forthcoming in an effort to manipulate officers into unwittingly revealing sensitive information to them. Officers must be aware of this and always maintain control of the interview.
Unlike field interviews, the subject of a custodial or intake interview does not necessarily have any right to refuse to have their face, profile, tattoos and distinguishing features photographed. It is important that these pictures be taken during the course of regular booking or intake process. If a gang member has already been processed and housed, however, removing them from their cell and photographing their tattoos and marks may require the officer to obtain a warrant or court order.
A debriefing is a full and detailed interview with a cooperative subject, who has generally agreed to answer all questions that are asked. Unlike the majority of field interviews and custodial or intake interviews, a debriefing is usually scheduled in advance. This allows the interviewer time to outline questions and topics they wish to cover in advance. Officers who conduct debriefings should take full advantage of the cooperation they are receiving and, in addition to ongoing criminal activities, ask about the signs, written and verbal codes or other intelligence specific to the cooperators gang that can be useful to law enforcement.
The debriefing will almost always take place in a safe, controlled environment and, because it is scheduled in advance, there will rarely be time constraints to worry about. Remember, just because a subject is cooperative at the time of the interview, it doesn’t mean they will remain cooperative and forthcoming after the first debriefing. Therefore, it is very important for the interviewer to take their time and cover everything they want to know. If possible, debriefings should be recorded. If not, then the debriefing officer or another officer should take detailed notes so as to be able to pass along all pertinent information gleaned from the interview to officers, units, divisions or departments that can make use of it.
Conducting Productive Gang Member Interviews:
To be affective and productive, officers should not only be familiar with the three major types of gang member interviews, but they must also follow a few basic, common-sense rules that apply to any interview. Whether you are conducting a field interview, a custodial or intake interview, or a full gang member debriefing, you should ask open ended questions and let the subject speak without interruption.
The skill that most often separates the good interviewers from the bad is the ability to be quiet, take time to pause, and let them speak because, as human nature dictates, if you allow someone to speak long enough they will say something they shouldn’t. This basic principle was demonstrated when California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger told the public that “I think that gay marriage is something that should only be between a man and a woman.”, when former Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry downplayed the crime problem by telling the press “Apart from all the killings, Washington D.C. is one of the safest places in the country.”, and never more clearly and comically than when singer Mariah Carey addressed world hunger with “I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff.” Remember, as long as you are being paid to be at work, the person you are interviewing is never really wasting your time. Time is on your side!
Other basic rules for conducting productive gang member interviews, just like other criminal interviews, are; (1) regardless of your personal feelings, be respectful and express an interest in what the subject has to say, (2) do not prompt or coach the subject to answer your questions. If they don’t know the answer to your question move on to the next one, and (3) don’t try to impress the subject with your knowledge of gangs. Remember, an interview is not about you – it’s about them. And as a final consideration that only a few short years ago I would never have believed I needed to address, do not show gang members and interview subjects police training material or other sensitive information. Just as much as we want their knowledge, the gang members and criminals want ours. Many would like to see how much we know (or don’t know), how accurate our information is, and what they need to change to continue operating their criminal organizations. There is no legitimate need to ever show a gang member material you have received from law enforcement training.
Future Implications, Officer and Public Safety Issues:
Once you have finished your interview, make sure that you document it properly according to your department’s policy. If there is no policy in place, transcribe your interviews into narrative form and keep an organized filing system so that you can retrieve them if needed. And, above all, make sure to pass on the information you learn to other departments, divisions or officers who will benefit from the knowledge. The goal of gang member interviews is to develop knowledge that will assist all law enforcement and correctional personnel in their duties. The results of your interviews could help to solve serious crimes and prevent other officers and civilians from being hurt. Documenting this information may not help you today, but it could help you or your brother or sister officer later. If you feel the need to horde information and keep it secret from other officers, as some gang officers unfortunately do, you may be allowing criminals to avoid future prosecution and you may be causing danger to other officers.
A systematic gang member interview process will allow correctional officers, detectives, patrol officers, school resource officers and any other law enforcement personnel to develop useable intelligence on gangs, gang members and their criminal activities. If properly documented and shared with other officers in a timely manner, these interviews will keep law enforcement and correctional officers on a more level playing field with the gang members who would like nothing more than to do us harm. It will keep you safer and make the communities and facilities we work in better places.
Corrections.com author, Sergeant Andrew Eways of the Maryland State Police, has been a sworn law enforcement officer since 1994. He has worked as a patrol officer, criminal investigator and a supervisor of both investigative and patrol personnel.
He has worked in various specialized investigative fields including Criminal Intelligence, Homeland Security and Organized Crime. He has also served as a field and investigative supervisor of his department’s Gang Enforcement Unit.
He has been recognized by the courts as an expert witness in the field of criminal gangs and provides instruction to law enforcement and correctional personnel in gang history, recognition and investigative techniques. He is a member of several professional associations including the International Gang Investigators Association, of which he is the current executive secretary. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at (410) 977-9589.
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