Forensic Face: The Case for Empathy in Interviews

Apr 04, 2023

I have a hard time with people who don’t emote. I always have. They make me nervous. And so it’s funny to me sometimes that I stumbled my way into a field where for some folks that formal presentation is not only the norm, but the encouraged practice.

On some level, I get it. We are intentional about not bringing too much of ourselves into the room. We sometimes work with such illness, that we don’t want our humanity to become a target. We don’t want any opportunity for misreading our intentions, and the stakes are so high that any perception that our empathy might have been exploitative is simply easier to avoid with Forensic Face. Blank, maybe even slightly frowny, flat tone, dispassionate, calm to the point of detached.

At the same time, there is just something dehumanizing about sitting with someone for several hours at a time and not emoting for most of it. I think we take “blank slate” to a new level sometimes, and I don’t think it’s good for, or fair to, defendants.

There has been lots of discourse already about whether empathy is acceptable during a forensic interview. I won’t rehash. I see the arguments on both sides, and I’ve wrestled with the questions myself. We each have to come to our own answers there. So, I’m here just to say that I use it. I say to defendants, “I can understand that” or “I can appreciate that” or “I hear you.” I smile. I nod. I apologize for interrupting them, or for misunderstanding them, or when I forgot something they already said and they have to repeat it. Sometimes that backfires. Sometimes I have to work harder to redirect them. Sometimes I bet I get a better response than their attorney because I’ve taken the time for rapport, and I have to account for that too.

The day I stop being human is the day I can’t do this work anymore. We work with such difficult things. In the course of my work I'll speak to someone about how and why they stabbed three people in three separate incidents in three separate years. Why? He didn’t know. I still nodded while he talked. I made eye contact. I smiled on occasion (not at the stabbing part). I told him I understood (again, not at the stabbing part). I thanked him for his time. Easier, I know, when victims aren’t my loved ones. I can’t hold everyone, but that doesn’t mean I hold no one, either.

In the face of such inhumanity, I choose humanity. Or, I should say, I try. There are times I waiver. Of course, I have been triggered by defendants. I’ve lost my cool. There are times my frustration or my judgement has shone through, I’m sure. But I think that’s human, too.

I will still choose individual civil rights over systemic injustice. I understand that some want to say that prisoners were animals first, and treated that way second. That doesn’t make it right. Whatever harm someone did to earn their cage does not absolve me of cruel indifference while they’re in there.

I see this issue compounded in systems where defendants or forensic patients gather. It becomes really easy to trap people into these boxes where we don’t believe anything they say and we stack the deck against their ability to be successful while judging them when they’re not. We’ll wring our hands that they’re stable but refusing therapy. We’ll agree they’re sober, but highlight how they’re still using nicotine. We’ll condemn them for refusing meds, and not acknowledge that they’re the same off them as on. Everything they’re not doing is terrible, and everything they are doing is just ok.

I realize there have to be laws, and limits and rules. I’m not so naïve to think that people should commit violent crimes and stay on the streets. But I think there is a way we lose access to humanity on the way because we’re all so afraid to look like we’re soft on crime. What if it was your family member who had been harmed? Well, ok, but how would you want your family member treated if they were the one who had made a bad decision that could ruin the rest of their life?

We’re not supposed to talk about the perpetrators as victims, so we’re back to cool indifference. They shouldn’t have done the crime if they couldn’t do the time. If they hadn’t been violent, they wouldn’t be in this situation. But after working in treatment for so long, and evaluating hundreds of violent offenders on top of it, I can say that very few of those people had no humanity behind their eyes. When I asked, most could tell a story that reflected being hurt as kids, having bad decisions compounded, being scared, falling into addiction, etc.. No one means to wake up in prison. I think we can hold both at a time, and maybe that makes me a bleeding heart liberal. But I hope that if I were ever in a situation of looking into the eyes of someone who had hurt me, I could be compassionate and angry all together. I aspire to that level of humanity.

So, I really dislike Forensic Face. I wish we stopped teaching it to students and let them bring their own face in the room. I think it would be better for everyone. I don’t think it would change much about the interview data itself, but I think it would change everything about our own work, how we show up, and what we see in the people looking back at us.

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