David A. Harris

is Distinguished Faculty Scholar and Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh. He researches and teaches about police behavior, law enforcement, and national security issues. Author of Good Cops: The Case for Preventive Policing and Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work, Harris offers a new book, Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science.

In this book, Harris looks at issues involving eyewitness memory, false confessions, and other areas of investigation in the hope of convincing the legal and law enforcement community to embrace scientific findings that could improve their methods and results.

Since I teach about interrogations, I was interested in comments that he made about the Reid Technique, the most popular approach to police interrogation over the past several decades. Although some groups are testing other methods, the Reid Technique remains the top contender, despite the fact that it has been implicated in a number of false confessions.

Professor Harris agreed to respond to the following questions:

What was the state of psychological science during the 1950s that might have grounded the principles of the Reid technique?

The state of psychological science was very basic compared to where we are now, but even the science that existed then was really irrelevant to the Reid Technique, because the Reid Technique did not stand on any science. It read like a well-thought-out method with a real basis, but in fact it was nothing more than experience-based assertions.

In other words, this very definite set of instructions for the "right" way to go about an interrogation was not based on anything derived from science, proved through experimentation, and arrived at through analysis of experimental data, the way that we would expect science-based ideas and methods to be. It was just asserted.

I'm hardly the first to notice this, but when you read the Reid manuals from back then, there are no footnotes, no references – nothing of what you'd expect to see if what it was had a basis in real science.

The technique seems to be designed for entrapment and even a bit of brainwashing. Is this perception accurate?

I guess I would put it a little differently, though I do understand why you would see it that way. The Reid technique for interrogation is not a process designed for the discovery of facts and evidence. Rather, it is a multiphase process, to be used when the interrogator has already concluded that the subject is guilty, and therefore simply needs the confession out of the person to confirm the guilt and prove it.

The interrogator determines guilt through a phase of interaction before interrogation, in which the officer ascertains guilt or innocence through asking basic questions and observing behavior. The trouble with this is that there is no basis at all for these "truth-determining" methods; again, no science backs it up. Yet officers are trained that this method – observation of how witnesses respond, look, behave, etc. – can be easily observed and interpreted to ascertain whether or not the answers given are true.

There is, quite simply, nothing to this at all, yet the training gives officers absolute certainty that they can in fact tell truth from lies using these methods, and that once they determine the truth, it's just a matter of getting the confirmation out via interrogation.   

What do you think was the appeal for police departments, such that it was so readily and widely accepted, without question?

Certainly part of the appeal was that there was almost nothing else out there for training in interrogation. In fact, there was little training of any kind for any aspect of police work. It's not so common any more, but I used to run into very senior officers who would tell me that their training had been, "Ok, here's a badge, here's a gun; here's how you wear your uniform. Now go out and ride with Sgt. Dave and do everything he tells you."

So, having some kind of method in which new officers could be "scientifically" trained would be very appealing. The other thing that made it appealing is that it is delivered with real certainty and clarity in the materials: “You can learn to interrogate. How to tell truth from lies, and here's how you do it." There's no sense of ambiguity.

And in that presentation, it credits police with having special insight that ordinary civilians don't have. And they are effectively told that the method is one of the keys to becoming part of that special group.

What would you advise an interrogator today about relying on this method?

I would advise caution and skepticism. The Reid Technique was not based on any kind of data or rigorous analysis; it was backed by no science or anything that one could even charitably describe that way. There is by now lots of writing and commentary about its unproven, flawed assumptions. 

I would say that having a method to learn your craft is appealing, and so much the better when it is well known by others in the field, and has been known for years. But it's actually no big favor when the method is based on dubious assumptions that have, by now, been called into question over and over.

The idea that using the Reid technique improves confidence is rather scary, since this is really an illusion of "rightness." How might we demonstrate in a training session that confidence is not the same as accuracy (if there's even a way)? 

I think I would use a few of the central pieces of research on the basic Reid assumptions – research that has proven those assumptions wrong – and present them simply, without commentary, almost unadorned.

And I would present them in this context: accepting these assumptions can hurt you as a cop. It can make you less effective as a cop. Even with the best of intentions, if you follow this, you may be doing a bad job or getting the wrong results. 

This is the approach I've taken for years in trainings I've done on racial profiling, which (I can tell you for sure) the officers don't want to hear about, and think of as an accusation against them. The approach has to be not about moral wrongs of profiling (IMHO, very important) or the social costs of profiling (IMHO, very real and very important) but "How can YOU be a better, more effective police officer?"

You are reading

Shadow Boxing

Predatory Portals: Need and Trust

Those who seek to harm learn the most direct routes to vulnerability.

Boys Dressed as Girls Who Became Serial Killers

Some notorious murderers recall a strangely similar childhood memory.

Power Assertive Murder

Punitive anger sparks violence in killers like Todd Kohlhepp.