Police Interrogations and Polite Coercion

Officers 480 x 580.jpg

Photo Credit: Tillman B. Johnson, Sr. (Texarkana Gazette) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

You sit in a dimly-lit interrogation room across from a police investigator. He is interviewing you in connection to a serious crime. You finish telling your side of the story and lean back in your chair. With an expression of intense concentration the officer asks you (for the second/umpteenth time?) if you committed the crime. You say, of course, that you did not do it. Out of the blue the officer, stumbling over his words, asks you a bizarre non sequitur: “And, uh–I–you know, you, you’re giving me, uh, what do you think should happen to somebody like this?”

How are you supposed to respond to that question? What does he even mean? What is happening here? You have just witnessed the clumsy application of a police interrogation technique meant to make you exhibit some sort of sign of anxiety. While you respond to the officer’s questions he is on the lookout for you incriminating yourself by shifting in your uncomfortable seat, or by flicking some lint off your sleeve. A single inadvertent motion and that investigator may have now pegged you as a liar–and quite possibly guilty of whatever crime is being investigated.

Where this technique came from has been in the news, lately, along with such questions as whether it’s good for anything but getting false confessions, and the proper role – if any – of lying and cheating in the criminal justice system. We’ll get into that below.

In last month’s New Yorker there was an article entitled “The Interview,” with the ominous subtitle, “Do police interrogation techniques produce false confessions?” Its author, Douglass Starr, explores the Reid Technique, an incredibly–and unfortunately–influential interviewing method in the United States. Former Chicago police officer John E. Reid began developing it in 1947 based on his experiences on the force and on the science of the times. The interrogator assesses your body language for signs of anxiety–shifting in your seat, brushing lint off your clothes, etc.–and for verbal cues such as stammering or making a mistake in telling your story. If the officer decides that you are lying, the interview becomes an interrogation. Forty years of research later scientists have found that anxiety and body language are not signs of deception. Yet hundreds of thousands of police officers have been trained to believe otherwise, thanks to John Reid.

There are nine steps to the Technique, enumerated here in a seminar brochure published by John E. Reid & Associates, Inc. The gist is this: The interrogator accuses you right at the beginning in order to gauge your reaction for signs of anxiety. They give you a “theme,” a story, reason or excuse for the crime so that you can acquiesce without losing all self-respect. By minimizing your moral culpability and the legal risks of confessing, the interrogator can get a confession eighty percent of the time, according to the Reid website. As Douglass Starr’s article points out, however, not every one of those is necessarily a true confession. One of John Reid’s own interrogations, the success of which catapulted his Technique into national fame, turned out to have garnered a false confession. The suspect, Darrel Parker, was innocent of the murder of his wife. His confession was brought on by a mixture of the long hours of interrogation, anxiety, and a growing feeling of helplessness in the face of Reid’s refusal to listen to his denials. This is a common thread in many of the false confessions exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing. The innocent are coerced by desperation and hopelessness and the weight of the evidence the interrogator claims to have into a confession, which seems to them to be the only escape. And there is nothing more compelling to a jury than a confession, even in the face of a proven alibi.

Continuing the theme of police deception, the Saratogian, here in Saratoga Springs, just today had an article about the New York Court of Appeals’ attempts to determine just where the line ought to be drawn. How far can the police go in lying to a suspect?

The operative condition is the level of coercion the suspect is under in the interrogation room. In one of the appeals the Court is considering police told the suspect that if he did not confess to throwing his child into his crib they would next turn to his wife for the crime (the child had already died from an infection). In the other appeal the suspect was told that it was a life or death matter: if he did not tell them everything his girlfriend was going to die (she had by that time already succumbed to a drug overdose). “A confession must be the product of a suspect’s free will…” Attorney Jerome Frost, as quoted in the Saratogian, reminds us. A coerced confession is inadmissible in court. In reading through the article the description of the investigators’ tactics in these cases certainly smacks of Reid. Both suspects were urged to confess in order to save a loved one. In the one case the police told the suspect that they were sure he was innocent and that his child’s death was an accident a total of 67 times.

John E. Reid developed his Technique as an alternative to the ‘third degree’. It was groundbreaking in its time, and it’s certainly better than holding suspects out a window until they confess, but can be as coercive mentally. In these last 67 years the world has changed. We have a better understanding of human psychology. We have amended statutes to reflect our society as it is now. Perhaps it is time that police interrogation techniques adapt to the 21st Century as well.