Evidence-Based Research Is Reforming Law Enforcement's Approach to Interrogations

By Perry, Susan | MinnPost.com, May 31, 2016 | Go to article overview

Evidence-Based Research Is Reforming Law Enforcement's Approach to Interrogations


Perry, Susan, MinnPost.com


Wired magazine recently published a long and fascinating article on the latest scientific research on interrogation psychology -- research that was triggered by the war on terror -- and how that research is quietly reforming the way police and other law enforcement officials question suspects.

As reporter Robert Kolker ("Lost Girls") points out, the current style of questioning criminal suspects, which has been in place since the early 1960s (and is familiar to anyone who watches police procedural TV shows), "is a rusty, stalwart invention ... that started out as an enlightened alternative to the bad old ways of policing that preceded it."

Writes Kolker:

Until the mid-1930s, police still widely used the "third degree" - - that is, torture -- to get suspects to talk. Officers across the country hung suspects out of windows, dunked their heads underwater, and hit them. In 1931 a presidential panel known as the Wickersham Commission called attention to the brutality of the third degree. Then, in 1936, the US Supreme Court effectively outlawed the practice with its ruling in Brown v. Mississippi, a case involving three black men who were beaten and whipped until they confessed.

Police closed ranks at first, but they eventually came around to new approaches. ... Crime labs were developing new methods of solving cases -- ballistics, fingerprinting, document examination -- and with them came a new, more psychological approach to interrogation.

A decades-old manual

The book that "set the mold for police interrogations in America," says Kolker, was "Criminal Interrogation and Confessions," first published in 1962 and still in print today. It was written by Fred Inbau, a Northwestern University law professor, and John E. Reid, a former police officer turned polygraphy expert.

The two men "likened the interrogator's task to 'a hunter stalking his game,'" Kolker points out. "An interrogation, they explained, should be designed to persuade a suspect that confessing is the only sensible option; to get confessions, they wrote, police must sweep up suspects in a wave of momentum that they'll find impossible to reverse."

"The manual gave rise to a new archetype: the silver-tongued interrogator -- someone who, through intimidation and seduction, can get anyone to admit to anything," he adds.

False confessions

The problem with the Reid technique (as it's now commonly called) was that despite being imbued with scientific-sounding claims, it has almost no science behind it. Writes Kolker:

Reid and Inbau claimed, for instance, that a well-trained investigator could catch suspects lying with 85 percent accuracy; their manual instructs detectives to conduct an initial, nonaccusatory "behavioral analysis interview," in which they should look for physical tells like fidgeting and broken eye contact. But when German forensic psychologist Gunter Kohnken actually studied the matter in 1987, he found that trained police officers were no better than the average person at detecting lies. Several subsequent studies have cast doubt on the notion that there are any clear-cut behavioral tells. (Truth tellers often fidget more than liars.) In fact, the more confident police officers are about their judgments, the more likely they are to be wrong.

"But the scientific case against police interrogations really began to mount in the early 1990s," says Kolker, "when the first DNA- based exonerations started rolling in."

"According to the Innocence Project, a group dedicated to freeing the wrongfully imprisoned, about a third of the 337 people who've had their convictions overturned by DNA evidence confessed or incriminated themselves falsely," he points out. …

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