True Lies: How to End Abuses of Police Interrogation

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Illustration by Petri Damstén via Flickr

As the nation focuses on police reform, law enforcement agencies are under increasing pressure to weed out recruits who show signs of potential violent or unstable behavior, and to correct the kind of over-aggressive policing that results in the deaths of unarmed civilians.

But they need to spend as much energy and time in changing abusive or coercive interrogation practices that lead to the conviction of innocent individuals and undermine community confidence in the justice system, according to a former Washington, D.C. detective.

“Law enforcement’s response to the consequences of accusatorial interrogations has been far different from their response to inappropriate use-of-force lawsuits,” wrote James L. Trainum in a special issue of the Legal and Criminological Psychology journal, published by the British Psychological Society.

Trainum cited a study showing that approximately $450 million have been awarded by U.S. states to exonerees in false confession cases, not including payouts from civil lawsuits.

But “instead of leading to meaningful modifications to training and practices to prevent future occurrences, the problems uncovered through these lawsuits appear to have gone largely unaddressed,” he wrote.

Trainum was one of ten researchers and former practitioners invited by the journal to contribute assessments of current interrogation practices in the U.S. and Canada, and offer recommendations for improvement.

The essayists overwhelmingly concluded that most police departments in the U.S. ignored the insights and evidence of recent scientific research showing that “accusatorial” forms of interrogation produced flawed results, including false confessions, that are not only liable to be overturned by appeals courts, but serve to fuel hostility and lack of confidence in the rule of law.

“It is highly disconcerting that scientists and practitioners have spent much of their lives studying interrogation practices, but that their research—which is often well-established and accepted by the scientific community—does not appear to be incorporated, as widely as one would expect, into the thinking and decision-making of those that matter (i.e., law enforcement, lawyers, judges),” the journal editors wrote.

The problem starts with the newest policing recruits, who are rarely vetted for communications skills—or the lack of them, according to Todd Barron and Laura Fallon, of the Department of Psychology at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

“In the zest to meet their recruitment targets, are police agencies overlooking the core skills required to be both effective and efficient to the benefit of the police and the public?” Barron and Fallon asked.

“Do police selection processes aim to identify those with an aptitude for good communication or are they more focused on weeding out those with undesirable attributes?”

Good interviewing skills are crucial both to the process of eliciting information about crimes from witnesses and victims, and in the interrogation of suspects, they observed.

“The ability to extract accurate and complete information from suspects is one of the most important and most frequently used skill sets of an investigator, especially when compared to the use of their firearm throughout their career,” noted Trainum.

Most police agencies follow what’s called the “Reid Technique” developed by the firm of John Reid and Associates for interviewing suspects, which uses an aggressive, accusatorial strategy that is believed to throw suspects off guard and get them to admit their crimes.

But taken to its extreme, the technique includes psychological pressure and deception that can result in individuals confessing to crimes they never committed.

“Believing they can divine truth and deception, enabling them to distinguish between perpetrators and innocent suspects, these interrogators commence a guilt-presumptive process by making accusations, refusing to accept denials, and confronting suspects with evidence of their guilt, whether or not such evidence exists,” wrote Saul M. Kassin of the Department of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“In most of the world, police are not permitted to deceive suspects in this way.”

The most notorious modern example was the case of the Central Park Five in New York, when five teenagers confessed to the 1989 rape and beating of a jogger.

But Kassin also cites a case depicted in the 2016 Netflix documentary, Shadow of Truth, in which a Russian émigré suspected of the murder of an Israeli girl was told during an interrogation that the victim’s blood was found on his toolbox and clothing.

The émigré responded it was impossible, but when he asked a cellmate later, in a conversation recorded by jail video, whether police make up evidence, the response was, “This isn’t Russia!”

The cellmate, it turned out, was an undercover detective.

Lorca Mordello, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society in New York, called for police officers to be trained in the less-confrontational PEACE model, now widely used outside the U.S., which focuses on gathering reliable information from the suspect while avoiding coercion and deception.

“Even though I have been doing criminal defense appeals in New York for over 20 years, I can never get used to the way courts almost invariably ignore coercive interrogation tactics,” Mordello wrote.

“In practice, courts seldom find a confession involuntary. Not even when the suspect was sleep-deprived, in pain, intoxicated, mentally disabled or subjected to hours of relentless questioning. Not even when the police used lies and tricks to get it…

“As long as the suspect is given Miranda warnings and a Coke, almost nothing short of waterboarding is enough to render a confession involuntary.”

Steven Kleinman, a retired investigator with the U.S. Air Force, argued that both recruits and professional interrogators can be taught that empathy is a much better way of eliciting information than browbeating a suspect.

“A principle of highly effective interrogators might be ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood,” he wrote, quoting one researcher.

“Operating from an exploratory mindset – an open-minded sense of intellectual exploration and the continuous refinement of mental models – can transform the interrogation process from one of relentless questioning into a search for verifiable truth.”

See also: A Detective’s Worst Foe: Flawed Thinking, The Crime Report, Nov 11, 2019

The journal article containing the essays is available for purchase here.