I confess – a guide to police interrogation

gene hunt

I can still remember at school assemblies when the headmaster would ask us who had stolen this or that or who was responsible for some particular misdeed. I always used to feel guilty, even though it had nothing to do with me. This came to the mind the other day when I was reading an article by Douglas Starr in The New Yorker – The Interview: Do police interrogation techniques produce false confessions?

The windowless room, the two way mirror, the good cop/bad cop routine – we are all familiar with these police interrogation tropes from books, TV and films. It can make for great drama, but it has little to do with really goes on in police interrogations. In my opinion the real story is just as interesting. In the article Starr looks at two contrasting interrogation techniques.

The Reid technique is the most commonly practised method of questioning subjects in the USA. It was created by a former Chicago policeman named John Reid in the late 1940s. Its proponents argue that is very useful in extracting information from uncooperative suspects. However it has been widely attacked for eliciting false confessions. The term “Reid Technique” is indeed a registered trademark of the firm John E. Reid and Associates, which offers training courses in their method. Starr signed up for one of their basic training courses in Boston. It lasted three days and cost five hundred and eighty dollars.

One of the basic premises of the technique is that you should be looking for signs of anxiety. There are definite echoes of polygraph testing in the methodology. However, I am rather sceptical about our ability to tell whether someone is lying or not. Aldert Vrij, a professor of psychology at the University of Portsmouth, in England, found that working in the police force does not necessarily improve the ability to detect lies. Indeed, those who said they paid close attention to nonverbal cues actually did the worst. Another experiment by Kassin showed that both students and police officers were better at telling true confessions from false ones when they listened to an audio recording of an interview rather than watch it on video. In the experiment, the police officers performed less well than the students but expressed greater confidence in their ability to tell who was lying. What an unfortunate combination!

The next phase—Interrogation—involves trying to push the suspect to confess.  Lying about the evidence is considered legitimate. If the suspects continue to protest their innocence, you steer the subject toward a confession by downplaying the moral consequences of the crime without mentioning the legal ones. This is known as minimization. No matter how repugnant the crime, you can come up with a rationalization that makes it easier for the suspect to admit it. The standard Reid Technique manual suggests a way an interviewer can minimize rape:

Joe, no woman should be on the street alone at night looking as sexy as she did. Even here today, she’s got on a low-cut dress that makes visible damn near all of her breasts. That’s wrong! It’s too much temptation for any normal man. If she hadn’t gone around dressed like that you wouldn’t be in this room now.

It is true that the Reid technique does not employ violence. It is nothing like what you see on the television or in movies. However, it is a highly manipulative process, which employs tricks and deception. It may not be the best way of finding the truth. The interrogator’s refusal to listen to a suspect’s denials creates feelings of hopelessness, which can only be relieved by the act of confession.

There is an alternative to the Reid technique. Its origin is in a series of scandals involving false confessions that rocked the legal establishment in the 80s. In 1984 the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) was introduced. The act sought to find a balance between the powers of the police in England and Wales and the civil liberties of the public at large. What is relevant to today’s topic is that PACE requires that all interrogations conducted in Great Britain be video-recorded. Videotaping interrogations in Britain has drastically reduced the number of complaints filed against interrogators. It is true that some suspects may be to talk when being recorded, but recorders can be turned off at the suspect’s request. Under PACE interrogators cannot deceive subjects or employ any sort of trickery to elicit information from them. Nor can psychological tricks, such as minimization be used.

They also introduced a new more ethical non-coercive interviewing model known as the PEACE. This is an acronym for Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure, and Evaluate. Despite the touch-feely sound of it all it is used on even the most hardened criminals.

The linguistic content of PEACE is interesting. It is similar to what journalists do, employing open-ended questions to gather information. Confessions are not directly sought; interrogations are now seen as another step in the investigation process. One series that reflects this way of interrogating is the British crime drama Scott and Bailey. The language is in marked contrast with the more confrontational Reid method:

If we were to look to at the CCTV, who would we see in the car?

I’m really struggling with how both phones could be on the train at the same time.

But the differences are not just about form. The Reid model is predicated on the supposed connection between anxiety and lying, PEACE posits that no such link exists. What is true is that lying creates a cognitive load. The more you lie, the more balls you have to keep in the air. By constantly going over the details the suspect will eventually start to contradict himself. It seems to take its inspiration from that classic idiom, give them enough rope and they will hang themselves.

What’s the track record of this technique in terms of confessions? The Reid Company says that they have an 80 percent successful confession rate, but what does that really mean? If someone confessed and was then convicted, we don’t know if it was a genuine confession since confessions seem to trump almost all other evidence. If there is a confession, juries will convict. One alarming statistic comes from the Innocence Project, an organisation that has used DNA evidence to clear convicts who have been victims of miscarriages of justice. Of 311 people freed, 84 were shown to have confessed falsely. What about PEACE? There is apparently a widespread belief amongst British police officers that the number of confessions dropped as a direct effect of the implementation of PACE. On the whole, it seems that there has been no dramatic drop in the number of suspects who confess during interrogations since its introduction. I think the PEACE model is the best way to get at the truth. But, I think I still enjoy watching Gene Hunt beating the crap out of some unfortunate suspect.


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