Interrogation techniques widely used by law enforcement that include lying about having evidence, badgering and manipulating suspects can cause false confessions, and it is legal. That is the conclusion of a recent article in The New Yorker.
According to The New Yorker, John Reid, a former Chicago cop who became a consultant and polygraph expert, developed a three-stage system in 1955, called the Reid Technique that uses such tactics.
Supreme Court Decision
A 1969 US Supreme Court decision affirmed the police have a right to lie to suspects.
The Reid system is extremely effective in producing confessions but not very good at separating true ones from false ones, found Melissa Russano and her colleagues at Florida International University, who conducted experiments using the Reid interrogation method.
The article’s author, Douglas Starr, writes that 25 percent of the 311 people exonerated by post-conviction DNA have confessed to crimes they did not do. This has raised alarms among a growing number of scientists and legal scholars about Reid-style interrogations, according to Starr’s article, (Dec. 12, 2013, “The Interview.”)
“My God, [the Reid Manual] reads like a bad psychology textbook. It was filled with assertions with no empirical proof,” psychologist Saul Kassin told Starr. Kassin is widely regarded as a leading expert on false confessions.
The Reid Technique starts with a “Behavior Analysis Interview,” when the interrogator assesses whether a suspect is lying. To determine this, the questioner asks a series of non-threatening questions to get a sense of baseline behavior. Then he uses more provocative accusations and “baiting,” in which the interrogator claims he has incriminating evidence.
If the interrogator decides the suspect is lying, he leaves the room for five minutes and returns with an official-looking folder. The folder is used to bluff the suspect into believing official information shows the suspect is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
In the full interrogation phrase, the suspect is prodded to confess. The interrogator does all the talking, batting away all the suspect’s denials.
Then the “minimization” phase begins, in which the suspects are steered toward confessing by offering them a face-saving alternative.
When the suspect finally admits to the crime, the interrogator praises him for owning up and presses for corroborating details. Then the interrogator works with the suspect to convert the admissions into a full written confession. If the suspect has trouble remembering the details, the interrogator offers multiple-choice options for the answers.
As a finishing touch, trivial mistakes are introduced into the document for the suspect to correct and then initial. That shows the court that the suspect understood the accuracy of what he was signing.
Kassin views Reid’s system as inherently coercive. He explained to Starr that an interrogator’s refusal to listen to a suspect’s denials creates feelings of hopelessness. The fake file and the lies about the incriminating evidence multiply this effect. Then short-term thinking takes over and confessing starts to look like a way out. Many people take it just to stop the incessant badgering by the interrogator.
Starr’s article cited others who agreed with Kassin’s assessment. An innocent suspect will fabricate a story to satisfy his questioners, said Richard Leo, a law professor at the University of San Francisco, and Richard Ofshe, a social psychologist. Leo has undergone the Reid training and observed nearly 200 interrogations in Oakland, Hayward and Vallejo police departments.
Starr writes that Russano has found that direct accusations elicit confessions from innocent and guilty subjects alike. In an experiment involving accusing innocent students of cheating conducted by Russano and cited by Starr, the face-saving minimization technique proved especially effective.
Additionally, in experiments students performed better than police officers at telling whether someone was lying. However, police consistently expressed greater confidence in their ability to tell who was lying. “That’s a bad combination,” Kassin told Starr.
Law-enforcement experience does not necessarily improve the ability to detect lies, according to Aldert Vrij, a professor of psychology at the University of Portsmouth in England cited by Starr.
Reid-style training creates a tendency to see lies where they may not exist, with an unhealthy amount of confidence in that judgment, says retired F.B.I. agent Gregg McCrary, according to The New Yorker. “They just assume they’re interviewing the guilty guy,” McCrary said.
Starr also interviewed Joseph Buckley, president of John E. Reid & Associates, who confirmed that nothing in the technique was developed in collaboration with psychologists. “It’s entirely based on our experience,” he said.
Buckley insists the Reid Technique’s sole objective is to get to the truth. He has testified for the Innocence Project to get wrongfully convicted people out of prison and help them sue for reparations when the interrogator violates training procedures. In other words, when a false confession is produced, it’s the fault of the interrogator, not Reid Technique itself, Buckley insisted to Starr. He also argues that experiments conducted by his critics are flawed because they lack real-world conditions.
Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, explained to Starr that it is easier to win false-conviction cases by having Buckley testify that the police violated their training than by trying to show with a team of psychologists that the training itself is slipshod.
Although John Reid died in 1982, his company continues to train police, security guards, military, FBI, CIA and Secret Service agents. It trains more interrogators than any other company worldwide and brags that the people it trains get suspects to confess 80 percent of the time, which usually leads to a guilty verdict no matter the other facts in the case.