Video: How pseudoscientific “911 call analysis” became a weapon against US citizens

Back in October, I posted a Münecat video dismantling the bullshit of “body language experts”, and one of the problems she points to is the destructive use of these so-called experts in the legal system. 911 call analysis seems to be a version of that, but instead of body language, we have cops and their ilk “analyzing” 911 calls, and arbitrarily deciding whether they think the person making the call is lying. This fits in well alongside polygraph tests and lying about evidence, as another tool police can use to try to bully or gaslight a person into making a false confession:

As you heard, her [20 year old] son initially said that his mom had killed herself, before realizing that she had been bound with a belt and stabbed many times.

The cops pulled him into an interrogation room and kept him there for 13 hours, convinced that he was the murderer. Why? Well, why on earth would he have assumed his mom committed suicide? (3:23)

They were convinced it was him, but eventually, the cops checked his location data on his phone and found that he was nowhere near his home when his mom was murdered, and DNA at the scene was connected to a man who had been arrested multiple times for burglary in the past and who was eventually convicted of the crime.

In the Rebecca Watson video below, you can hear the 911 call (there’s a content warning before that point, in case you need it), and yeah – the kid sounds all over the place, and initially mis-understood what he was seeing. Based on that, and some cop’s opinion of what he would do under those circumstances, they interrogated him for 13 hours. I think most of us are aware of how miserable it would be to be locked in a featureless room with a cop for 13 hours, constantly being accused of murder, and fed stories about what a shitty person you are. How much worse would that be if your mother had just been murdered? If you had found her body?

And all they had to do to avoid tormenting that poor man was check the location data on his phone, or wait for the DNA evidence. They didn’t do that first, because they care more about getting a conviction – any conviction – than they do about the danger of imprisoning, or executing, an innocent person. The more you dig into the policing system in the U.S., the more examples you find of cops just absolutely wrecking people’s lives because they’re too lazy, too cowardly, too sadistic, or too full of themselves to do their jobs properly.

Now, I don’t have a very large audience, but there’s always a chance someone will come along and read this, who might think I’m being too hard on cops. Maybe this is a technique that’s supported by science, or that was pushed on cops, right? Well, no.

In 2009, a cop named Tracy Harpster, from a small town in Ohio that rarely saw a murder, published a preliminary study in which he combed through 100 911 calls, half of which had been made by the person who was later convicted of the crime being reported. He did this to identify patterns, coming up with a list of features he noticed in the “guilty” calls, like not immediately pleading for help, not demonstrating sufficient urgency, being polite by using words like “sorry” and “thank you,” giving extraneous information, or insisting that the victim is dead when their condition isn’t 100% known to the caller.

Though Harpster had no scientific training, that kind of analysis IS normal and even necessary in science – it’s a first step that says “hey, here’s a pattern I noticed in THIS dataset.” But because the researcher at this point is specifically looking for ANY data points that stand out, literally looking for the anomalies, it’s impossible to say that those anomalies will be found in a larger dataset. For instance, if I have a bag of 100 different colored marbles, I can reach in, pull out a handful, and record what I notice: 7 blue marbles and 3 red. That doesn’t give me a definitive answer but a hypothesis: if you pull one more marble out of that bag, it has a 70% chance of being blue. The next step is to test that hypothesis by reaching in again and grabbing a new handful and seeing if the numbers line up. And then doing it again, and again, and again.

Harpster never bothered with that crucial second step of actually testing the hypothesis. Others did, with one study in 2020 and another from last year both finding no correlation between Harpster’s list and actual cases of deception. But those studies haven’t mattered, because Harpster’s preliminary analysis had already been shared by the FBI to law enforcement agencies across the country, who immediately started putting it to the test and finding great “success” at identifying criminals based on their 911 calls. These successes encouraged Harpster to start charging for 2-day training sessions, paid for by taxpayers, in which he trained investigators on how to use his magical checklist.

Investigators quickly realized that because there was no actual scientific backing for the checklist, they would have to sneak it into court cases without actually calling Harpster (or “trained” detectives) as an expert witness, since there are rules for what qualifies as expert testimony in court. ProPublica has reams of documents that catch prosecutors doing this red-handed, creating a playbook on how to use Harpster’s now-debunked pseudoscience in court without subjecting it to scrutiny:

“First, identify law enforcement witnesses who have taken Harpster’s course. Then tell them how to testify about the guilty indicators by broadly referencing training and experience. As Esteves, the prosecutor in Iowa, put it in an email: “Have them testify why this 911 call is inconsistent with an innocent caller, consistent with someone with a guilty mind.”

“Next, prime jurors during jury selection and opening arguments about how a normal person should and shouldn’t react in an emergency. Give them a transcript of the 911 call and then play the audio. “When they hear it,” a prosecutor in Louisiana once told Harpster, “it will be like a Dr. Phil ‘a-ha’ moment.” Finally, remind jurors about the indicators during closing arguments. “Reinforce all the incriminating sections of the call,” another prosecutor wrote, “omissions, lack of emotion, over emotion, failure to act appropriately.”

“Juries love it, it’s easy for them to understand,” Harpster once explained to a prosecutor, “unlike DNA which puts them to sleep.”

Cops lie. They lie all the time, and they lie to everyone. They lie to juries, they lie to attorneys, they lie to the general public, and they lie to judges. They’re trained to lie, encouraged to lie, and rewarded for lying, and they do not care how many lives they destroy. It seems unlikely to me that that will change so long as we maintain this unaccountable class of violent people, who are given rights and authority over everyone else. 

There is, of course, more to the story than these quotes. For the rest of it, check out the transcript linked at the top, or Rebecca Watson’s excellent video below:



  1. sonofrojblake says

    It seems unlikely to me that that will change so long as we maintain this unaccountable class of violent people, who are given rights and authority over everyone else.

    Not for the first time, I get the impression that cops in the US are less like a police service (such as is seen in civilised countries) and much more like an occupying army. They’ve just managed to pull off the trick of occupying a territory where the citizenry don’t even realise they’re under occupation.

  2. says

    I believe if they were accounted as an army, U.S. police would be the third-biggest in the world, at least by funding.

    There’s plenty of evidence that cops in plenty of other countries are a problem, but yeah – every time I think I’ve got a handle on how bad they are in the U.S., something comes along to lower the bar.

  3. says

    Dr. Phil is currently talking about similar pseudoscience WRT Murdach…”body language experts” on his show going on about how Murdach’s body language somehow proves he’s guilty…which is kinda late and useless since he’s already been convicted based on actual EVIDENCE, as well as his own WORDS…

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