Cognitive Interviewing: Innovation in Action

  • Published
  • By Wayne Amann
  • AFOSI Public Affairs

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.


“A key issue in investigative interviewing is how and when questions are asked. The way an interviewer asks a question impacts what interviewees remember and how they remember it. Memory does not work like a videotape, it’s fallible and vulnerable to influence and distortion,” said Dr. David G. Ray, Director of AFOSI’s Behavioral Sciences Directorate. “Traditional law enforcement interviewing approaches rely on asking questions. Unfortunately, asking a direct question limits the amount of information you get because it leads the interviewee down a specific path. It narrows the scope of what the interviewee’s brain is paying attention to and what he or she considers relevant.”


If an interviewer asks what color the shirt was, that’s a direct question detail the interviewee will focus on. The reality is there are many more details that are part of that memory. The interviewee looks at the interviewer as the expert to know the right questions to ask.


That’s where cognitive interviewing comes in. By using a funnel approach to get information, the cognitive interview avoids asking specific questions until late in the interview. It begins with obtaining a free narrative, then narrowing the focus onto certain portions of the narrative, and finally focusing on specific details and questions. The interviewer starts not by asking questions, but by providing broad instructions. For example: “Please tell me everything you can remember before, during and after the robbery, with as much detail as possible…including everything you see, hear, smell, taste, touch, as well as everything you feel and think.”


By asking the interviewee to recount the total experience, including sensory and other details that may initially seem peripheral to the primary incident, the interviewer fosters an environment in which key details are recalled with greater accuracy via the associations the brain naturally creates as part of every memory.


“Senses help you remember details,” Dr. Ray said. “An interview should always start with a free narrative, where the interviewee freely recalls an event without interruption. During this phase the interviewer’s job is to listen, not to ask questions.”


After the free narrative, the interviewer will take the interviewee back to a specific timeframe within the narrative, and ask the interviewee to re-recall the events in that timeframe with more detail. This is called context reinstatement. To enhance memory recall and minimize distractions in the room, interviewees are encouraged to close their eyes.


“You can often tell when interviewees are actively remembering because their bodies become engaged,” Dr. Ray said. “It’s amazing the vivid details interviewees can remember during context reinstatements, all without asking them a single question!”


Since its development in 1992 by Ronald P. Fisher and R. Edward Geiselman, cognitive interviewing has been empirically validated, improving recall 35 to 50 percent over other law enforcement interview techniques. It centers on the cognitive processes, social dynamics and communication styles that impact interviews.


After learning about those factors and more in a daylong classroom training session, the cognitive interviewing course students apply them in interview labs with role players contracted by FLETC who serve as witnesses to realistic crime scenarios.


The role players are contracted through a corporation headquartered in Dallas, Texas, specializing in base operation and support services requirements for federal facilities. Their customers include the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department and others in six states and the District of Columbia.      


The scenarios can range from homes set up as meth houses where mock drug deals are made to small town businesses where simulated robberies occur. Though staged, the scenarios are true to life thanks to the attention to detail by AFSIA’s Advanced Training Division instructors and Danis City, FLETC-Glynco’s premiere practical exercise training venue.


Ensuring the cognitive interviewing course scenarios are as realistic as possible is the specific responsibility of Course Director, Special Agent Instructor Tamisha Turner.


“I make sure the role players from FLETC are not primed beforehand so they don’t know what they’re getting into, so the follow-on interview is realistic when they rely on their memory,” she said. “For the scenarios themselves (I) make sure they have all the props they need, like beverages and food. A lot of props are involved. Plus we have to coordinate well in advance with FLETC to get the building locations needed. That’s a challenge because we have more than 90 agencies training here.”


With that many agencies vying for location time, Danis City is a reality-based training mecca for good reasons.


The venue provides residential and commercial training environments, with 50 training areas. The 25.5 acre site includes residential homes, a retail shopping center, a federal facility, an apartment building, a tactical warehouse and a use of force complex.


There are more than 30 structures on site, with 165,000 square feet of indoor space within a variety of facilities including a coffee shop, bank, pawn shop, theater, pizzeria and a police station complete with holding cells and a sally port. Its various environments are designed for a multitude of training applications.


Named after Commander Anthony L. Danis, the first commanding officer of the first airship squadron stationed at Glynco Naval Air Stations in 1943, FLETC started using Danis City for training in fiscal year 2014.


Today, special effects systems play a prominent role there. Systems for sound, motion detection and multiple cameras record training from a command center. All systems are digitally connected to the network. Each training venue has an instructor control room to administer scenarios, record training and operate special effects. All training venues are linked for real-time, three dimensional, multi-venue training.


AFOSI’s cognitive interviewing curriculum marries methodology with technology to produce a unique training environment for its students.


“Special Agents used to employ the cognitive interview only for victims, where this course really opens things up so it can be used in any scenario OSI and law enforcement in general deals with daily,” said SA Barry Dozier, AFSIA Advanced Training Division Instructor and Cognitive Interviewing Course co-developer. “OSI can use it for sourcing, witnesses, victims, subjects, it brings a lot to the table. The training is innovative, a new way of doing things.”


The innovation aspect drew the attention of Airman Magazine, which sent a crew to cover the course via multi-media stories for its widely-viewed public web site.


“At Airman we go by the priorities of the Secretary of the Air Force and Chief of Staff of the Air Force. In this case innovation is the compelling factor, ways that Airmen are doing things differently to produce better results," said Mr. Bennie Davis III, Airman Magazine Associate Editor. "When we heard there's a new process utilized by the (AFSIA) school house here (at FLETC) to gain potentially life-saving information for the agents or individuals involved (coverage) was a no-brainer. Plus, it's intriguing the way everything is set up here, the training environment with the town (Danis City) and the simulated real-world scenarios."


It takes a robust collective effort to facilitate this undertaking, as SA Dozier is keenly aware.


"I want it known you don't do something of this magnitude without the help of OSI Headquarters Behavioral Sciences, the support of leadership at AFSIA, the Advanced Training Division and the other instructors,” he said. "That's what makes this thing work."


Dr. Ray and a group of the world's top experts in lie detection and law enforcement interview techniques conducted a research study in 2015 with OSI agents who compared interviews they did before the course and after. They found the OSI agents got statistically more significant information, more details, more complete narratives, more cooperation from the subjects, and more confessions by using the new techniques. When they reverted to the old ways the numbers went down.


"I'm proud of OSI for thinking outside the box, and its commitment to evidence-based interviewing techniques," Dr. Ray explained. "Other agencies who audited our cognitive interview course are sold on it, and now FLETC has introduced the cognitive interview into the basic Criminal Investigations Training Program for all law enforcement students. We were the first to start the movement and that's pretty cool."


OSI Special Agents taking the cognitive interviewing knowledge back to the field have given the course an enthusiastic thumbs up.


"At the end of each day we ask for feedback," SA Turner said. "By the end of the course the feedback is different because they've had the experience, the lessons they learned, the interviews they conducted. They picked up a lot of tools they say they'll definitely use. They're wild about it!"