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Interrogation Via Zoom: Policing in the Age of COVID

This tactic, known as the Reid technique of interviewing, is intended to raise the suspect’s anxiety level, which in turn makes him or her feel vulnerable and reliant on the mercy of the interrogator. While this seems more civilized than past methods, such as simply beating someone until they confess, the coercive nature of the Reid technique can still generate false confessions.

Advocates for criminal justice reform have been pushing for less invasive tactics, yet recent changes to the way many police departments conduct their business has been spurred by another source entirely – the coronavirus pandemic.

The tight confines of an interrogation room are no longer practical at a time when the safety of both suspects and law enforcement is at a premium. Interviews with suspects in several cities have been moved outside, such as in Clearwater, Florida, where interrogations take place at a safe social distance in the department’s parking lot. In Miami, a decision was made in mid­-March to only question suspects inside in extreme cases, such as rapes or murders.

“If it’s something like a single auto theft, and we already have the evidence we need, we’re forgoing a formal interview,” said Assistant Chief Armando Aguilar of the Miami Police Department.

Philadelphia has begun relying on body cameras to record interviews on site rather than risk doing it inside the department. “We’ll probably continue this practice even after the pandemic is over, because we’re getting to question people on the scene when their memory is fresh and before they clam up about coming to talk to us,” said Chief Inspector Frank Vanore.

Cases of a sensitive nature, such as sex crimes, are still conducted in Philadelphia’s law enforcement offices to assure victims and others of confidentiality.

Other cities have turned to videoconferencing sites like Zoom and Skype, so interviews can be done from another room in the precinct or even another location. Not surprisingly, some police have complained that these social distancing measures have hampered their ability to ‘‘break” suspects through intimidation. Others have said masks interfere with seeing facial expressions indicative of lying. In the absence of being able to observe non-verbal cues like fidgeting, police may find it difficult to effectively steer an interview.

Critics have pointed out, on one hand that such concerns are based largely on pseudoscience and, on the other, that the benefits of socially distant interrogations outweigh the negatives for both suspects and cops. Recording each interview, as in Philadelphia, and conducting them outside invites public oversight – a protective measure for all parties when trust between police and their communities has been at issue. A video record also enables courts to determine if coercion was involved. For law enforcement, videoconferencing allows their most skilled interviewers to handle the task even if they are not on the scene. 

Some die-hards may blame the virus for the passing of the Reid technique, but industry insiders believe the days of physical intimidation in police work were numbered. Dave Thompson, vice president of operations at interrogation consultants Wicklander­Zulastifski & Associates, noted, “That style was hopefully already beginning to be eradicated, but what’s happening with COVID is accelerating that.” 


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