Posted on August 4, 2022 in Technology

It is Sort Of Weird to be Watching Interrogation Footage Recreationally

But Why?

It is very human to see something horrific and ask ‘why?’. Even moreso if the scale is small, and petty, if the stakes come down to ruining a handful of people’s lives for reasons that later seem transient. However, there isn’t always a good reason why… that doesn’t stop the asking.

Jim Can’t Swim and Similar Channels

I appreciate the work that goes into interrogation analysis videos, so long as those videos are made by people who know what they’re talking about. Jim Can’t Swim (often abbreviated to JCS) is a channel on Youtube that reviews and analyzes footage of interrogations released to the public. JCS is one of the biggest and most well-known channels following this premise; JCS’s narrator speaks with authority, is able to identify common tactics used by either the police or the suspect during the interrogation, and is generally respectful of the subject matter. While sometimes the subject matter is humorous because the suspect or the interrogating officer does something that’s weird or pathetic, JCS doesn’t turn serious crimes into jokes.

It also doesn’t devolve into ‘copaganda’, a term used to describe media that paints the police in an overly positive light. Copaganda may suggest that the police never make a mistake, or anyone who asks for a lawyer before speaking to the police is guilty, or that it’s okay for the police to break some of the rules as long as they ‘know’ the suspect is guilty – it’s a nasty trend that leads to well-meaning, otherwise innocent people giving up rights they are legally entitled to for the sake of not ‘looking’ guilty.  JCS often clarifies that the police are allowed to lie to you to get more info out of you during an interrogation because it so often works in the detective’s favor during taped interrogations.

Other channels mimicking his format began cropping up, and then the format began to turn into a problem.

Visibility Bias

There are two issues with the popularity of these channels. The first one is that, with the benefit of knowing how the case turns out, of course you can spot the tells of the suspect. It’s like watching a poker match when you already know who wins! For instance: many channels, JCS included, will point out body language or certain tics as indicators of lies. However, you can’t use those in court – many people tic when nervous, and it would never hold up because everyone tics a little differently. The focus on body language is for the interrogators, who are looking for certain clusters of behaviors as indicators that the person they’re interrogating might not be telling the whole truth. It’s an interrogation tactic to extract a confession, not a hard science that always yields results. While JCS and a handful of the other big channels that started after him will clarify this as they describe why the suspect is likely doing what they’re doing, many others do not – they simply point to a behavior and say “this is where they started lying” because they know how the case ends. The tendency to use big, flashy cases where the murder was gruesome and the suspect left behind tons of evidence worsens the effect, because every video ends in a conviction, giving the viewer a false sense of efficacy when it comes to certain techniques.

You don’t see the videos where the tactics lead to investigators pressuring someone for an hour because they struggled to make eye contact with the interrogator, because that’s not interesting or cool and the channels realize that. However, if every video you see where the suspect couldn’t make eye contact ended in a conviction, you’d be inclined to believe everyone who can’t make eye contact is guilty, and it’s not just something nervous people do – sort of an ‘every square is a rectangle, not all rectangles are squares’ deal. Channels have to be very careful what they’re pointing out as recognizable nervous or lying tics because it’s not a science, they know how the case ends and so may be seeing tells where there aren’t any, and there’s no frame of reference for ‘innocent’ behavior elsewhere on the channel.  

Speaking of which, the second issue is that it often ends up accidentally turning into copaganda anyway – at least, the copycat channels do. When you stop focusing on how inexact many of the tactics are because they always seem to work in the videos and the channel narrator always points certain things out when they happen, it can be easy to fall into the trap of [X] is guilty because when the cops interrogated [Y], this same thing happened. Almost every video on JCS with a few exceptions were cases where the murder suspect either took a plea deal or went to trial, meaning the prosecutors already had a ton of evidence against the suspect. In the one or two cases on his channel where the suspect had been pulled in and later cleared, he points out how not-guilty the suspect acts during the interrogation. The rest? The huge percentage of interrogations that don’t provide any meaningful answers because the police had more or less said ‘this guy was in the area and we’re out of ideas’ to drag that guy in? Those interrogations aren’t the ones that end up on the channel. Why would they? They’re boring. The convicted suspect’s interrogation was probably more interesting anyway, right? The five people investigators went through to get to the prime suspect are never seen, and so the police look hypercompetent on these channels, always nailing the right person and always managing to extract something incriminating related to the case within an hour or three. These channels end up stripping quite a bit of valuable context from the case. It’s actually built into the formatting of this style of channel, because all people want to see is the case and the interview. Nothing else.


And then there’s the issue of the analysis itself. Many of these folks could be amateur experts (we don’t know what credentials the vast majority of them have), meaning they’ve done extensive research online for specific cases, and specific interrogation techniques… but don’t know much beyond that. While the internet is huge and useful, you can’t research yourself into a self-made Master’s degree. Usually, that’s fine. You don’t need to have a degree in botany to be giving advice on tomatoes, you just need some research from people who do that you can cite when someone asks you how you know something will or won’t work. The field of psychology is not quite this simple, and when mixed with matters of law, sometimes even people in the system confuse themselves into messing up a case! For an outsider to be able to just leap in and begin analyzing footage of two human beings interacting within a specific legal circumstance, and having that analysis be trusted because of an air of expertise despite few credentials and sometimes sparse citations, may as well be a television show.

The problem then is that there’s no official, end-all-be-all way to describe why a new channel’s videos aren’t as good at describing the interrogation as an older channel like JCS is. A huge chunk of these interrogation-analysis videos don’t have any official training, just ‘experience’. Experience is useful, yes, but when anyone can just start making videos on such serious subject matters, you’re going to end up with a lot of pop-psychology and bias making it’s way into the analysis. JCS, with scripters, can avoid some of it, but can a teen with no editor or scriptwriter avoid accidentally suggesting something completely incorrect because it just happens to pan out in this case?

Just like everything else online, you should avoid taking the word of an interrogation channel without a grain of salt. They’re there for your entertainment first – anything else comes second!