Cover Story | Education

Melissa Russano Searches for the Truth

"Law enforcement officers, military personnel and intelligence officers can all directly apply what we are learning about the science of interrogation to their everyday practice."

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We all see crime shows on TV where police detectives bring a subject in for questioning. The suspect may resist answering the questions directed at them, or they freely give up information. If someone doesn’t want to give up the information, we see the detective somehow coax it out of them. Aside from clearly being good at their job, the detective is following a set of parameters to retrieve information from suspects. Interrogation models are nothing new, but there are always new ways to retrieve information, and Melissa Russano is at the forefront of these models.

Melissa is aiming to identify techniques and strategies to obtain information and confessions from guilty and knowledgeable suspects. At the same time, she is learning how to avoid getting false information from innocent or naive people. Believe it or not, innocent and naive people sometimes provide false confessions, which leads to wrongful conviction cases. She calls false confessions miscarriages of justice, and knows it is imperative that researchers discover what would lead a person to give false information.

Her early research focused on police interrogations and developing a model to study true and false confessions in the lab. Her research has evolved in this post-9/11 world to encompass the larger investigative interviewing context. Melissa explains that “our national security depends on our ability to elicit reliable information from sources, suspects, witnesses and detainees.”

Melissa develops her interrogation models in the lab, but constantly brings what she learns to the field. For example, she’s conducted in-depth, structured interviews with highly experienced intelligence and law enforcement interrogators from various US military and federal agencies. “The goal of this project was to learn from the ‘best of the best’ regarding what they perceive to be effective interrogation practices,” she explains. “My research goal is to identify strategies for eliciting reliable, detailed information from people who often are not particularly motivated to provide that information. This research can be applied in any number of contexts, but is certainly most applicable to the law enforcement, military and human intelligence contexts.”

Knowing that what she does in the lab has been used in practice is immensely rewarding for her. In the long-term, she’ll continue to conduct research that will help to establish best practices for interrogations that are based on empirical evidence. So the next time you watch Kate Beckett from the hit TV series Castle get a confession, know that it’s not just her gumption that’s coaxed the truth out of someone. There’s a structured way to get a confession, and it may actually be as easy as 1-2-3.