It was a fairly routine day at the police station. Two of the Senior Constables were working a drug case, and they wanted to speak to a ‘working girl’ they thought might have some valuable information.
“Want to come down to St. Kilda with us? We’re looking for one of the hookers down there, chances are she knows something about the case. You’ll get to see how a difficult interview’s done.”
“Sure!”, I responded. I was curious, and looking for every opportunity to learn something more about interviewing uncooperative sources.
“You just watch and learn. We’ll handle things. She’s a bitch to deal with, hates cops, it ain’t gonna be pretty.”
Excited and admittedly a little bit scared, I jumped in the patrol car and we headed down to find ‘Crystal’.
True to form, she was standing on the footpath at her regular location, and she wasn’t happy at all to see us.
“What do you f***ing want??”
Not the warmest reception! There might have been a few more ‘c’ and ‘f’ words thrown in for good measure.
My colleague got out of the car and, after a few quiet words, Crystal reluctantly got in the back seat of our car. Seeing me, she sprayed me with “What are you looking at, bitch?!”
We drove back to the Police station and escorted Crystal up to a large room upstairs. As requested, I sat quietly in the corner and observed.
That’s when the good cop/bad cop routine started.
You know the one – bad cop’s aggressive and intimidatory stance, with derogatory comments, accusations, or threats, is supposed to intimidate the subject and set the stage for them to reveal all to the sympathetic and understanding good cop. It’s popular in the movies and cop shows, and I’d often wondered if it really works.
[The technique is based on the principle of hurt and rescue. In most cases the desired outcome is the revealing of hard to get information or an admission or confession of wrong doing.]
Good cop started first, talking calmly to Crystal and encouraging her to please share what she knew. He gave her some water in a plastic cup and pretended to care.
We needed some names and details that would help intercept an upcoming drug deal, so I realised time was of the essence.
Crystal clearly was not about to fall for good cop’s smooth style and, although she accepted the water, she restricted her contribution to words along the lines of “F- off, pig” and “I’m not f’n telling you anything”.
Bad cop stood up and approached Crystal. Good cop fell back and let him work his magic.
Banging his hand loudly on the table, he pointed in her face and with some volume said, “Listen you stupid bitch..if you don’t f’n tell us what we need to know I’m going to make sure that you regret it and….”
On he went, with a bellowing voice full of threats and anger.
I sat there, partially frozen and a little bit surprised, a little bit scared. A burst of adrenaline ran through my body. I felt a bit uncomfortable. Ever inquisitive, I wanted to know if this would work and if Crystal would crack. She didn’t.
The Senior Constables persisted for a while. They each had a couple of turns, maintaining text book character.
It wasn’t working. Crystal stayed closed, and full of contempt and bitterness toward both of them.
Sitting inconspicuously in the corner, I started browsing through Crystal’s prior convictions. Theft, burglary, prostitution, drug offences. And then, I noticed something I thought was interesting in the information in her file.
After almost an hour, my buddies gave up. Bad cop gave a final promise that she would be sorry about this. Her face stayed screwed up and defiant and her arms tightly folded.
Walking over to my corner, the Senior Constables told me they were going to take her back to where we picked her up.
“Forget it, we’re not going to get anything from her.”
I asked my esteemed colleagues for permission to speak with Crystal. With quizzical looks on their faces, they asked, “Why? She didn’t tell us anything, why’s she going to talk to you?”
I was pretty sure she wasn’t going to tell me anything either. In fact I felt a tad scared of her, and out of my depth.
But what I had discovered in her file fascinated me, so even though they shook their heads and scoffed, I persevered.
“I just want to have a quick chat with her. There’s no downside, she’s not giving you anything anyway.”
“Okay then,” one of them said.
My heart was racing as I crossed the room. I pulled a chair over to Crystal. She turned her body away from me and, with folded arms and a scowl on her face said, in a voice loud enough for the guys to hear, “And what the f**k do you want, bitch?”
I sat down and lowered the volume of conversation into almost a whisper. Now my colleagues couldn’t hear what I was saying.
My voice shook a bit but, as calmly and quietly as I could, I said, “I don’t want anything, Crystal. I’ve just been sitting over there watching these guys give you a hard time and, while that was happening, I discovered something that I thought was really interesting.”
She looked straight at me with a piercing stare.
I’m sure she believed this was all part of the master plan to get her to talk, but she was curious so after a while she said, “Yeah… Like what?”
“Do you know…that you and I…both have exactly the same date of birth?!”
“Bull shit,” she replied.
“It’s true, we are both 22 and both born on 13th May in the same year.”
Although this wasn’t a ground breaking, world changing fact, it ignited an interest in her as it had with me.
With a slightly tilted head and some curiosity laced with doubt she said in a quiet voice, “Prove it.”
I pulled out my drivers licence and handed it to her. As she looked at the familiar date, her face changed.
Looking up at me with a smile she said, “That’s f***ing crazy, sister.”
What was going to happen now? I actually wasn’t trying to be that clever, I just thought it really interesting and I wanted to share my fascination with the coincidence. But what happened next taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
Her whole demeanor changed. She uncrossed her arms and let down her guard. I leaned over closer and said, “Isn’t that a weird thing…where life takes us. We both came into this world on the same day and here we both are at 22 – you getting hassled by these guys and me sitting here in a very uncomfortable and ugly blue uniform.”
We talked for some minutes about where we were born and admitted we were both unsure what time of the day we came into the world.
Crystal leant forward and, with some warmth, agreed that it was a cool coincidence. Her body language had changed, her voice had changed, her face had changed, her whole energy had changed. We talked, and even laughed a bit, and for a moment all our differences faded away.
For that moment we were two young women having a chat without a care in the world. In that moment, I actually liked her and I felt she liked me.
Our lives were vastly different, but I became aware of the facade that we all display that helps us to play our role at the time, in the stories we live. When I stopped playing cop and she stopped playing angry, hard done by, law breaker we were just two humans navigating our way through life on a different path.
To this day I wonder whether my colleagues realised what just happened. They were in their own bubble, talking about what next, and not paying attention to the conversation between Crystal and I. They were far enough away to not be able to hear us but, if they were watching, they would have seen some pretty significant shifts in Crystal’s body language.
My professional responsibilities kicked back in and I asked her “Do you actually have the information that these guys have been hassling you for?”
She smiled. “Yes.”
“Will you give it to me’?”
Another quick smile. “Yes.” And she picked up the pen and began to write on the paper sitting on the table.
I thanked her, we spoke a bit more, and then I walked over to my colleagues and handed them the paper with the information they were seeking.
If I’m honest, I have to admit I was feeling pretty clever. It was a bit of an ego boost. I might even have felt a bit of smug satisfaction. But those feelings were not the dominant ones, nor is that the message and lessons that stuck with me for all these years.
I could have sat back and not said anything to Crystal – but I followed my gut and it turned out better than expected.
Two takeaways from my encounter with Crystal
1. Speak up, even if your voice shakes.
If you have considered a situation and believe that what you have to contribute is important, find a way to say it. With Crystal, I not only fulfilled my work objectives, I believe we both gained something more at a personal level from that little interaction. Maybe she hasn’t reflected as much on the interaction as I have, but I do believe Crystal experienced a small oasis of joy as we looked past the circumstances, took off the mask and shared a laugh and some connected energy.
2. Connecting through common ground can be a powerful way to build rapport.
This was an ‘A-ha!’ Moment for me about the psychology of building a connection to elicit the truth – it transformed my intellectual knowledge into experiential knowledge which has stayed with me. To this day I help people explore opportunities to use the tool of ‘common ground’ to build faster and stronger connections when seeking truth and building new relationships.
I’ve often wondered what happened to Crystal. Maybe she experienced a ‘Pretty Woman’-style rescue from her life of crime, drugs, and prostitution by a gallant knight. I really hope so.
And my colleagues? No doubt they continued to use their good cop / bad cop routine over the ensuing years, with varying degrees of success.
I was never a fan of the bad cop approach. There are more effective methods to elicit truthful and useful information.