Interviews vs. Interrogations: A Huge Difference

<p>Det. Eric Smith, a 20-year veteran of the MPD, was shot and killed with his own weapon during an interrogation with a 23-year-old murder suspect. (Photo Jackson PD)</p>

It’s always hard to critique the actions of other officers, especially when that conduct may have contributed to that officer’s demise. But that’s what we, as police trainers, do. After-action critiques, while distasteful, are a necessary part of the job. Done right—and right away—they save lives. Such is the case of 20-year veteran Eric Smith, of the Jackson (Miss.) Police Department, who was shot and killed late last week.

I’m not sure if the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police spokesperson misunderstood the reporter’s question of whether officers are normally armed when interrogating suspects, but the quote as reported by the Associated Press was replete with questionable phrases such as “it’s not unusual for an officer to be armed during an interview” and “I’d expect him [Smith] to be armed” and “I don’t think I did an interview when I wasn’t armed.” (Italics added for emphasis.)

Either the Chiefs of Police spokesperson misunderstood the question or the reporter phrased it in such a way that the term interview was transposed to mean interrogation, but the quote came across as very disturbing to this reader. Most cops know the difference between interviews and interrogations; most reporters don’t.

Clearly, most officers don’t carry their weapons into an interrogation room, especially when questioning a murder suspect. However, it appears that is what Det. Smith did. And from all reports, Smith was disarmed and shot by 23-year old Jeremy Powell with his own duty weapon.

Be that as it may, the purpose and intent of this short piece is to make sure our readers understand the difference and to hopefully clarify the apparent confusion created by the spokesperson’s interview that implied that the practice of armed officers conducting interrogations in a secure setting is normal and acceptable police procedure.

AP reporter Holbrook Mohr began his story with the statement “a murder suspect wrestled a gun away from the detective interrogating him at police headquarters…and fatally shot the officer.” However, the term interrogation was never uttered once by the Mississippi Chiefs of Police spokesperson that was also quoted in Mohr’s story. It appears the spokesperson was referring to interviews. I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to the Mississippi police official since his creds reflect his 36 years spent in different police capacities.  

Interviews are those standard Q-and-A sessions between an officer and either a witness or a victim. They’re normally conducted outside of the lock-up, in interview rooms. Interrogations, normally understood to be the questioning of a suspect in a crime, are usually held within the secure confines of a lock-up facility. I’ve done hundreds of both. Most police facilities have gun boxes located outside of the entrance door to the interrogation rooms where officers can lock up their sidearms before they enter same to either process, search or question a suspect.

While the average citizen reading the AP story is probably not aware that the story line concerning Det. Smith’s death was actually an “apples (interrogations) and oranges (interviews)” piece with a headline implying it was all about “fruit salad” (i.e., questioning a suspect). But we, as police professionals and/or trainers, can never afford to confuse the two.

There very few absolutes in our jobs. But remember: Interrogations are never supposed to be performed within a secure police facility lock-up room by armed officers.


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