I have written before about police interrogation techniques. One good example was this post about the Melissa Calusinski interrogation from March, 2012.
This week’s New Yorker has a piece written by Douglas Starr about police interrogation methods. The story is behind a subscription paywall, so let me give you a summary:
For the last 60 years, most police departments in the United States have used an interrogation method developed by a former Chicago cop named John Reid. The “Reid Method” is described something like this: first the officer interviews a suspect and looks for indicators (emphasizing non-verbal clues like failing to maintain eye contact or jitteriness) indicating that the person is lying. Once the officer “determines” (i.e. believes) that the suspect is likely guilty, the officer is to briefly leave the room, then return with a file folder and declare that the investigation has been completed and that it shows that “you are responsible. So lets not waste your time or mine and lets work this out” by getting a written confession. The goal at this point is to get a confession, and the officer is free to lie or mislead to get it. If the suspect maintains his innocence, the officer is to refute it. The officer is taught to minimize moral and legal consequences, and feign empathy with the suspect, by saying things like “I know it is easy to lose your temper. You didn’t want to hurt her, I’m sure.”
The Reid method has been effective in getting convictions and closing cases. Starr’s article questions whether it is effective in getting accurate confessions. He has examples of innocent people who confessed to horrible crimes, because the technique is so effective in getting people to say what the police want them to.
The article shows how these methods were developed without proper scientific study, based upon outdated psychological notions. Many people (incorrectly) agree to a false confession due to duress, thinking that the legal process will later clear things up. Except that the confession usually seals their fate, even when there isn’t corroborating physical evidence.
In the article, Starr talks about a new interrogation method, developed in Great Britain, after their own series of wrongful convictions based upon false confessions. This method has not taken hold in the United States, where the Reid method remains standard operating procedure.
Starr was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, and the interviews has some additional details that were not in the article (and vice versa, so you should read both the article and listen to the podcast.
This article and podcast are highly recommended for anyone in the criminal justice and legal field.