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Evidence-based research is reforming law enforcement’s approach to interrogations

Photo by NBC - © 2012 NBCUniversal Media, LLC
Mariska Hargitay and Dann Florek in a 1999 episode of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

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 Günter Köhnken 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. “These and other exonerations furnished scientists with dozens of known false confession cases to study, giving rise to a veritable subfield of social psychology and the behavioral sciences.”

The Reid technique not only sends innocent people to prison, it can also undermine police work by impeding the gathering by the police of useful and accurate information.

For that reason, says Kolker, “a number of scholars have called for a wholesale shift from a ‘confrontational’ model of interrogation to an ‘investigative’ one — one that would redesign interrogations around the best evidence-based approaches to eliciting facts from witnesses and suspects.

Non-coercive interrogations

Enter the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG), a joint effort of the FBI, the CIA and the Pentagon, which was formed by President Barack Obama in 2010.

“In place of the waterboarding and coercion that took place at facilities like Abu Ghraib during the Bush years, the HIG was created to conduct noncoercive interrogations,” writes Kolker.

Over the last half dozen years, HIG has funded more than 60 psychology and behavioral sciences studies at universities around the world. And although those studies may have been initiated to help with counterterrorism efforts, they are now also being used, says Kolker, to “revolutionize police work with behavioral science, the same way law enforcement procedures were altered a generation ago by DNA evidence and, before that, when the third degree was put to rest.”

How is this approach different?

“The central finding running through much of HIG’s research is this: If you want accurate information, be as nonaccusatorial as possible — the HIG term is ‘rapport-building,’ ” Kolker explains. “This may sound like coddling, but it’s a means to an end. The more suspects say, the more that can be checked against the record. The whole posture of the interrogation — or interview, as the HIG prefers to call it — is geared not toward the extraction of a confession but toward the pursuit of information.”

A cultural change

Kolker describes the HIG interrogation approach in much more detail in his article, including how it recently helped detectives in Los Angeles solve a “cold case” murder.

And, yes, there has been plenty of resistance to this new form of interrogation within the law enforcement community.

“Police veterans aren’t exactly eager to be told they’ve been doing their job wrong for 30 years,” says Kolker. “… For some police departments, and for some interrogators, it may be a nonstarter to do anything other than treat a suspect with suspicion.”

“Still, the researchers and academics who’ve worked with the HIG are determined not to lose momentum,” he adds. “They think they have a real shot at changing the culture of policy.”

As one psychologist told Kolker: “Law enforcement is hungry for something new and evidence based. They know there’s an issue with false confessions, and they’re looking for an alternative.”

So is the public. 

FYI: You can read Kolker’s article on Wired’s website. The article was published in partnership with the Marshal Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system.

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