Can law enforcement interrogation techniques lead to false confessions?
A veteran federal criminal investigator says no.
With Michael Brown and Eric Garner in the news, there are many misconceptions about how law enforcement officers and investigators do their jobs. One myth I hear often is that police interrogation techniques regularly lead to false confessions.
I am employed by one of the Inspectors General (OIG) in the USG intelligence community. As a federal criminal investigator and professional polygraph examiner, I make a habit of keeping up to date about the most current techniques and trends in my profession. To that end, I recently read a scientific research paper titled “Techniques and Controversies in the Interrogation of Suspects: The Artful Practice versus the Scientific Study” by Allison D. Redlich (Policy Research Associates) and Christian Meissner (University of Texas, El Paso).
Redlich and Meissner postulate that current interrogation techniques (i.e., Inbau, Reid, Buckley, etc.) lack scientific credibility and can lead to false admissions of guilt. The authors recommend that the law enforcement community cease using these interrogation techniques because they tend to “coerce,” through ruse and minimization, and because the techniques are based upon presumed “bias” on the part of criminal investigators.
Needless to say, I took umbrage at these statements. First, they assume global bias by my colleagues, and second, they call for the extinction of the best tool in the bag of the LE interviewer.
In the paper, Redlich and Meissner make this assertion:
“It has been said that the interrogator’s perceived ability to detect when suspects are deceitful is the process that leads to perceptions of guilt, and to the interrogation techniques employed thereafter. This process … can lead to the use of these other problematic tactics, such as confronting suspects with guilt and disallowing denials, questioning suspects for long periods, presenting false evidence, and minimizing responsibility. Such techniques were developed absent scientific inquiry or verification that might allow for an assessment of their diagnostic value in extracting true confessions of guilt.”
“By all accounts, contemporary police interrogators utilize ‘psychology’ in their efforts to obtain confessions. However, it is important not to mistake the process of interrogation as a ‘science,’ like psychology. Interrogators are not trained in, nor do they employ, the scientific method (emphasis mine), which generally involves the formulation and testing of hypotheses in support of, or in an attempt to falsify, a general theory.”
Where to begin. Understanding human behavior and using this knowledge for “good” (healing, self-revelation, closure) are the very essence of psychology. Anybody with children will vouch for me on this—one need not be a scientist to apply simple psychological methods.
As for the “science” of psychology, isn’t the very essence of the scientific method the reproducibility of experiments?
I am a believer in the art of interrogation. Notice I said “art,” not science. Polygraph, too, is an art, not a science. The results are never repeatable because human nature is involved in the process. My issue is with psycho-scientists who would judge professional interviewers (who never claimed to be scientists) as “unscientific”—and not only deem their result irrelevant, but also mandate the termination of their profession…because they disagree with it.
I find the psychological method—delving into the human psyche—subjective at best and dangerous in its worst form, yet I would never seek its prohibition.
An End to Interrogations?
What I found particularly charming was the point of the “Artful Practice” piece. Redlich and Meissner call for the end of “unscientific” interrogation. The authors allege:
“The ability to detect when suspects are lying versus telling the truth (or guilty versus innocent) is unreliable. Just as evidence collected via lie detectors (polygraph machines) is now inadmissible in court (author’s note: dependent upon jurisdiction, polygraph-obtained admissions are very much admissible as evidence), we believe it is time for the courts to consider the validity and reliability of evidence collected by human lie detectors. Confessions from suspects who were subjected to interrogation on the basis of nonverbal/behavioral deception detection techniques should be examined comprehensively before being presented to jurors (emphasis mine), who as noted, are generally unable to distinguish between true and false confessions.”
Good grief. So what I am hearing is that jurors cannot distinguish between truth and fiction (their only real task). So who is the “lie detector” here? The judge? I can envision the in Limine interrogatories now:
Judge: “So, Mr. Badguy—did these mean officers coerce you in any way?”
Mr. Badguy: “Umm, yes.”
The conclusion will always be the same. There’s your “scientific method”—the same empirical outcome every single time. Guaranteed.
Let me add one additional point: If a confession following interrogation cannot be trusted, what of eyewitness testimony?
Eyewitness testimony is notoriously sketchy, yet it is still allowed. Should this, too, be eliminated because there are just too many “unscientific” variables? The only conclusion that I am able to draw here is that Redlich and Meissner seem to be petitioning for the elimination of all witness testimony that cannot be affirmatively classified as “expert.” How clever.
I say let the lawyers do their jobs—confront and either corroborate or defeat the credibility of witnesses.
I say let the lawyers do their jobs—confront and either corroborate or defeat the credibility of witnesses. Allow the jury to do their job—make an informed decision based on the believability of said witnesses, expert or not.
Questioning Minors and the Mentally Disabled
As a criminal investigator with many years of experience (and as a parent), I could imagine that an impressionable child might be convinced that they did something they did not do. This is why children should never be interrogated.
Minors should always be interviewed with an impartial observer or parent present using “forensic” questioning techniques applied by trained, objective specialists.
Young minds are suggestible. Moreover, adults with underdeveloped mental capabilities should also only be questioned when absolutely necessary and then with the greatest caution, so as not to coerce.
Minors should always be interviewed with an impartial observer or parent present.
As an aside, the only specific case of “false confession” cited by Redlich and Meissner in this piece involved 14-year-old Michael Crowe (who reportedly was “into writing about maiming and slaughter”) and 15-year-old Joshua Treadway. Both were improperly interrogated by Escondido, California detectives. Crowe nevertheless admitted to stabbing his sister to death and gave police details only the killer would have known.
The accused, Richard Tuite, never admitted to killing 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe. Tuite was found guilty based upon a minute amount of blood evidence discovered on his clothing and the testimony of “expert” witnesses along with other circumstantial evidence. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison in 1998.
At Tuite’s retrial in 2013, experts later testified that Stephanie Crowe’s blood likely had gotten on Tuite’s clothing through cross-contamination during the crime scene analysis (also conducted by experts), and Tuite was acquitted.
The investigator’s interrogation skills are his/her bread and butter. Even if a case is the best ever conducted, it will never be “wrapped up” if the agent can’t get an admission from the target. Take away the confrontational interview, and you remove pretty much all possibility of satisfactorily concluding any investigation.
Certainly, I believe that an interrogator should leave his biases outside of the interview room—his/her only interest should be in getting to ground truth. The interviewer should always remain objective—the investigator’s evidence might be misconstrued or just plain wrong.
I also believe that all subject interviews should be recorded, if only to protect the interrogator from false claims. If the videotaping also results in the firing of inferior, unprofessional interrogators—all the better.
The investigator’s interrogation skills are his/her bread and butter.
But short of torture or unethical methods (such as exceptionally lengthy interrogations where the subject is deprived of sleep, food, drink, facilities and other basic needs, or where individuals seeking attention admit to crimes they did not commit) human beings simply will not admit to committing serious crimes they did not perpetrate. Notions to the contrary, typically perpetuated by trial lawyers and junk psychologists, absolutely defy logic.
Nevertheless, this theory remains the favored strawman argument against interrogation.
Simply put, a rational and lucid adult who has been treated properly will not admit to a crime just because they are under pressure to do so. They will, however, recant their admission after the fact once they realize the jeopardy they have placed themselves in by admitting their involvement.
Let’s be clear—law enforcement interviewing and interrogation techniques (Reid et al.), when properly and ethically employed, work. Claims that an individual with a sound, appropriately functioning mind will confess to a crime they did not commit are, in my experience, the purest form of hogwash, something akin to the belief that making guns illegal will end gun violence.
About the Author:
Blair E. Lacy is a USG Special Agent with over 25 years experience as a police officer (Spartanburg County, SC Deputy Sheriff) and criminal investigator and is a federally certified polygraph examiner of over 12 years experience. He holds a BS in Interdisciplinary Studies (Criminal Justice and Journalism) from the University of South Carolina and a Masters certificate in Forensic Psychophysiology from the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute (DoDPI). Interrogation is an integral part of SA Lacy’s professional routine.