Two of the most crucial elements of learning how to conduct a successful interview and interrogation session may be developing strong interpersonal and observation skills. However, these may also be some of the most difficult to teach. No matter how much time trainees spend in a classroom with peers trying to master these techniques, they will eventually discover that interpreting a suspect’s nonverbal cues or fostering a relationship in which the suspect feels he can trust the interviewer is much more difficult than it sounds.
These necessary social skills are also becoming more difficult to teach to generations that grew up just as comfortable, or even more comfortable, interacting with the world through a computer screen instead of a face-to-face conversation. Dale Olsen, president and CEO of SIMmersion LLC
, a software development company that creates human interaction simulations, is confident that his company’s technology can help train the generation that grew up in front of a computer to develop their interpersonal and observation skills as they also develop interview and interrogation skills.
At the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in 1997, Olsen created his first simulation of a human for the FBI to train new special agents to conduct investigative interviews. That simulation was distributed by the FBI to all federal law enforcement organization, police departments throughout the United States and to several English-speaking nations.
Five years later, he founded SIMmersion and went on to create simulations for government, health care, and commercial training audiences that include topics such as courtroom testimony, border interviews, drug and alcohol screening, performance counseling, military recruiting, and cultural sensitivity training.
After numerous requests from law enforcement agencies, Olsen created the most advanced simulation ever developed by his company (or any other) to train law enforcement, security, and intelligence community professionals how to accurately assess a suspect’s veracity and how to employ the most effective techniques to garner a confession.
Olsen created a simulation in which users interact with a simulated suspect named Jennifer Lerner. The user takes on the role of an investigator who has been called to the office where Jennifer works as a clerical researcher. The background information that a law enforcement officer would typically have about the scenario to is provided for the user.
They learn that Jennifer’s job requires her to field requests for reports and do research in the organization’s databases and files to gather the necessary information to complete those reports. They also learn that Jennifer and two of her coworkers hold the combination to a safe in which DVDs are stored with secure information that they may need for certain reports.
Sensitive documents, code-named “the Shakespeare files,” were discovered to be missing from the safe the night before. The files have a value of about $50,000 in the appropriate black markets, but their loss could have catastrophic effects on the organization. Although Jennifer and her two coworkers who know the safe’s combination are leading suspects, everyone within the organization is being considered as one.
Several measures were taken to make the interaction with Jennifer feel realistic. For example, if Jennifer is guilty, the conversation will last over an hour, just as it would in a real-life interview. To make Jennifer appear more life-like, the simulation uses a videotaped actress rather than animation. Jennifer changes every time the simulation is played.
Sometimes she took the files, and sometimes she is innocent. When the user encounters a guilty version of her, he will discover that she doesn’t always have the same motive. In one play, she may have taken the files because she was struggling to provide for her daughters, and in the next play, she may have taken them to get even with her employer.
Additionally, her mood will change as the conversation progresses. If the user builds good rapport with Jennifer, she will start to open up. If the user makes mistakes, her mood will worsen and she will become minimally responsive, making a confession less likely. She may even walk out of the interview.
Also appearing on-screen is a list of possible questions and statements that the user can choose from to communicate with her. These options change in reaction to the thousands of potential responses that the user may hear from Jennifer. In fact, it would be impossible to have the same conversation more than once. Users can either talk to her using a microphone, or they can select statements with their mouse.
In order to be successful, users must establish a level of rapport that makes Jennifer feel like she can trust them, get her thoughts on the disappearance of the Shakespeare files, be attentive to nonverbal cues and signs of deception, and determine if Jennifer took the files. If she is guilty, they must identify her motive and use it to solicit a confession.
During this process, a help coach named SIMantha stands in the corner of the screen and provides feedback about how the user is doing. She may give a thumbs-up for an appropriate question, or she may hide her face in embarrassment if the user makes a mistake. The help coach can also provide more specific information about why certain questions are effective or ineffective, or even give hints about how to read Jennifer’s nonverbal cues and body language.
At the end of the conversation, the user will receive a score, lending a game-like quality to the simulation. This, in combination with Jennifer’s different personalities, motivations, and variable veracity, encourages repeated practice. As users play the simulation more and more, they will be able to identify both truthful behaviors and signs of deception more quickly and be able to translate these skills to real-life interviews.
Additionally, users will focus not just on using good interview strategies or determining if Jennifer is telling the truth, but also on getting a verifiable confession from her. The simulation stresses that even if users determine that Jennifer is guilty, the interview is of little use unless it can be used to solicit a confession.
Although this simulation was created to teach interview and interrogation techniques in a way that cannot be learned by reading a book, Olsen still suggests certain texts and experts as resources. He strongly recommends “Practical Aspects of Interview and Interrogation,” Second Edition by David E. Zulawski and Douglas E. Wicklander. He also referred to “Effective Interviewing & Interrogation Techniques,” Second Edition by Nathan J. Gordon and William L. Fleisher while writing the simulation.
Other suggested resources include “Essentials of the Reid Technique: Criminal Interrogation and Confessions” by Fred E. Inblau, John. E. Reid, Joseph P. Buckley, and Brian C. Jayne; the work of Stan B. Walters; International Interviewing and Interrogation LLC; and the Defense Academy for Credibility Assessment.
Olsen also drew upon several subject matter experts affiliated with the American Polygraph Association. For example, he incorporated the “Lifeline” approach developed by Edward I. Gelb, the association’s former president. Many ideas from Dan Sosnowski, a member of the organization’s board of directors, were included in the simulation, and Vicki Murphy, National Secretary of the American Polygraph Association, reviewed the system and provided helpful feedback.
The simulation includes four hours of e-learning content as an additional resource. This information includes interview tips and tactics, videos and photographs showing signs of deception, and suggested interview procedures. Users are encouraged to read these materials before playing the simulation for the first time. They can also return to these materials at any point during their conversation with Jennifer by clicking an icon at the top of their screen.
Initial reaction from the law enforcement community and reviewers has been positive. “Dale Olsen’s simulation training draws on the real-world experience of top interrogators who have a track record of thousands of successfully resolved cases,” Gelb said. “His unique approach to training makes learning a positive experience and results in ‘getting that confession,’ which is the bottom line.” The simulation, titled “Investigative Interview with Jennifer Lerner,” was released by SIMmersion in the spring of 2009. Sara Richmond lives in the Washington, DC area and is the writing team supervisor at SIMmersion LLC. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.