By Sam Levin
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Some years ago, Tom O'Connor answered a police call and found an open oven door with a 7-year-old girl "lying across it dead, all burned up." The girl's mom said she'd left to borrow a cup of sugar and the child must have reached up to get a piece of bacon. O'Connor "knew from the crime scene that there was something horribly wrong."
A background check revealed that, as an infant, the girl had been wrapped in plastic and thrown in a sewer. Rescued by a policeman, she was taken into protective custody, returning to her mother less than a year before her death.
"We had to have the mother admit that she had killed this child," explains O'Connor, face muscles tightening. He spent eight-and-a-half patient hours in a tiny interview room with the woman, and, at last, she confessed. Turned out she'd suffocated the girl hours earlier. "The burning on the stove was staged. She actually got up and cooked bacon and eggs," O'Connor says.
When O'Connor emerged, drained, from that interview room, a detective-bureau clerk walked up and slapped him. "You bastard," she exclaimed. "How could you spend so much time with that woman?"
He answered her quietly. "That baby's got nobody in the world left to speak for her. We are the only sense of justice."
And if justice meant eight-and-a-half hours being civil to a pathological killer, he'd do it.
Tom O'Connor's been saying for years, "Everything we do should be geared toward getting a confession." He's convinced the best way to do that is through empathy, by establishing a rapport with the criminal and giving him, or her, a reason to confess to you. No hostile badgering, no mechanical "Jack Webb" questioning or one-note Columbo flourishes. Just observant, thorough interviewing -- with empathy.
O'Connor knows the method sounds sweet. He knows a lot of cops (especially the ones who've tried once and blown it) think he's nuts.
But he also knows it works.
One of the first two hostage negotiators for the Illinois state police, Major Tom O'Connor is now assistant chief of the Maryland Heights police department. He's been teaching fellow officers about interviewing since 1974, and he keeps up, testing elaborate theories like "neurolinguistic programming" with skeptical daily practice. He's taken advanced interviewing courses the federal government offers to law enforcers; he's studied content analysis with a former member of the Israeli police; he advises the International Association of Chiefs of Police about investigation strategies; he oversees detectives who get confessions from 90 percent of the suspects they bring in for interviews. A strong player in St. Louis' major-case squad ("the biggest and best-organized in the country," he says proudly), he's been featured in several true-crime books.
He doesn't read 'em, himself. "I can't watch The X-Files or any of that shit," he grins. Instead, he reads Irish history and Shakespeare -- although he can't admit to the latter without making a joke of it. In the arena of Tom O'Connor's psyche, machismo fights sensitivity a hundred times a day.
"If you expect a prissy little professor," he warns his semiannual interviewing class, "I'm hard-core." He lets laypeople sit in (apologizing at the outset for his profanity) if they'll role-play practice interviews. But from the police ranks, he wants the students who are eager "to put the bastards -- the rapists, pedophiles and thieves -- where they belong. In the penitentiary. In the gas chamber." He looks around the room. "If you pick up some of this passion, you certainly will not hurt yourselves as policemen."
The passion has to stay mental, though, not flow to the fists. "Anybody can put a handcuff on somebody and whip his ass," notes O'Connor. "Big deal. Sure, you get a partial confession -- but you pay for it. Getting that suspect to talk through the force of your personality and the words that you choose -- that's an art. And there are not a helluva lot of policemen running around the U.S. who have developed that art.
"When I went to the academy, there was no 'style' of interviewing," he continues. "We kicked ass. I can remember hangin' 'em over the pipes and beatin' 'em with nightsticks. I can remember hangin' 'em out the window. Things have changed considerably."
O'Connor's own epiphany came early, when he was patrolling St. Louis' 7th District. A 78-year-old nun was raped and brutalized, and her meager belongings were stolen from her convent cell. The police felt sure they knew who did it, and they gave him "a good ol' ass-whippin', but he never made a confession, and we had no physical evidence. This guy walked away. That's when I started realizing, 'There is something wrong with this process.'"
Dusting for fingerprints, chalking the body outline, testing for DNA -- TV crime shows have taught us all about physical evidence. But once the techs leave the scene, "90-98 percent of an investigation is interviews," points out O'Connor. "This is the area in the criminal-justice system where we are the weakest. It's the most critical aspect, and it's the area where we have the least amount of training.
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