Iago in the interrogation room

Speaking of that New Yorker article – it’s well worth reading. It’s about US law enforcement’s widespread reliance on “the Reid technique” for eliciting confessions, which was concocted by a retired cop out of…nothing in particular.

A growing number of scientists and legal scholars, though, have raised concerns about Reid-style interrogation. Of the three hundred and eleven people exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing, more than a quarter had given false confessions—including those convicted in such notorious cases as the Central Park Five. The extent of the problem is unknowable, because there’s no national database on wrongful convictions. But false confessions, which often lead to these convictions, are not rare, and experts say that Reid-style interrogations can produce them.

See, the goal with confessions is not quantity but quality. I mean, sure, it would be great for law enforcement and thus for the rest of us if they could get truthful confessions in every case, but the “truthful” part is key. Dragging false confessions out of exhausted subjects is not helpful.

Thirty-five years ago, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology named Saul Kassin began researching the psychological factors that affect jury decisions. He noticed that whenever a confession was involved, every juror voted guilty. Alibis and fingerprints didn’t matter in these cases. Kassin read the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1966 Miranda decision and found that it repeatedly cites the Reid Technique manual as the most authoritative source on American interrogation techniques. When he bought the manual, he says, “my first impression was, my God, this reads like a bad psychology textbook. It was filled with assertions with no empirical proof.”

Today, Kassin has appointments at Williams College, in Massachusetts, and at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York, and is widely regarded as a leading expert on false confessions. He believes that the Reid Technique is inherently coercive. The interrogator’s refusal to listen to a suspect’s denials creates feelings of hopelessness, which are compounded by the fake file and by lies about the evidence. At this point, short-term thinking takes over. Confession opens something of an escape hatch, so it is only natural that some people choose it.

Do you think the Miranda ruling makes this not a problem? More than 80% of suspects waive their Miranda rights.

The Reid interrogation technique is predicated upon an accurate determination, during Behavioral Analysis, of whether the suspect is lying. Here, too, social scientists find reason for concern. Three decades of research have shown that nonverbal signals, so prized by the Reid trainers, bear no relation to deception. In fact, people have little more than coin-flipping odds of guessing if someone is telling the truth, and numerous surveys have shown that police do no better. Aldert Vrij, a professor of psychology at the University of Portsmouth, in England, found that law-enforcement experience does not necessarily improve the ability to detect lies. Among police officers, those who said they paid close attention to nonverbal cues did the worst. Similarly, an experiment by Kassin showed that both students and police officers were better at telling true confessions from false ones when they listened to an audio recording of an interview rather than watch it on video. In the experiment, the police officers performed less well than the students but expressed greater confidence in their ability to tell who was lying. “That’s a bad combination,” Kassin said.

It’s the Dunning-Kruger combination. You really don’t want that in police interrogations.

Such studies suggest that a troubling chain of events can easily take place in the mind of an interrogator. During the Behavioral Analysis Interview, the detective begins to form an impression, based in part on the suspect’s body language. The impression could be wrong, but the detective, sensitized to those responses, notices them more and pays less attention to others—an instance of confirmation bias. Increasingly convinced that he’s dealing with a liar, the detective questions more aggressively, and this, in turn, triggers more nervousness. The behaviors create a feedback loop, ratcheting up the suspicion and anxiety to the point where the detective feels duty-bound to get a confession. Psychologists call this cycle the “Othello error,” for the tragic escalation of accusation and fear that leads Othello to kill Desdemona.

Gregg McCrary, a retired F.B.I. agent, told me that Reid-style training creates a tendency to see lies where they may not exist, with an unhealthy amount of confidence in that judgment. “They just assume they’re interviewing the guilty guy,” he said.

And the wrong people go to prison, and sometimes to the lethal injection room.

There are alternatives.

In 1990, after a flurry of false-confession scandals in Britain, the government appointed a commission of detectives, academics, and legal experts to develop an interview method that would reflect up-to-date psychological research. After two years’ work, the commission unveiled their technique, called PEACE, for Preparation and Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure, Evaluate. Training was provided for police departments throughout England and Wales, starting with major-crimes units. By 2001, every police officer in England and Wales had received a basic level of instruction in the method.

The method differed dramatically from previous practices. Police were instructed not to try to obtain confessions but to use the interview as a way to gather evidence and information, almost as a journalist would. They were to focus on content rather than on nonverbal behavior, and were taught not to pay attention to anxiety, since it does not correlate with lying. Instead, police were trained to ask open-ended questions to elicit the whole story, and then go back over the details in a variety of ways to find inconsistencies. For the suspect, lying creates a cognitive load—it takes energy to juggle the details of a fake story. Part of the process involved thorough preparation: police learned to spend hours drawing diagrams of the route they hoped an interview would take. Bluffing about evidence was prohibited. “We were not allowed to lie, coerce, or minimize,” Andy Griffiths, a detective superintendent with the Sussex Police Department, told me. Their job was simply to get as much information as possible, which, along with corroborating evidence, would either inculpate the suspect or set him free.

There are law enforcement people in the US working on developing approaches like that. Let’s hope they make headway.


  1. Blanche Quizno says

    It was shocking to me when I learned a few years ago that it is perfectly legal for police to lie during interrogations. They can legally tell the suspect that there is video camera footage placing him at the scene (when there isn’t), or that he’s been identified by 4 witnesses (when he hasn’t been identified by anyone), and that they can get him a plea-bargain to a lesser charge if he’ll confess (they can’t). Nothing police promise in the interrogation room is binding on the police or on the district attorney. But that confession will certainly be binding upon the suspect!

  2. doublereed says

    I had a coworker who was a former police officer, and I asked him about some of the processes. I asked him about some of details of how they can lie and interrogate people, or some of the ways they try to get around 4th Amendment protections. He just looked at me like I was silly and said something to the effect of “Yea, of course. Don’t trust the cops.”

  3. says

    There’s a fractal fucked-up-edness about the whole of this system, as it reveals itself today. Quotas over even the most batatdized version of the truth being maybe the quarternary level of the same, it seems to me. Have you a confession, M. Inquisitor? Well done, then. Round up the next circle of suspects, and let’s look busy.

    It seems by now a braying laughter should, at least, blow this humbug to bits.

  4. says

    Funny coincidence — Republicans take over in the US, a new culture of respect for cops is enshrined, questioning of cops and their methods is discouraged, oversight of police actions is reduced…and now it’s OTHER countries that are creating innovations in police and crime-fighting procedures while we lag behind and still pretend we’re number one. Okay, it’s probably not a coincidence…and it’s not all that funny, except maybe to our worst enemies…

  5. Blondin says

    A police acquaintance was telling me about the number of acquittals, suspended sentences or probations handed out by local judges. “They’re too quick to give the benefit of the doubt,” he complained.

    “But, isn’t that their job?” I asked.

    “Let me put it this way, I don’t charge innocent people,” was his response.

  6. Kevin Kehres says

    @1 Blanche Quizno…

    Not just in the interrogation room. When you are pulled over by the police for a traffic stop, they will lie to you in order to elicit a statement against your penal interests.

    Cop: “I had the guy you were following going 38 and you going 45 in a 35 mph zone.”

    You (panicking): “Well if the guy ahead of me was going 38, I must have been going 38 as well.”

    Congratulations, you just confessed to speeding. Guilty verdict. Pay the fine. Get the points. Doesn’t matter if the radar was turned off or in the cop’s trunk. You just confessed to speeding. They can put any number they want on the ticket.

    The cops are trained in this tactic. It’s their number one weapon.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Pls remember, folks, if / when this happens to you: as the linked article explains –

    Critics may not like the fact that police sometimes lie to suspects during interrogations, but a 1969 Supreme Court decision affirmed their right to do so.

    – but if you do the same, you can be charged with obstructing justice, interfering with a police officer, etc, etc, etc, and do some heavy time on those even if acquitted of everything else.

  8. karmacat says

    I learned that in forensic psychiatry they use the same technique of asking the person to repeat their story over and over. They also ask questions that test a person’s memory without letting them know they are doing so. Of course, forensic psychiatry is mainly focusing on people who claim a mental illness made them behave criminally. I also learned early on that I can’t tell when someone is lying unless their story changes. Even then, I can’t be sure if they are lying or just not remembering all the details

  9. Dunc says

    Dragging false confessions out of exhausted subjects is not helpful.

    That very much depends on what your objective is. Once again, I’m reminded of Robert Higgs:

    As a general rule for understanding public policies, I insist that there are no persistent ‘failed’ policies. Policies that do not achieve their desired outcomes for the actual powers-that-be are quickly changed. If you want to know why the U.S. policies have been what they have been for the past sixty years, you need only comply with that invaluable rule of inquiry in politics: follow the money.

    Sure, he was talking about US foreign policy in the Middle East, but the principle is sound, and broadly applicable.

    The US “justice” system is manifestly not about justice. It’s about power and profit.

  10. Jenora Feuer says

    I remember a story someone told about almost losing a security clearance because they hadn’t smoked marijuana.

    Or, more to the point, because when they told the interviewer that they hadn’t, the interviewer refused to believe them and kept trying to get them to recant and admit to it.

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