The detective pulled his chair closer to Joe, the mentally ill suspect sitting alongside him in the small, windowless room. Joe kept denying that he had killed his mother, but the detective wasn’t buying it. Looking Joe straight in the eye, he leaned in and said:
“Look, Joe, your mother was a cancer. Think about all of the bad things you told us she did. She hurt people. You should be proud of what you did. Seriously! She was a problem, and you eliminated that problem. That was the right thing to do. It took a hell of a lot of courage. I'm sure other people in the family were fed up with her, too, but they didn't have the balls to do what you did."
Does this sound like a far-fetched thing for a cop to say to a criminal suspect, especially about his own mother?
Well, it isn't. This is an almost-verbatim transcription that I made from the audiotape of the interrogation.
After being involved in dozens of similar cases, the gambit was no longer shocking to me. It comes from the Reid method that is now used almost universally by American police. The idea is to offer the suspect a rationale that minimizes his moral culpability for the offense – while carefully avoiding any minimization of legal responsibility.
Critical awareness growing over flawed Reid technique
The Reid technique, the brainchild of John E. Reid and Associates, is fundamental to modern interrogation techniques. But it’s getting greater scrutiny in recent years thanks to growing awareness of the problem of false confessions. Of the convicted people who have been conclusively cleared by DNA evidence, about one out of four had confessed to the crime – often due to clever ruses designed and promoted by the Reid school. The case of the Central Park Five, featured in an excellent book as well as a powerful new documentary, is one such case.
Another alarming case getting critical attention at the moment is that of Adrian P. Thomas, who was interrogated for 10 hours by police in upstate New York while his infant son lay in the hospital, misdiagnosed with a skull fracture. The detectives pulled out all the stops, lying to him about the evidence, threatening to arrest his wife, promising him leniency, speculating about “repressed” memory, and adding a sense of urgency by saying the doctors needed information from him in order to save his dying son.
Thomas ultimately confessed to a crime that probably never happened at all. Both the doctor who contacted police and the county medical examiner had failed to detect the massive blood and brain infection that likely killed the youngster. Although Mr. Thomas almost immediately recanted his confession, it was too late; the damning videotape was played almost in its entirety at his trial.
Thomas, who is African American, was convicted after the trial judge refused to let defense expert witness Richard Ofshe testify about the psychological tactics that can cause an innocent person to confess.
The case was the subject of a critically acclaimed, jaw-dropping documentary, Scenes of a Crime, which I highly recommend. Just last month, after the release of the film, New York’s highest court overturned Mr. Thomas’s conviction, calling the interrogation procedures “coercive” and the confession “involuntary.” Thomas faces a retrial at which the confession will be excluded, leaving no evidence connecting him to a crime.
New Yorker exploration
The latest critical attention is a lengthy essay in the influential New Yorker magazine. Author Douglas Starr describes his adventure undergoing the Reid training, and presents critical research casting doubts on both the fairness and the accuracy of the method.
The essay, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in the topic, explores the research of leading academics including Saul Kassin, Richard Leo, Aldert Vrij and Melissa Russano. These scholars agree that the Reid method is great at eliciting self-incriminating statements, but not so good at distinguishing true confessions from false ones.
Kassin, a prominent expert and a frequent media critic, believes the Reid Technique is inherently coercive. As Starr explains his position:
“The interrogator's refusal to listen to a suspect's denials creates feelings of hopelessness, which are compounded by the fake file and by lies about the evidence. At this point, short-term thinking takes over. Confession opens something of an escape hatch, so it is only natural that some people choose it.”
Time to move on?
Just as psychologically coercive techniques replaced the physical coercion of the olden days’ “third degree,” even within the U.S. law enforcement community some think that the Reid technique has outlived its time.
In Britain, Canada and some other countries, police have switched to less coercive interviewing procedures, such as PEACE, which stands for Preparation and Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure, Evaluate.
The method is radically different, in that rather than trying to entrap a suspect using falsehoods and psychological ploys, the detective approaches the interview almost like a journalist, asking open-ended questions to get the whole story, and then following up by going back over the story looking for inconsistencies.
Although some U.S. law enforcement leaders are working to develop similar approaches, Kassin told Starr he is skeptical of wholesale change: “The culture of confrontation, he feels, is too embedded in our society.”
I tend to agree. If anything, as in the example at the outset of this post, I am seeing the Reid techniques taken to more and more extreme levels. That's probably the results of courts' tacit encouragement, in refusing to ban deceit and in the watering down of suspects’ Miranda rights until they are a joke.
Sadly, police interrogations these days often look and feel more like cynical game-playing than a process with any integrity. For that, Lady Justice weeps.
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