Interrogation has been a hot topic for years, and when President Obama assumed office in 2009, he took steps to ensure that lawful interrogations would be conducted to combat terrorism around the world. Through an executive order, he created a taskforce to examine interrogation practices which lead to the creation of the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG), an interagency collaboration between the FBI, CIA and DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency). In addition to its operational capacity to handle the most high-profile incidents and interrogations, the HIG was charged with establishing a program of research to examine the best, humane and lawful interrogation strategies. 

For Christopher Kelly, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice, the HIG’s research endeavors were a perfect match. 

“My other research areas of substance abuse treatment in prison and jury decision-making in capital punishment trials deal with detainment and incarceration to varying degrees, and my interest in legal, humane and effective interrogation methods is an extension of this.”

In 2010, Kelly worked on the first of a string of HIG grants, now totaling over $400,000, when he and a colleague at the University at Albany (SUNY), Allison Redlich, Ph.D., conducted a survey of interrogation techniques used in the United States. This work led Kelly and Redlich to expand their study to include international perspectives on interrogation, with most of the respondents from Canada, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom. 

“The goal of the surveys was to establish a baseline of understanding of what interrogators do,” explains Kelly. “Previous work considered only a fraction of the known techniques at an interrogator’s disposal. The intention of our initial work was to bring them all into a single survey.”

To formulate the survey, Kelly took 70 or so discrete and unique techniques from existing research and training manuals, such as the Army Field Manual, and sorted them into one of six smaller categories or domains. “The domains gave us a common language that we believe speak to the universe of legal interrogation methods,” says Kelly. 

In the summer of 2012, Kelly stepped into the role of principal investigator on a HIG project and conducted a content analysis of Los Angeles Police Department interrogations of uncooperative suspects. The goal, Kelly explains, was to use real recordings, 31 in all, to examine which methods of information gathering were the most productive. This study, one of only a few like it, looked at both interrogator and suspect behaviors.

Kelly and his colleagues found that rapport and relationship building significantly increased suspect cooperation, while confrontational methods led to increased resistance. 

“The biggest takeaway for me was the finding that not only did confrontation increase resistance contemporaneously among suspects, but that effect lasted a full 15 minutes regardless of what other technique was employed in the interim,” he says.

Now Kelly is bringing his research to the East Coast and studying the interrogation procedures of police in the City of Brotherly Love. The latest HIG project, which carries a $60,000 grant to SJU, will allow Kelly and his colleagues to design a study in collaboration with the Philadelphia Police Department to investigate how contextual cues can influence the memory, cooperation and openness of witnesses to serious crime in the city.

Kelly and his research team will work with the Southwest Detectives Division’s Special Investigations Unit. These detectives focus on non-lethal shootings and, for the purpose of this research, only interviews with witnesses to the crimes will be studied.

“Philadelphia has long been combatting the ‘stop snitching’ phenomenon that permeates its streets and instills fear of retribution in informants,” Kelly explains. “One of the goals of this project is to seek ways to cut through this mindset and encourage witnesses to tell their stories.”