Virtual interrogation software

Practicing interrogation skills is important but also often challenging for law enforcement officers, especially with time and budget constraints. And because interrogation and interviewing is best done in a face-to-face setting with a real, live person, training issues can occur depending on the trainer and the trainee's level of experience.

Imagine conducting an interview without a real live person in the room, but with a simulated suspect on a personal computer.

Traditional role-playing scenarios are now becoming a thing of the past, thanks to sophisticated software technology allowing officers to train and practice interviewing techniques at their leisure.

It sounds like something far-fetched, almost out of a sci-fi movie, but SIMmersion's simulated people technology is very real, and is used by law enforcement agencies worldwide to help train professionals how to recognize the signs of deception, and to be a better interviewer on the job.

SIMulated reality

While at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Dale Olsen, Ph.D. began work on the first simulated person with the goal of training new FBI agents to detect deception during an investigative interview. This endeavor began in 1997, and by 1998 Dr. Olsen delivered the breakthrough training to his first customer, the FBI.

"We showed that we are able to mirror realistic situations to give trainees a chance to develop critical investigative skills. Other government agencies quickly followed the FBI lead and commissioned new simulations," Olsen says. In 2002, Dr. Olsen started up SIMmersion LLC, so that he could bring this highly effective experiential training to more people.

Using video and DVD capabilities, SIMmersion has created more than 20 life-like simulations of people in realistic settings for government sponsors including all branches of the military, Customs and Border Protection, Drug Enforcement Administration, the intelligence community, and the National Institutes of Health. These simulations offer alternative ways of learning and strengthening various skills, including detection of deception, courtroom testimony, informant management, recruiting, cultural sensitivity, medical diagnosis, drug counseling and suicide intervention.

These "simulated" characters have realistic emotions, and a "simulated" brain that uses real-time interaction and logic to reflect the way people actually speak and respond to one another in real situations. Each character has a built-in "memory" that allows the simulated person to respond based on the user's history of statements in realistic and logically consistent ways.

For example, at the beginning of a conversation, the interviewer doesn't know if the character "Mike Simmen" is guilty or innocent.

"What we're giving the user is practice in identifying the signs of deception," Olsen says. Decisions must be made on how the interview should proceed based on the observed character's behavioral patterns.

If you are able to "warm up" to Mike, he will relax and become more talkative and friendly. He will provide more useful information including important verbal and non-verbal clues that are often signs of deception. If you fail to break through his initial concerns about talking with you, he may become hostile and uncooperative and you will not be able to determine if he is guilty or innocent.

Interrogating officers need to know if their suspect is telling the truth, and SIMmersion simulations will help them to hone in on clues to indicate if they are telling the truth or being deceptive.

A new way of training

Garland Phillips knows how intense the training can be for FBI agent recruits: he was the former unit chief for the information resources and learning unit at the FBI Academy. Prior to his retirement 5 years ago, part of his job responsibilities included training program evaluation and analysis.

He says the trainers at the FBI Academy were constantly challenged to find the perfect balance between finding the time to train and meeting the many demands of training detection of deception techniques to its fledgling agents. Developers and trainers alike wanted to have a training tool that could be used by many officers for a long period of time.

Olsen agrees, and says that the balance of training officers and finding time to practice this technique was the motivating factor behind the development of SIMmersion's software for law enforcement agencies.

When Olsen and his team started exploring the training issue further, they discovered that trying to find the perfect balance between how to train and having the time to train was not only prevalent in United States law enforcement agencies, it was a challenge to agencies worldwide.

The FBI recognized the importance of providing students with more than just textbook information and limited role plays.

Phillips also says that studies of law enforcement training needs in the FBI and in the public sector determined that the highest priority training needs were to improve interview and interrogation skills.

For instance, Phillips says that in most interrogation training classes, there is a one-on-one interaction between two people. This means trainees must learn to read the behavior of the other person, or the trainer. Instructors noticed that 5 to 10 minutes of role playing wasn't going to be enough time.

"You have to go in and build rapport, to develop and watch for baseline behaviors, and get into more difficult aspects in behavior and the changes in behaviors," says Phillips. These behaviors include changes in terms or vocabulary used, postures and breathing patterns.

"To the interviewee, it's just a conversation," says Phillips, "but investigators are actually gathering lots of information."

"Once we identified there was a training need, or really a gap in the training world, other people started talking about the new technology quite a bit," Olsen says. "The identified training gap expanded to include all sorts of difficult communications."

Useful competition

Using the SIMmersion software allowed training for interpersonal skills at a much more sophisticated level than any other program. Software developers wanted to design a program that would keep the interest of FBI Academy recruits, something comparable to a video game.

"They wanted to have something that would catch their imagination, that would be interesting enough for agents to want to do outside their normal work," Phillips says.

A program that is competitive and useful at the same time was what it took to capture the interest of agents in training.

Trainees are "scored" in a way similar to a video game. The scores from the interview are based on judgment to determine whether the suspect is being truthful or deceptive.

Higher points will be earned if deceptive behaviors are identified, but most of the scored points come from how rapport is developed and how accurately verbal and non-verbal clues are detected. Scores are tracked over time to measure and monitor how well the officer is improving.

Scores are also visible to other agents, so it lends a competitive approach to learning.

Varying results

But unlike a lot of video games, there is not one optimal path for an officer to follow through an interview. "Users never know what Mike is going to do or say," Olsen says. He is always unpredictable, but true to the behavioral patterns of a guilty or innocent subject.

"Every time you interview Mike Simmen, you have a different experience," Phillips adds. "Back when we were using it with new agents, there were 50 computers in each class. We wanted to start off with the same interviewing techniques, but "Mike" was in different mood each time. It was interesting to see how the interview would diverge."

Improving communication

Olsen says that many of the training issues with investigative interrogations are communication-related.

"If you look at the way mistakes are made, it's often with communication skills," Olsen continues. "That's because we make many communication mistakes, and are deficient in reading other people's non-verbal meanings or intents."

Law enforcement officers are often not given enough time to properly develop detection of deception skills and techniques. But with new technologies such as SIMmersion' simulations, it is possible to fine-tune these interviewing and interrogation skills, using the program during separately scheduled training hours or at the officer's leisure, so when a real suspect is interviewed all the right questions are asked with confidence.