Good Cop, Good Cop

Tom O'Connor puts away rapists, killers and thieves.

Dec 9, 1998 at 4:00 am
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.

"One of the biggest problems we have as policemen is that we do not feel we are in control unless we are talking," he tells his students. Then he challenges them to drive up on their next call and observe what happens. "The policeman will interrupt the interview process probably once every 15-20 seconds with a question," he predicts. "Shut up and listen -- let 'em talk." Let a witness ramble until it jogs his memory; let a suspect talk herself into a corner.

Above all, let people reveal what's uppermost in their minds. "Listen very carefully to the first words out of people's mouths," he urges. "If you can't train yourself to listen for them, those words will float out into space forever." Also listen to what somebody says spontaneously when you show up at the door ("Aw, damn, I knew you guys'd be back!") and what they babble about while you drive them to the station. Once, O'Connor stood listening while a detective booked a rapist who hadn't yet confessed. The man was already asking whether he could be sent back to Jefferson City with his old cellmate. The detective was busy filling out paperwork, oblivious of the question's significance. But that tacit, resigned admission provided O'Connor with the opening for the next interview -- and in that session, the man confessed.

"You have heard confessions on the street and not recognized them," O'Connor promises his students. "Sometimes you will see them shake their head (yes), but they can't say the words. That's your first sign.

"I lost a lot of cases because I didn't realize they were trying to confess," he continues. "Lots of people want to tell you but don't know how. I've actually heard statements in which they placed themselves at the crime scene and told the absolute truth -- except for the 1 percent where they smacked the guy in the back of the head with a baseball bat. Police miss the significance of the omission and stop questioning, or they change the pattern and go on to less focused questions.

"If you can't get a confession," he says abruptly, "get an admission. If you can't get an admission, for God's sake do this." Chalk grinds into slate as he prints the big block letters: "DOCUMENT LIES."

If you do elicit a confession, continues O'Connor, find out what the person was doing before and after the crime, not just during; find out how they got the weapon, how they planned, why they did it. Then, finish with two additional questions: "Why did you talk to me?" and "Why did you talk to me now?" That will keep a defense attorney from painting the confession as coerced. O'Connor still remembers the attorney who told the jury, "Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you about Tom O'Connor. Did he take my client in the back room and beat him? Oh, no. But what O'Connor did to my client was much worse. He psychologically intimidated this man into making these admissions."

O'Connor took it as a compliment. But the sheer length of his interviews sends up a red flag for most defense attorneys. "The courts have not ruled that the length of time makes the interview coercive," concedes high-profile defense attorney Don Wolff, "but it's an indication that it can be. You look to see if there was opportunity to take breaks and stretch, if the person was handcuffed or restrained." Wolff has run into O'Connor on several cases and recalls no complaints. He even pronounces the famous two questions (why did you tell me this, why now) "a good police tactic, strategic and wise." Cops don't know how the suspect will answer, he points out. "You get an individual who says, 'Cause I just want to get it off my chest' -- that will tear down any defense that the confession was involuntary or planted."

Wolff calls the empathic approach "one of the most effective" and sees it increasing as cops become more educated. But he says it has its dangers. If a cop makes promises, for example. Or if a suspect has a childlike, fragile personality and ends up simply telling you what you want to hear. "Just because it's psychological, not physical, doesn't mean you are not destroying a person's will," he cautions. "It's probably true that this approach will bring out an admission of wrongdoing as opposed to a fabrication. But it's not a question of guilt or innocence, it's a question of method, of voluntariness."

That's one reason O'Connor is so careful about the rest of the police work. When he sends officers out to interview witnesses, he warns them not to come back with "a page-and-a-half" -- the standard statement length. Nor will he automatically assign a more experienced officer if a younger one's a better interviewer. "I don't want somebody whose brain is attached to his radar gun." He even tries to match the interviewer's temperament to the crime: "If it's a violent hacking with a machete, I absolutely would not want someone who is mechanical." He mimics the deadpan Dragnet style, admitting, "That's the stereotype -- and there are a lot of mechanical policemen. But it's getting better."

O'Connor calls interviews with a prime suspect "the ultimate chess game. How do we make a criminal like us? How do we get him to come in and confess to us, so we can put him in the penitentiary for the rest of his life?"

Eyes narrowed, he surveys the classroom. "Can anybody give me a reason that a pedophile, married, father of two children, will come into your police department and admit to you that he sodomized an 8-month-old baby girl and had oral sex with a 3-year-old boy?" The silence is deafening. "Empathy," he announces. "The ability to see the world through the eyes of the offender."

It was his years at St. Barbara's grade school that taught O'Connor the power of confession. "The priest relieves you of the burden," he explains. "People are not going to come in and confess to you unless you give them a reason. It's your job to set them up for the deliverance of this information."

You do this, he continues, by imagining your suspect's world; his feelings and needs; his motives (most flowing from the eternal triangle: sex, revenge and money). You adjust your body rhythms to his, adjust the rate and tone of your speech, even your breathing and eye blinks. You focus on his priorities. You enter his personal space -- oh, so carefully -- and at the right moment -- but not before, and not with detectable insincerity -- you maybe touch him on the shoulder.

O'Connor shows a videotaped reconstruction of a real interview in which a man, when he's touched, drops his head and starts to cry. When he looks up, he says, "I didn't mean to kill her."

"Touch is powerful," repeats O'Connor. "But I bet you all know policemen who can't or won't do this."

Once, he watched a pedophile brought into the station for questioning. He had to walk past a row of cops, and by the time he reached the interview room, he was sweating under their glares, obsessing over what they must think of him. That's when O'Connor -- who doesn't even like to use harsh words in his early references to a crime -- decided never to parade a suspect past officers who couldn't conceal their revulsion.

"Can you tell me how you establish rapport with a criminal suspect by immediately kicking him in the teeth with the specifics of the crime?" he asks impatiently. "You don't talk about 'sodomizing' the baby. If you hit him in the face with these strong words, watch him react: The head will pull back from the power of the word."

What he wants is someone who's off the defensive, someone who's gradually relaxing into the notion that he's in the hands of professionals capable of understanding his problem and offering him a solution. "All you macho policemen," he glares, "if you can understand why this man is sexually attracted to these babies, difficult as that is, you are going to have much more success."

"Rapport is the most critical single element in the criminal-justice system," he says later. "You have a maximum of 10 seconds to make a person like you. Realistically, it's more like seven or eight." How many cops want to be liked by their suspects, let alone establish rapport? Isn't there an inherent antagonism? "Yeah, that's why I throw that word out and define it," grins O'Connor. "You get a little resistance. But you melt it."

The success stories help.
"One guy confessed a double murder after I bought him five fish sandwiches and a chocolate malt at 5 a.m. at White Castle," O'Connor recalls. "Reciprocity. Once you receive something, you feel bound to repay." Even if you're a double murderer? He nods. "It's very, very powerful. Buy someone a good dinner, and he owes you conversation."

Once, O'Connor got a call from headquarters; somebody they'd arrested was asking for him. "I went down there, and the guy said, 'O'Connor, do you think I could see my wife and child?' I said yeah, and drove down to the Third Precinct, picked them up, brought them back, let him sit there and talk to them for an hour-and-a-half. Afterward he said, 'O'Connor, I've never had a policeman do this for me. I'm gonna clean up everything for you.'"

If you're thinking the man sounds like a maudlin Irish fool, you've never watched him analyze a statement for deception. The week of class, detectives from another state fax him a suspect's written statement, hoping for fresh insight. The victim, a young girl, is missing and believed dead, but until her body's found, their only weapon is the interview process.

After going over the statement late into the night, O'Connor brings it into class as a practice exercise. "When you are pissed at someone, you have difficulty using their name," he remarks, noting references to a woman who'd rejected the suspect. (People also substitute generic words for the name of someone they know is dead, he says later, because the person has become a thing to them.)

"He's out of sequence here," he continues, indicating the "alibi" section. Phrases such as "by all accounts" and "I had every intention of" might preface things a person didn't actually see or do, he adds. "And pay attention to what's in the parentheses; it's usually important." Moving through the statement, sentence by sentence, he rattles off a long list of subtleties, possibilities, patterns and inferences, then reminds his bemused students that "there is no absolute method that will always allow you to detect deception.

"But the greater the crime, the greater the probability of detecting deception."

There's more stress because the stakes are higher. So you watch for the signs of that stress, the verbal patterns, holes and contradictions. You note eye movements (the eyes move differently when they're retrieving information than they do when they're constructing information). You note "unfinished business," phrases that literally admit the person knows more than he's disclosing. You note bodily movements that occur only with high-stress questions. "If you ask nonstressful questions and he crosses his legs, it means nothing," says O'Connor. "But if the movement occurs only with certain stressful questions," pay attention.

Listen for nervous ums and uhs; for what a person cannot say and the way they hide it. Listen when someone apologizes unnecessarily, fails to deny, switches the subject. If someone answers with another question, he's either having difficulty answering the original question or he needs to take charge. In O'Connor's adage, "He who asks the questions controls the interview."

"What's the single most difficult word in the English language to say in an interview process?" he asks suddenly. "No. It's simple, final, absolute, unequivocal. So listen to how people qualify and introduce that word and where it comes." If someone can't say a declarative, absolute no ... stay silent. "Many policemen do not know how to deal with pauses. When you receive these tacit admissions, don't jump in instantaneously with another question. Be aware of the significance and let it sit.

"A deceptive subject knows he must literally survive the interview," he remarks. "When you back that little rat into the corner, he's going to get up on his hind legs and strike at you." If he doesn't fight (by insulting the cop or attacking the question), he'll flee (through evasions and omissions). At that point, if you ask a yes-or-no question -- "Is there any reason the victim might be able to identify you as the person who abused him?" -- you might hear "a great speech filled with appropriate emotion," notes O'Connor. "That's the kind of thing that throws police off, because you associate that emotion with honesty. But what you are really seeing is someone surviving this interview.

"We are taught to pay attention to words to an overemphasized degree," he notes. "The information sent is on the surface, easily faked." He'd rather listen for rapidity, tremors, stammering or stuttering, tone and timing; feel for a handshake's temperature; watch the eyes for any contact or rolling, narrowing, blinking, rubbing, shifting. "Is there such a thing as a guilty look? Yes. It's a way that people look because of what is going on inside their mind."

None of this, he repeats, means anything by itself. These are only possible signs to guide your investigation. And once you think you've reached a conclusion, beware "the Othello principle: An innocent person, once accused, will begin to act like a guilty person."

O'Connor's an acknowledged master, but he's had his own nightmare interviews, starting with 300 seminarians who were convinced that the creature who strangled a fellow student in their chapel "was not another human being but the devil." Then there was the guy who told him, "Yeah, I know your mother. I think I been doin' your mother." The crime in question wasn't serious enough to trigger the adrenaline that usually carries O'Connor past insults. "It was not a good interview from that moment on," he admits. "It's easy for us to blame the bad guys, say, 'Stupid bastard, he ain't got nothin' to say.' But policemen lose interviews because the roles are reversed: The suspect stimulates the behavior of the policeman. They piss you off."

Most days, O'Connor's temper fuels a steady push for justice. His parents emigrated from Ireland, where his mom was terrorized by the Black & Tans (British forces sent to quell uprisings). Life here was harsh in a different way: Tom spent the first five years in an orphanage because his parents couldn't feed all eight kids. When they reunited, it was in ghetto housing in Wellston.

After high school, O'Connor joined the Marines and wound up a platoon sergeant in Vietnam. Then came the police academy, where he coupled Marine toughness and weapon skills with a deepening interest in abnormal psychology. "For normal people to think abnormally is difficult," he remarks. "That's the importance of empathy. You hear people say, 'Oh, he was the nicest guy' -- well, sure he was, in his own little world. They can't understand that dark little secret in the back of the mind where he harbored this intense rage."

Does O'Connor ever find it hard to enter such a mind, empathize enough to create a bond, then distance himself enough to do what's necessary? "No," he answers instantly. "You have to formulate the appropriate question, deliver it appropriately, analyze the response, evaluate how truthful it is and decide what to do next. All in milliseconds. You pinpoint your focus; you can't think beyond the information just given to you."

His jaw tenses just recounting the process (his dentist says he's been grinding his teeth at night for years). But he's learned to ride the waves of adrenaline, because they take him to the only place he wants to be.

"My father ended up being a policeman," he says proudly. "I've got a son with the county police, two cousins in Ireland with the Guard, five nieces and nephews in police work. It's like a defect in the Irish gene!"

O'Connor loves being Irish; you can hear it in the jokes, in the way he says "O'Connor" when he picks up the phone. He loves teasing other police officers, too -- he roasts one for suggesting "a $15 lunch! I can feed a family of four for $10!" He wears his "Mexican-general shit" every day because the uniform's cheaper than a suit.

But all the levity drops away when a crime's committed. In class, O'Connor flashes a slide of two boys, ages 7 and 8, one's face covered with a T-shirt. "Tell me what physical evidence you see," he invites. "There is no semen, no blood, no cuts, and these two little boys are dead. Look at that crime scene and solve the case, because that's all you've got."

That, and 150-200 interviews with everyone remotely connected to the case. "In the course of those interviews, you are going to talk to the killer," promises O'Connor. They worked 20 hours a day for 10 days, and, eventually, the significance of the covered face came clear: "The person responsible was the 13-year-old brother of one of the victims. He misinterpreted autoerotica and thought he would receive a tremendous sexual climax if he was choking the boys."

One night, midway through the case, O'Connor came home exhausted, threw himself across the bed and couldn't sleep. His 8-year-old son came in and said, "Dad, I know why you're sad. One of those little boys looks just like me."

"He hit it right on the head," admits O'Connor. "You want to know why I'm in police work? Because I'd rather put a bastard away for that" -- gesturing to the slide -- "than anything else.