Finding the truth has been a staple of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations mission for its nearly 70 years as a premiere federal law enforcement organization. A common method AFOSI Special Agents use to obtain the truth, is undergoing a change in philosophy and execution at the Air Force Special Investigations Academy on the campus of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, Glynco, Ga. Enter cognitive interviewing: a non-traditional, non-confrontational specialized interview approach designed to enhance the quantity and quality of information recalled by victims, witnesses, subjects and sources. (Video // Pete Ising)

You’re sitting in a pizzeria enjoying a slice with aromas of melting mozzarella cheese, fresh basil and pizza dough baking in the wood-fired oven filling the air.

Then, the sound of tires skidding to a halt outside is quickly followed by two men barging through the front door, firing a pistol into the ceiling and ordering everyone to get on the ground. One of the men places a gun to your head and demands all of your money and valuables. Shocked, afraid and barely able to move, you comply.

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A man enters a pizza parlor with a gun
Role players conduct a robbery training scenario for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations Cognitive Interviewing course at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers, Glynco, Ga. During a cognitive interview exercise, people hired from the local community are placed inside scenarios unaware that they will witness a dramatic life-like event such as a robbery, a drug deal gone wrong or a drive by shooting carried out by scripted role players. They then participate in a Cognitive Interview conducted by students of the course.

Photo // Tech. Sgt. Perry Aston

And then, just as quickly as the thieves arrived, they vanish.

When the authorities arrive a few minutes later, you are still in shock, still afraid and still unsure of what happened.

Then the questions start: What did the men look like? What were they wearing? What did they say? What kind of car did they have? What kind of weapons?

For the victims, being able to recall this information is vital to catching the perpetrators, but this is often difficult because the people who witnessed the crime are scared, shaken and confused.

For the authorities, being able to get detailed information from the victims quickly and effectively is often the difference between catching criminals or watching them slip away.

According to the Department of Justice, research has shown that most crimes are solved as a result of the information obtained from interviews of witnesses or victims. However, the unreliability of eyewitness reports is generally well recognized by law enforcement officials.  

Because of this, law enforcement agencies are constantly looking for ways to improve their interviewing techniques.

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Role players conduct a robbery training scenario for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations Cognitive Interviewing course at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers, Glynco, Ga. During a cognitive interview exercise, people hired from the local community are placed inside scenarios unaware that they will witness a dramatic life-like event such as a robbery, a drug deal gone wrong or a drive by shooting carried out by scripted role players. They then participate in a Cognitive Interview conducted by students of the course.

Photo // Tech. Sgt. Perry Aston

For the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, this means sending its agents through an advanced OSI training course that teaches them innovative cognitive interviewing techniques to help victims, witnesses and subjects remember specific memories from a crime scene.

“We (OSI, academics and the federal law enforcement community) have been doing research over the past several years on better ways to get better information,” said Dr. David G. Ray, Director for Behavioral Sciences at Headquarters AFOSI. “Interviewing is one of the key activities investigators do, yet most law enforcement agencies have done very little to evaluate and advance the effectiveness of their interviewing techniques over the years. Research on intelligence and law enforcement interviewing methods shows that there may be more effective ways to do business.”

While OSI is one of the very first U.S. federal law enforcement agencies to establish a dedicated course for special agents on cognitive interviewing as a foundation to all investigative interviews, Ray explained that OSI did not create the course on its own. The course actually stems from an inter-agency and international collaboration between OSI and world-renowned experts on law enforcement interviewing and credibility assessment, facilitated by the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG), which was established by Congress in 2009.  

Ray engaged the HIG and international partners in 2014 to help OSI build the course requirements and to conduct a research study with 80 OSI agents to field test the effectiveness of integrating the cognitive interview and other evidence-based techniques into OSI’s interviewing strategies.

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Dr. David Ray, director of behavioral sciences at Headquarters, Air Force Office of Special Investigations, speaks to OSI agents attending Cognitive Interview training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers, Glynco, Ga. Cognitive Interviewing is a method of interviewing witnesses, victims and suspects about what they remember from a crime scene. The primary focus of this type of interview is to elicit more information through proven memory retrieval methods.

Photo // Tech. Sgt. Perry Aston

“What we found was that when our agents used the newly learned techniques, they obtained more information, more details, more cooperation from subjects and more complete narratives about the events being investigated,” Ray said. “In some cases nearly 50 percent more information.”

The study was so successful that local law enforcement agencies in the U.S. are now replicating the study pioneered by OSI and the HIG.

OSI introduced the cognitive interview as the standard for interviewing victims of sexual assault in 2012, and has ever since been teaching the technique to both OSI agents and Air Force lawyers.  Its effectiveness in eliciting greater quantity and quality of information validated OSI’s commitment to adopting evidence-based methods and propelled its interest in using the techniques for interviewing victims, witnesses and subjects, for both criminal investigations and counterintelligence operations.   

Recent studies found the legacy law enforcement interviewing techniques taught in the U.S. over the last 35-40 years were not as effective as the evidence-based approaches founded on rapport and dynamic communication skills, which incorporate an understanding of how the brain and memory works.

Cognitive interviews yield an increase in correct recall ranging from 17-63 percent, without a corresponding increase in erroneous information.

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Office of Special Investigations agents participate in a class exercise where they use clues to tell if their fellow students are lying during Cognitive Interview training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers, Glynco, Ga. (Photo // Tech. Sgt. Perry Aston)

“We all store memories differently. Memory is associative and is connected to and queued by other information or experiences,” Ray said. “It’s a reconstruction of bits and pieces from different compartments of the brain that come together to form a narrative.”

Ray explains, for instance, sometimes in life people find themselves confronted with a familiar sensation prompted by sight, taste, touch, sound or smell.  These sensations can link them to their past and help recall a memory, similar to being transported back in time and watching an event unfold.

Senses can trigger happy memories, like a first kiss or an amazing concert, but they can also activate dramatic events, such as the loss of a loved one or a particularly scary moment.

“We want to take advantage of that sensory information within the situation we’re wanting to know more about, such as a crime,” Ray said.

He believes this is where cognitive interviewing is more beneficial than legacy law enforcement interviewing.

Traditional law enforcement interview techniques rely heavily on asking questions. The process is dictated and controlled by the investigator, often in an authoritative or confrontational manner, using direct questioning to gain details specific to the investigation.  

Cognitive interviews are structured to facilitate recall of an event by the use of a variety of memory enhancing techniques, while allowing a more patient approach in developing rapport and eliciting as much information as possible from the individual’s own memory and perspective. Direct questioning is avoided until late in the interview, because direct questions tend to limit the amount of information a person recalls.  As the individual remembers and describes details of what happened in his or her own way, the interviewer serves to guide and facilitate, rather than directing or controlling the flow. This maximizes detail and reduces biased perception.

In the new advanced course, OSI agents with at least two years of field experience return to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, for two weeks to learn progressive rapport strategies, using hands-on exercises and laboratories for cognitive interviews.

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Office of Special Investigations agents participate in a class exercise where they use clues to tell if their fellow students are lying during Cognitive Interview training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers, Glynco, Ga.

Photo // Tech. Sgt. Perry Aston

Special Agent Barry Dozier is the OSI instructor who led the development of the new course. Using the course initially developed with the HIG as the foundation, SA Dozier took it to the next level by introducing innovative exercises that have become the hallmark and most memorable aspects of the course.

“What is unique about our training at FLETC is Danis City, which is used to create a realistic environment and the availability of role players for scenario based training,” said Special Agent Tamisha Turner, an instructor for the cognitive interviewing course who is also in charge of setting the stage for the scenario-based training.

Danis City is a reality-based training environment that resembles a small town. The 25.5-acre practical exercise site includes residential homes, a retail shopping center, a bank, coffee shop, pizzeria and other shops and structures to create a diverse training backdrop. The entire site is under video surveillance, which helps instructors evaluate the training and use the videos to provide feedback to students.

For OSI’s cognitive interview course, people hired from the local community populate Danis City. They are placed inside scenarios unaware that they will witness a dramatic life-like event such as a robbery, a drug deal gone wrong or a drive by shooting carried out by scripted role players.

In each situation, Turner ensures all five senses are active for the role players. Music plays in the background, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee fills a coffee shop or a hot pizza sits inside the pizzeria. These details are key to triggering memory in the interview.

Following their experience in Danis City, the locals participate in a cognitive interview conducted by the OSI students, utilizing the memory enhancing techniques learned in the classroom. The student teams, who have no prior knowledge of the scenario, must piece together the narrative while gaining evidence for a criminal investigation.

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“We teach the students no details are too small,” Turner said. “You want them (the witnesses) to tap back into that memory and go back to that event.”

Individuals undergoing a cognitive interview may be asked to recall their senses in order to provide a mental reinstatement to re-experience the crime in a safe environment. Interviewees may also be asked to provide their narrative from a difference perspective, in a different order, or through sketches or drawings, among other techniques that enhance people’s ability to remember more detail.

“We want the students to get as much information as possible with as much detail as they can get, but we want it to be accurate,” Turner said. “The goal is to get information and to find the truth.”

Turner says many times the unscripted role players leave the interview amazed at how much detail they actually remembered due to the memory-enhancing techniques the students used. Turner herself is believer in the process, after undergoing a cognitive interview herself.

“It definitely made me a believer in the process,” she said. “Because I’ve had the experience and I’ve gone through it, I know how it works. I feel credible in teaching it.”

The advanced course is in its second iteration, but AFOSI is committed to the process and has already started to integrate the cognitive interviewing techniques into the basic level training.

“OSI’s cognitive interviewing course sets a new standard for federal law enforcement agencies. It’s just one example of OSI’s commitment to innovation for training and developing the best criminal investigators and counterintelligence operators,” Ray said.  “Organizational change is very difficult to do. Adopting the cognitive interview approach may seem like a small step for OSI, but in reality it’s a pretty significant step forward.”