As any self-respecting Law & Order aficionado will attest to, there appears to be a science to getting a ‘perp’ to confess to his crimes. A little steely-eyed gazing, a bit of aggressive banter, mix in a bit of cajoling from the ‘good’ cop and finally the revelation that the perp’s DNA and fingerprints are all over the crime scene and you’ve got yourself a recipe for getting even the most hardened jailbird to sing.
In reality, police interrogators go a lot further than their television counterparts and are trained to psychologically manipulate suspects into confessing, oftentimes even if the suspect is, in fact, innocent of all wrongdoing. Most interrogations rely on exploiting common human weaknesses, such as stress from experiencing tonal whiplash. For example, the ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine that is prevalent in pop culture.
In simpler times, the police resorted to the illegal but acceptable methods of physical abuse to extract a confession. These confessions were obtained through food and water deprivation, sleep deprivation, long isolation, beatings with rubber hoses and other methods that don’t leave a mark, and were all admissible in court provided the suspect signed a waiver stating that the confession was voluntary (more often than not, this waiver was signed under duress as well). It wasn’t until the 1960s, when a crackdown on police brutality started picking up steam, that police forces across the globe shifted to more psychological means.
After adopting fairly basic principles like the ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine, in which one detective acts in an aggressive and frightening manner while the other pretends to be more reasonable and accommodating to coax out a confession, and ‘maximization’, where the consequences of a conviction are exaggerated in an attempt to scare the suspect into confessing, a polygraph analyst by the name of John Reid designed a nine-step manipulation technique that became very popular with law enforcement in the United States.
The first step of the Reid Technique begins before the investigators have even said a word. Investigation rooms are designed to maximize a suspect’s discomfort and sense of powerlessness from the moment he steps foot into the room. The recommended setup is a stark, soundproofed room with 2 chairs for the detectives and 1 for the suspect and a desk. This layout heightens the sense of exposure and isolation, which in theory is conducive to getting suspects to ‘crack.’
Additional touches to this setup include seating the suspect in an uncomfortable chair, out of reach of light switches and thermostat controls, to increase the suspect’s discomfort and sense of dependence on the interrogator. The classic one-way mirror is also a means to make the suspect anxious, and also allow other detectives to support the interrogator by figuring out which techniques are working, and which aren’t as effective.
The interrogation will begin with the detective conducting an initial interview in an attempt to build a rapport and also build a baseline by which to measure a suspect’s truthfulness. This is usually done by asking a series of random questions that are unrelated to the crime, and observing the suspect’s responses and eye activity. Eyes moving to the right is associated with memory (recall or remembering) whereas creative thinking is shown by eyes moving upwards or to the left.
Once this baseline has been established, the interrogation can begin in earnest. The investigator will begin by outlining the facts of the case and informing the suspect of evidence against him. This evidence can be real or made up (there are very few instances where a police detective is not permitted to lie through his or her teeth for the sake of a confession – the logic behind this is that an innocent person would never confess to a crime that they didn’t commit, but unfortunately the impact of the psychological manipulation a suspect goes through more often than not leads to false confessions.) While confronting the suspect, the investigator will use various tactics such as invading the suspect’s private space, pacing around the room or browbeating the suspect in an attempt to increase the pressure. Fidgeting, licking lips and running his hand through his hair are taken as signs that the suspect is lying.
Once the investigator has established in his or her mind that the suspect is guilty, he or she will then begin to create a story about why the crime was committed. During this part of the interrogation, all attempts to deny the charges, or object to the story are overruled until the suspect begins to show signs of surrendering – while the investigator takes this as a sure sign of guilt, more often than not, the suspect is simply giving in to the psychological stress being placed on him and just wants the ordeal to end.
The final stage of the interrogation is all about getting the confession admitted at trial. The interrogator will have the suspect write out his confession or state it on videotape. The suspect is usually willing to do anything at this point to escape the interrogation. The suspect confirms that his confession is voluntary, not coerced, and signs the statement in front of witnesses.
It should be noted that if the suspect does manage to invoke his right to remain silent or to have a lawyer present, the interrogation must stop immediately. That’s why investigators work so hard to cut off the suspect’s attempts to speak during the process – if he invokes his rights, the interrogation is over.
While steps are being taken to phase out the use of the Reid technique in favor of something less traumatizing such at the PEACE model due to the number of false confessions that have needed overturning in recent years, many within the law-enforcement community maintain that the problem of false confessions is not as big as critics suggest. Still, most of us see one false confession that leads to conviction as one too many. Let us know what your stance is in the comments below!