NPS-CHDS master’s degree student drives change in ICE interrogation training

By next spring, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) special agents working for the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) could be using new interrogation techniques backed by thesis research conducted by Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS) student Desmond O’Neill.

O’Neill, who is an ICE OPR special agent, is currently working on his master’s degree thesis, tentatively titled “Transitioning from 3rd degree to 3rd Generation Interviewing Methodologies.”

“As a special agent with 14 years of service, 11 of which have been as a federal polygraph examiner, I’ve been
ICE USE THIS fortunate to have been trained in a variety of interviewing and interrogation techniques. Over the years, however, I’ve become keenly aware of the shortcomings in the communication methodologies being taught at the federal level,” he said. “Once I began my thesis research at CHDS, my abstract concept of how best to enhance this tradecraft morphed into a systematic restructuring of the ICE OPR interview training protocol. A large part of that transformation came as a result of the brainstorming sessions I had with my CHDS instructors, specifically Dr. Lauren Wollman and Dr. Christopher Bellavita.”

Historically, ICE OPR special agents have been trained in what O’Neill refers to as “second generation interviewing strategies,” such as the Reid Technique and methods taught by Wicklander and Zulawski. These psychological methodologies—created in the 1940s as an alternative to the unethical use of third degree interrogation tactics—focus primarily on the suspect’s guilt rather than on seeking factual information. This accusatorial approach, however, has recently given way to more effective communication strategies grounded in science.

Strong collaboration with researchers from the U.S. government’s High Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) is an integral part of O’Neill’s efforts to restructure current ICE OPR interview training. The HIG was created in 2009 as an interagency initiative to research and develop the most valid and ethical means of eliciting information. Since inception, the HIG has published more than 100 scientific studies identifying communication strategies that outperform the traditional interviewing approaches currently being taught to most law enforcement officials throughout the United States.

In April 2017, the HIG will begin providing newly hired ICE OPR special agents with “third generation” interview training methodologies backed by science. The collaboration between these two federal entities will enable the HIG to have access to the transcripts of the historical interviews, with the personally identifiable information redacted, as well as to those interviews conducted post-training. A comparative analysis of the transcripts will provide insight into the effectiveness of the respective interviewing techniques.

“Having received the support from ICE OPR headquarters this early in my thesis research shows the commitment our organization has towards remaining at the forefront of innovation. As a result of our work with the HIG, ICE OPR special agents will soon become some of the most highly trained interviewers in the federal government. This paradigm shift in training methodologies will not only positively affect the outcome of our internal investigations, it will also reflect the overall professionalism of DHS.”