Lying to Get the Truth: How Police Induce False Confessions

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Still from 'Police Squad' by Becky via Flickr

Police-induced false confessions are among the leading causes of wrongful convictions in the United States, a webinar was told Tuesday.

The use of deception during an interrogation is not illegal in the U.S. as a result of Supreme Court rulings, but it has helped to contribute to a broken system, speakers told a panel organized by the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.

“Everything’s wrong with lying,” said Matt Jones, the Director and Lead Instructor for Evocavi, which provides investigative interviewing training to officers .

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Matt Jones

“It completely ruins the integrity of [an] investigation. When we start to lie about evidence, it really detracts from our credibility and, once our credibility is shot, it’s extremely challenging to repair that moving forward and that’s why we want to take lying completely out of it.”

“The only person who truly wins is the guilty person who’s not in the room,” Jones said.

Other speakers traced the problem to poor research and poor training.

Traditionally in the U.S., interview or interrogation training course were simply that you’d go to a course for two days — then all of a sudden you’re blessed to go conduct interrogations for 30 years,” David Thompson, the President of Wicklander-Zulawski, a training firm that presents seminars and hosts webinars for investigative interview training.

Rebecca Brown, Policy Director for the Innocence Project, said the practice has grim real-world consequences.

More than two-thirds of the DNA-cleared homicide cases documented by the Innocence Project were caused by false confessions, Brown said, adding that it’s up to advocates and police departments alike to work together to institute change.

Andy Giffiths, managing director for iKat Consulting in the United Kingdom, said interviewing suspects should be considered only one element of a full investigation, not the determining factor.

“Interviewing is not a silver bullet,” Griffiths said.

Dangers of Deception

Thompson noted that an innocent person, hearing a police officer — someone they’re meant to trust and have faith in — share that they have incriminating evidence will make him or her confess to something they haven’t done, believing that justice will prevail and that their lawyer or the use of DNA will help to “figure it out later.”

Too often, they “end up getting caught in their false confession,” and are imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit.

Thompson observed that the lack of transparency about how a “confession” is exrtracred is another problem.  Juries should be able to view interrogation videos, Thompson said,

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Rebecca Brown

Recording interrogations must move “beyond good practice—it has to be a law,” added Brown, noting that currently more than half the states already demand it, including Washington D.C., and local law enforcement around the country have voluntarily started to record.

Recording all interactions from beginning to end help protect everyone involved, Brown added.

“Every place where this has been implemented, law enforcement has come back and said, ‘You know this is good, this helped us.’”

Griffiths said policymakers and senior police management needed to play a more proactive role.

“The culture within the leadership is just as important as the training,”  Griffith said.

The full video of the panel will be posted to the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School YouTube page, accessible here. 

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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