From Third-Degree to Third-Generation Interrogation Methodologies: Putting Science into the Art of Criminal Interviewing

Desmond O’Neill


Criminal interrogations are fundamentally designed to elicit confessions.[1] Beginning with the proliferation of physically abusive and aggressive tactics in the early 20th century—arguably the first generation of American interrogation strategies—law-enforcement agents employed what they deemed the most effective means for getting suspects to confess.[2] In the early 1940s, harsh “third-degree” interrogation practices eventually gave way to less physically abusive but more psychologically manipulative techniques.[3] These tactics—later named the Reid Technique—taught investigators how to detect lies and elicit confessions using an array of psychological strategies.[4] Now more than seventy-five years old, Reid’s dominance in the U.S. criminal-interrogation realm is pervasive and relies heavily on assuming guilt, assessing behavioral clues of deception, and administering psychological manipulation.[5]

Over the past decade, however, accusatorial interviewing has come under intense scrutiny in part because it is based more on anecdote and tradition than on scientific research. Critics note that Reid’s architects have failed to produce empirical evidence supporting the validity of assessing behavior to determine culpability.[6] A 2006 meta-analysis study found the aptitude to correctly detect deception—regardless of expertise—averaged only 54 percent, near the equivalent of a coin flip.[7] A compounding problem with relying on behavior to distinguish between truth and lies is twofold: interrogators often overestimate their ability to detect deception, which then intensifies the accusatorial nature of the interview.[8] These flawed interrogation schemes collectively increase the potential for false confessions, a systemic problem within the U.S. policing culture.[9]

The United Kingdom—having faced its own miscarriages of justice due to false confessions—has prohibited its practitioners from employing coercive interrogation methods.[10] British investigators now conduct investigative interviews grounded in building rapport, asking open-ended exploratory questions, and focusing on cognitive cues of deception.[11] A 2014 study showed investigative interviewing increased the elicitation of truthful information and decreased false confessions when compared to the accusatory approach—the favored American model.[12]

Despite the ubiquity of traditional interviewing strategies within the U.S. law-enforcement ethos, scholars and practitioners are slowly shifting toward next-generation methodologies. In 2009, the U.S. government created the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) in response to the highly publicized post-9/11 interrogation tactics the United States used on terrorist suspects.[13] Part of the group’s mission was to identify the best theories and practices “from the cognitive, behavior and social sciences,” and from them produce the most effective and ethical means of conducting interrogations.[14] Since the group’s establishment, HIG-supported researchers have published more than 100 pieces of scientific literature in the field of interviewing and interrogations, arguably making the group the authority in communication methodologies.[15] The group has also provided instruction to multiple U.S. law-enforcement and military institutions, including the, Los Angeles Police Department, Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, and Air Force Office of Special Investigations, on the use of evidence-based methods of interviewing.[16]

Not all government agencies, however, have adopted research-supported interrogation methods.[17] While some organizations are stymied by institutional challenges—such as agency assumption that the traditional interrogation tactics are sufficient—others remain unaware of the HIG’s existence or the efficacy of its science-based techniques. This thesis was, in part, an attempt to defeat both problems. It was particularly interested in the strategic, ethical, and performance improvements next-generation interviewing can bring to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR)—an internal affairs component of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

OPR comprises senior and experienced special agents promoted from within the DHS Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).[18] Unlike HSI special agents, who mostly interview suspected criminals, OPR special agents primarily interview other law enforcement officials—many of whom themselves are experienced interrogators.[19] During the writing of this thesis, OPR agreed to partner with the HIG to conduct an effectiveness evaluation of instruction offered by HIG-backed trainers. This study design is a comparative before-and-after training analysis that measures the quality and quantity of information obtained during suspect interviews. The framework of this project has three phases. The initial phase involves OPR providing the HIG with suspect interview transcripts for review. These documents enable the group’s researchers to identify the types of interview challenges OPR agents face and to develop a five-day training program specific to those needs. The second and third phases include training select OPR agents in HIG-supported interviewing methodologies and assessing the effectiveness of that training by evaluating actual interrogations conducted by participants before and after training.[20]

This thesis hypothesizes that by identifying and instituting select science-based interviewing practices, OPR special agents can enhance their investigative output. Support for this argument derives from an array of empirical research, governmental policy analyses, and insight from subject-matter experts. A series of recommendations, such as continuing educational development as well as achieving agency and practitioner buy-in, provide the framework for adhering to these enhanced interviewing methods. This thesis also discussed the concept of training skilled OPR special agents to be instructors in HIG-backed strategies for agency personnel. Such an approach is fiscally constructive and alleviates the reliance on third-party vendors for teaching interviewing strategies to OPR agents. Furthermore, assuming the principles are both scalable and replicable, this model can theoretically be broadened to encompass the standard practices of other DHS agencies responsible for conducting interrogations as well as law-enforcement entities nationwide.



[1] Randy Borum, “Approaching Truth: Behavioral Science Lessons on Educing Information from Human Sources,” in Intelligence Science Board Study on Educing Information Phase 1 Advisors, 17–43 (Washington, DC: National Defense Intelligence College, 2005), 18.

[2] Richard A. Leo, “The Third Degree and the Origins of Psychological Interrogation in the United States,” in Interrogations, Confessions, and Entrapment, eds. G. Daniel Lassiter and Jennifer J. Ratcliff, 37–84 (New York: Springer, 2004), 57.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 57, 77.

[5] Leo, “The Third Degree,” 64; Christian A. Meissner et al., “Accusatorial and Information-Gathering Interrogation Methods and Their Effects on True and False Confessions: A Meta-analytic Review,” Journal of Experimental Criminology 10, no. 4 (2014): 461.

[6] Gisli H. Gudjonsson, The Psychology of Interrogations and Confession: A Handbook (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003), 21; and Leo, “The Third Degree,” 67.

[7] Charles F. Bond Jr. and Bella M. DePaulo, “Accuracy of Deception Judgments,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 10, no. 3 (2006): 214.

[8] Saul M. Kassin et al., “Police Interviewing and Interrogations: A Self-report Survey of Police Practices and Beliefs,” Law and Human Behavior 31, no 4 (2007): 389; Saul M. Kassin, Christian A. Meissner, and Rebecca J. Norwick, “‘I’d Know a False Confession if I Saw One’: A Comparative Study of College Students and Police Investigators,” Law and Human Behavior 29, no 2 (2005): 222.

[9] Richard A. Leo and Richard J. Ofshe, “The Consequences of False Confessions: Deprivations of Liberty and Miscarriages of Justice in the Age of Psychological Interrogation,” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 88, no. 2 (1998): 491; Saul M. Kassin and Gisli H. Gudjonsson, “The Psychology of Confessions: A Review of the Literature and Issues,” American Psychology Association 5, no. 2 (2004): 37.

[10] David Dixon, “Questioning Suspects: A Comparative Perspective,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 6, no. 4 (2010): 429.

[11] Meissner et al., “Accusatorial and Information-Gathering Interrogation Methods,” 461.

[12] Christopher E. Kelly and Christian A. Meissner, “Interrogation and Investigative Interviewing in the United States: Research and Practice,” in Contemporary Developments and Practices in Investigative Interviewing and Interrogation, Volume II, eds. D. Walsh et al. (New York: Routledge, 2014).

[13] The HIG is a federally funded interagency created by the Obama Administration in 2009 that oversees the interrogations of terrorist suspects in U.S. custody and the custodial transference of terrorist suspects. In addition, the HIG is tasked with conducting research in the field of interviewing and interrogations in order to identify the most effective and ethical means to educe information from suspects. “Special Task Force on Interrogations and Transfer Policies Issues its Recommendations to the President,” U.S. Department of Justice, August 24, 2009,; Russano et al., “Structured Interviews of Experienced HUMINT Interrogators,” Applied Cognitive Psychology 28 (2014): 847.

[14] Kelly and Meissner, “Interrogation and Investigative Interviewing,” 9.

[15] Christian A. Meissner and Melissa Russano, “Examining Validation and Field Assessment of Science-Based Methods of Interrogation,” HIG Research Symposium, October 23, 2015, Washington, DC.

[16] Kelly and Meissner, “Interrogation and Investigative Interviewing,” 9; Meissner and Russano, “Science-Based Methods of Interrogation.”

[17] Patricia Donovan, email to author, January 30, 2017.

[18] “Office of Professional Responsibility,” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), accessed March 2, 2017,; “Homeland Security Investigations,” ICE, accessed March 2, 2017,

[19] “Homeland Security Investigations,” ICE; “Office of Professional Responsibility,” ICE.

[20] HIG research is approved both by the university Institutional Review Board and the FBI Institutional Review Board, and complies with U.S. federal policies for the protections of human subjects research.

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