The popularity of the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer has many people asking questions about police procedure and tactics.
No spoilers here, but the series calls into question many things, and one of them is the Reid Interrogation Technique. (wiki)
The case documented in the show isn’t the first time I’ve heard people raise concerns about how the Reid technique can lead to false confessions.
One of Avery’s lawyers states something to the effect of “The Reid Technique is designed to illicit confessions, not the facts.”
I decided to do some digging, and what I found is disturbing. The post I’m going to reference is extremely well written, and breaks down the technique in a clear fashion.
You should keep in mind that this post is clearly pro-Reid, and that I’m not using any other source to show the flaws that I would think would be blindly obvious.
If you want to read it beforehand, here is a link.
Before I begin my breakdown of the actual technique, I want to talk about the statement that The Reid Institute released in response to criticism of their vaunted (and presumably profitable) technique.
“it’s not the technique that causes false or coerced confessions, but police detectives who apply improper interrogation procedures.”
I’d like to point out that those police detectives improperly applying interrogation procedures are still sending innocent people to prison, and as a result end up ruining innocent lives!
The problem with this is that while the police believe they are protecting the community, in addition to the sending the wrong people to jail, they are in fact leaving their communities at risk because the actual guilty person is still running around.
Police who operate in this manner….by determining guilt without evidence, or worse, evidence to the contrary, and doing everything they can to secure that conviction are actually a bigger menace to society than the worst criminals.
I say that because I wonder how many people have been harmed, and by that I mean robbed, raped and/or murdered, by someone who would’ve been caught if the police hadn’t been hell bent on convicting someone else for their earlier crimes?
To be crystal clear, I’m not saying that all police do this, or even most police.
What I’m saying is that every police officer is human, and as a human being can make mistakes.
Its why we, as citizens, have protections under the law. Its not to make the lives of police harder, or to make the lives of criminal easier.
Its to protect those of us caught in the middle.
Now, onto why the Reid Technique should be scrapped.
In the Reid Technique, interrogation is an accusatory process where the interrogator opens by telling the suspect that there’s no doubt about their guilt. The interrogator delivers a monologue rather than a question and answer format and the composure is understanding, patient, and non-demeaning. The goal is making the suspect progressively more and more comfortable with acknowledging the truth about what they’ve done. This is accomplished by the interrogator first imagining and then offering the subject various psychological constructs as justification for their behavior.
The author of the blog, in a single paragraph does a terrific job explaining why you should always exercise your right to not to talk to police, and always, always, always call a lawyer.
If I was being pressed to confess by police who early on told me there was no doubt about my guilt I would ask why, in that case, was a confession necessary.
And I would point out to myself that if they need a confession, then there is indeed doubt about my guilt.
Here’s a restatement of the second highlighted sentence.
The interrogator makes stuff up and then wears down the suspect who then in a fit of exhaustion and frustration agrees with any bullshit they have to in order to end the agony.
If you watch the documentary you’ll see examples of this.
The physical layout of an interrogation room is designed to maximize a suspect’s discomfort and sense of powerlessness from the moment they step inside. The classic interrogation manual Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, which was co-written by John Reid, recommends a small, soundproof room with only two or three chairs, a desk, and nothing on the walls. This creates a sense of exposure, unfamiliarity, and isolation. It heightens the suspect’s “get me out of here” sensation throughout the interrogation.
So, step 1 is to make the suspect uncomfortable and increasing their stress level.
Its very important that you keep that in mind!
When the suspect is remembering something, their eyes often move to the right. This is an outward manifestation of their brain activating the memory center. When they’re thinking about something, the eyes will move upward or to the left, reflecting activation of the cognitive center.
For example, if the interrogator asks the suspect where they were the night of the crime and they answer truthfully, they’ll honestly be remembering so their eyes will move to the right. If they’re concocting an alibi, they’re thinking, so the eyes will go up or to the left. If the interrogator determines that the suspect’s reactions indicate deception and all other evidence points to guilt, then a structured interrogation of the suspect begins.
If the suspect starts fidgeting, licking lips, and/or grooming themself (running his hand through their hair, for instance), the interrogator notes these as deception indicators confirming their on the right track.
While I’m sure that the manual goes into far more detail than this, the fact is that different people have different tells. The tells as described above don’t necessarily indicate that a person is lying, only that the question causes some degree of stress.
Also, deception isn’t necessarily a sign of guilt! It makes me sad that I even have to point that out.
Let me give you an example:
Interrogator: So you were out buying tube socks, but it took you longer than expected because you couldn’t find the right colour?
Suspect: Yes, that’s right. (eyes go up and to the left)
Interrogator seeing the eye movement: Ah hah! He’s lying, just like the manual said! This is definitely the guy who tore that tag off the mattress!
Suspect thinking: If anyone finds out I was banging my wife’s sister’s brother I’m done for!
Let me connect the dots here for you:
Step 1: Place the suspect in an uncomfortable situation and do your best to increase that level of stress
Step 2: Completely ignore the fact that most people find being interrogated by police stressful, and that stress can be exponentially increased by accusing them of a crime, and by repeatedly insisting that they are lying.
Step 3: Once step 2 has been accomplished, proceed to use any sign of stress, agitation, or discomfort as a sign that you have the guilty bastard in front of you and there is further need of bothering with any sort of investigation.
If you’re not convinced at this point that the Reid Technique, and any technique that games the suspect into a confession should be scrapped.
Using physical signs of stress, or agitation as a sign of deception is going to cause problems.
The point to take away from this is that humans are fallible. Even confessions should be taken with a grain of salt.
People on juries need to understand how these false confessions can happen. But how many people convicted of a crime can afford to raise that kind of defense?
Our justice system has some very fundamental flaws in it.
I hope the popularity of Making a Murderer shines a light on that.