There is no shortage of folks who want to know the secret behind Steven Pisano’s impressive ability to get criminals to confess.
The long-time Revere Police Sgt. Detective has a record of confessions going back two decades that makes heads spin in many law enforcement circles. He is one of the top-notch interviewers in the area, if not the state, according to many in the law enforcement community.
In fact, criminals actually ask for him.
He has a reputation in the jails as “the guy” to talk to.
And victims never forget his dedication and kindness towards them.
He’s gotten to the bottom of murders, assaults, thefts and many other crimes; but it is child sex crimes – even molestation cases within families that often go unsolved – that he really zeroes in on.
“All victims, period, are important to me, but the kids are my Achilles heel,” he said this week in a rare interview with the Journal. “I try to get away from it, to step back from them, but I can’t. If I don’t do it, maybe no one will. I used to look at the kids and get sick to my stomach knowing what happened to them. If I look for one word, it’s the vulnerability of it. The children in these cases are helpless and people in authority – even adult strangers in some cases – have violated that and left a trail of destruction.
“The trust and innocence is gone,” he continued. “It always bothered me more than any other type of case – always flipped me out. I felt I had to protect them.”
That protection usually meant a perpetrator – whether for a child sex crime or any other offense – made a full confession to Pisano, something that has become very common over the last 25 years that he has served as a detective. His astounding record has turned a few heads in Boston’s prosecutorial circles. Some, Pisano said, once quietly thought the worst about his techniques. That is, until the state required that all interviews be videotaped, and his numbers actually improved. At the same time, it gave those same doubters a window into his techniques.
Some of them – who also teach at law schools – now use videos of Pisano’s interviews as teaching tools.
Others, who might know Pisano or might have run across him casually, could think he is so successful because he has such a hard edge – that he goes into the interview room yelling and screaming, fists flying, CSI-style, and intimidates the criminals into telling him the truth.
Pisano, certainly, does have a hard edge. Raised in East Boston and Revere – an admittedly wild street guy in his youth – Pisano still says he’s known to be very emotional and to have bouts of road rage at times.
But none of his natural edge goes with him into the interview room.
In fact, his secret to success is just the opposite of edgy; the secret is being nice and compassionate.
“You have to be nice to people,” he said. “You have to give them their dignity. You have to give them the opportunity to be a human being. I have always felt bad for people, whether they are the bad guy or the good guy. I came from the streets and my badge doesn’t make me any better or any worse than anybody else. I’m no angel and I never considered myself better than anyone else. That’s why I give everybody dignity in the situation when I’m interviewing them, unless they give me a reason not to.”
In fact, Pisano credited his early days on the streets and even his early days as a street cop – working Shirley Avenue when it was vice central – for being able to read people and knowing what they are willing to say.
“I never forgot where I came from and I can humanize the people I’m interviewing,” he said. “I sit and I read them. It’s like playing poker, and I’m also a good poker player. I know how to read them when I ask them questions and how to let them play out how the interview is going to go. If they’re talking to me, I can tell if they’re lying. I may not be able to immediately prove that, but then I know how to get at the truth. Some might need a little push from me and others might need a soft pillow under them. In the end, it’s letting them know they’re human and they might have made a mistake, but they can make it right and pay for the mistake. It’s simple. It’s like a formula. And it works because people usually want to do what’s right when they have dignity.”
The other key, he said, is building up trust over the years.
One thing about being a police officer – especially detective – is the criminals know you and they adjust to enforcement. They know which cops keep their word, and like some other officers, Pisano has come to be known as one to be trusted – even by criminals he helped put away for many years.
“My street credibility is huge over the years,” he said. “If they have to be arrested and prosecuted, they know they’ll be handled properly. There are a lot of cops like me and it’s because we believe a police officer’s job is to find people innocent as well as guilty. Because of that reputation, I’ve had people call me from prison. I remember one guy calling me from prison who said he would only talk to me because he knew me to be a man of my word. He ended up giving me very important information to solve a serious crime. You own your words and you own your actions with the criminals out there.”
At the same time, all the success has come with a price tag.
For most of his adult life – until a few years ago – Pisano lived in Revere while also working as a cop here. He was married here and raised two daughters here, both of whom are now adults.
Many times his job bumped up against his family.
He remembers bricks coming through the windows and people slashing his tires. The entire family was once stalked by a woman he had arrested from Chinatown. There were death threats, and people who promised to get him and his family when they were released from jail. There were even times when his daughters got taunted by students at the high school who had family members – or even parents – arrested by Pisano.
Then there were the vacations that never happened or were constantly cut short.
However, there are times when that regret is erased. Such a time was last year when three victims from the past – two whom he hadn’t spoken to in years – showed up at his father’s funeral. They didn’t know Pisano’s father, but wanted to show the detective their appreciation.
There are also the calls that people make years later thanking him for helping them get their lives in order – even if that meant getting them to confess to crimes and sending them to jail.
“You’ll get victims coming to your father’s funeral, or you get a message on the answering machine thanking you for something many years ago,” he said. “They’ll tell you they found the Lord and they want to thank me because I was the only one nice to them when they were down and out. Those things make it rewarding to me. You say, ‘You know what; this was worth it not going to Disney or leaving my family on vacation.’ I did help somebody.”
In recognition of Pisano’s record of confessions and bringing about justice for victims, he was presented in April with the 2013 Access to Justice Award from the state Office for Victim Assistance during a State House Ceremony. He has served on the Revere Police for his entire 34-year career.