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Controversial Police Interrogation Technique That Often Results in False Confessions Abandoned by Influential Training Consultant

by Matt Clarke

In 1931, a commission to investigate Prohibition-era corruption appointed by President Hoover issued the Wickersham Report. The report criticized the so-called Third Degree, which was the standard police interrogation technique of the time and involved beating a suspect until he or she confessed, then lying about the beating in court (though regular observers of today’s criminal justice system know that the Third Degree has not disappeared completely).lthough you may never have heard the term “Reid Technique” of police interrogation, you have likely seen it in action in televised police dramas. Using this technique, police lock suspects into claustrophobic rooms, then bully, cajole, and lie to them until they confess. During some interrogations, police feed the suspect information about the crime known only to the perpetrator and police then use its presence in the confession to “prove” its validity. Critics say the Reid Technique increases the chances of a false confession. Recently, a leading company in the training of law enforcement announced it would no longer teach the Reid Technique, replacing it with non-confrontational methods of interrogation in its training programs.

The Report was popularized in a widely read book that shocked the public. Soon, juries began disbelieving police witnesses and rejecting confessions. A new interrogation technique was needed.

Polygraph expert John E. Reid first introduced his eponymous interrogation technique in the 1940s. He famously obtained confessions in several high-profile cases, including that of Darrel Parker in 1955. A private company, Reid & Associates, was formed to train police in the Reid Technique. The method was advertised as a reliable way of obtaining a confession without physically abusing a suspect.

The goal of the Reid Technique and the Third Degree is the same—overcoming the suspect’s will. Instead of physical beatings, the former utilizes coercive psychological tactics, such as magnifying the suspect’s feelings of helplessness via extended isolation, falsely claiming there is overwhelming evidence against a suspect or that the suspect failed a lie detector test, and minimizing the seriousness of the crime while falsely suggesting that a confession will result in minimal punishment. Both techniques share the same goal and unfortunately oftentimes the same result, i.e., they both generate false confessions given by innocent defendants who will do anything to end the psychological or physical abuse.

Famous false Reid Technique confessors include The Central Park Five, Beatrice Six, Norfolk Four, Jeffrey Desovick, and even Reid’s early claim to fame that helped launch the widespread use of his technique — Darrel Parker, who was exonerated and found factually innocent 50 years after his false confession that was extracted through the use of the Reid Technique.

Reid’s methods became so successful in eliciting confessions (not necessarily true, but confessions nonetheless) that, in the seminal1966 Miranda decision, the U.S. Supreme Court cited it as a reason suspects must be admonished of their right against self-incrimination. For decades, it has been considered the Gold Standard for interrogation since the abandonment of the Third Degree. Perhaps that is why the announcement by Wicklader-Zulawski & Associates, Inc., a highly influential consulting group that has worked with a majority of the nation’s police departments, stating that it would no longer train detectives in the Reid Technique, caused shockwaves throughout the law enforcement community. Wicklader-Zulawski has taught the Reid Technique since 1984, and during that time, it has trained hundreds of thousands of law enforcement personnel on its use. The firm cited the Reid Technique’s high risk of producing false confessions as the reason for abandoning it.

“This is big news in the interrogation world,” said Steven A. Drizin, an expert on police interviews and a law professor at Northwestern University. In a 2004 study, Drizin and Professor Leo Frank identified at least 125 substantiated cases in which false confessions were obtained using the Reid Technique. They are currently working on an update to the list.

“Confrontation is not an effective way of getting truthful information,” according to Wicklader-Zulawski CEO and President Shane Sturman. “This was a big move for us, but it’s a decision that’s been coming for quite some time. More and more of our law enforcement clients have asked us to remove it from their training based on all the academic research showing other interrogation styles to be less risky.” The firm’s split with confrontational interrogation techniques is reflected in its marketing message, which reads: “Goodbye Confrontation, Hello Truth.”

In answering the chorus of criticism, Reid & Associates argues that the technique only leads to false confessions in rare cases when it is abused. But abusing the company’s guidelines seems to be the standard method of using the Reid Technique.

That argument has not satisfied its critics. “At some point, the technique itself has to take responsibility,” said Professor Saul Kassin of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who is an expert on police interviews. “What Wicklader-Zulawski has realized is that once you start down the road of using trickery and deception, the misuses are inherent in that. There are no clear lines of, ‘This is a good amount of trickery, and this isn’t.’”

Several scientifically-grounded interrogation methods have already been developed. These include PEACE, which has been successfully used in England, and HIG, which the CIA created for interrogation of terrorism suspects and the LAPD is using in a pilot program.

Experts are cautiously optimistic about the Wicklander-Zulawski announcement, but wonder how far police interrogation reform will go. “We don’t yet know how much of the old methods they are going to shed. Will they also stop teaching police officers that they can detect liars from truth-tellers based on body language and verbal cues, which study after study shows are unreliable?” asked Drizin. Furthermore, although it is a positive development that Wicklander-Zulawski will no longer teach the Reid Technique, thousands of law enforcement officers who already received training in the technique are still actively interrogating suspects all across the country. Thus, it a virtual certainty that suspects will continue to provide false confessions as a result of the Reid Technique for the foreseeable future.  


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