May 24, 2016

THE CLOSER WEPT:

A Severed Head, Two Cops, and the Radical Future of Interrogation (ROBERT KOLKER, 05.24.16, Wired)

The modern style of questioning criminal suspects--the set of techniques practiced fruitlessly by those first detectives in the Medellin case, and familiar to all of us from a thousand police procedurals--is a rusty, stalwart invention that's been around since the days of JFK. It has a proud history: Born during a period of reform, it started out as an enlightened alternative to the bad old ways of policing that preceded it.

Until the mid-1930s, police still widely used the "third degree"--that is, torture--to get suspects to talk. Officers across the country hung suspects out of windows, dunked their heads underwater, and hit them. In 1931 a presidential panel known as the Wickersham Commission called atten­tion to the brutality of the third degree. Then, in 1936, the US Supreme Court effectively outlawed the practice with its ruling in Brown v. Mississippi, a case involving three black men who were beaten and whipped until they confessed.

Police closed ranks at first, but they eventually came around to new approaches. J. Edgar Hoover, for one, was especially keen to rebrand his agents as advanced practitioners of law enforcement science. "Third-degree methods, an ill-trained officer might think, perhaps a severe beating, will force a confession," Hoover said at the time. "But the trained officer, schooled in the latest techniques of crime detection, will think otherwise." Crime labs were developing new methods of solving cases--ballistics, fingerprinting, document examination--and with them came a new, more psychological approach to interrogation.

The most influential nonviolent method of questioning suspects debuted in 1962 with the first edition of Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, by Fred Inbau, a Northwestern University law professor who ran one of the country's first crime labs, and John E. Reid, a former police officer turned polygraphy expert. Now in its fifth printing, the book set the mold for police interrogations in America. Through the 1940s and '50s, Reid had built a reputation as a master interrogator, extracting confessions in over 300 murder cases. He and Inbau likened the interrogator's task to "a hunter stalking his game." An interrogation, they explained, should be designed to persuade a suspect that confessing is the only sensible option; to get confessions, they wrote, police must sweep up suspects in a wave of momentum that they'll find impossible to reverse.

All the major tropes of a traditional police interrogation can be traced back to Reid and Inbau's manual: the claustro­phobic room, the interrogators' outward projection of cer­tainty, the insistence on a theory of the case that assumes the suspect's guilt. (The manual calls this a "theme.") The interrogators bolster that theme with what they charac­terize as incontrovertible evidence, which can include facts drawn from real detective work ("We know you got off work at 5 pm") or details that are completely fabricated ("The polygraph says you did it"). Toward the end, interrogators are encouraged to "minimize" the crime in a consoling sort of way ("He had it coming, didn't he?"). All the while, they cut off all denials until the suspect cracks. Detectives are allowed to use deceit and trickery because, as Inbau and Reid explained, none of these techniques are "apt to induce an innocent person to confess a crime he did not commit."

The manual gave rise to a new archetype: the silver-tongued interrogator--someone who, through intimidation and seduction, can get anyone to admit to anything. No less an authority than the US Supreme Court acknowledged the sway that the method held over suspects; in its 1966 Miranda decision, the court cited the Inbau-Reid training manual as an example of why all suspects should be read their rights.

Over the years, the Reid technique, as it came to be known, became a kind of powerful folk wisdom, internalized by generations of police officers. Even among those who received little formal training, it was passed down from cop to cop. "You would think that at a large organization like the LAPD, a large emphasis would be put on developing interrogation skills for their detectives," says Tim Marcia, reflecting on his own haphazard indoctrination into modern interrogation technique. "To be quite honest, we go to an 80-hour detective school, and probably about four hours is devoted to interrogation."

Earlier in his career, Marcia spent 10 years as one of the original members of the LAPD's cold-case unit. Researching old unsolved cases gave him a flyover view of interrogation tactics through the decades. While styles fluctuated somewhat, the basic outline of the Reid technique remained intact. And the most consistent thing over the years? No matter what detectives did with a suspect in the interro­gation room, they were convinced they were doing it right.

THE TROUBLE WITH modern interrogation technique, as Marcia would learn, is that, despite its scientific pose, it has almost no science to back it up. Reid and Inbau claimed, for instance, that a well-trained investigator could catch suspects lying with 85 percent accuracy; their manual instructs detectives to conduct an initial, nonaccusatory "behavioral analysis interview," in which they should look for physical tells like fidgeting and broken eye contact. But when German forensic psychologist Günter Köhnken actually studied the matter in 1987, he found that trained police officers were no better than the average person at detecting lies. Several subsequent studies have cast doubt on the notion that there are any clear-cut behavioral tells. (Truth tellers often fidget more than liars.) In fact, the more confident police officers are about their judgments, the more likely they are to be wrong.

But the scientific case against police interrogations really began to mount in the early 1990s, when the first DNA-based exonerations started rolling in. According to the Innocence Project, a group dedicated to freeing the wrongfully imprisoned, about a third of the 337 people who've had their convictions overturned by DNA evidence confessed or incriminated themselves falsely. These and other exonera­tions furnished scientists with dozens of known false-confession cases to study, giving rise to a veritable subfield of social psychology and the behavioral sciences. (At least one confession elicited by John Reid himself--in a 1955 murder case--turned out to be inaccurate; the real killer confessed 23 years later.)

Researchers have even broken down these false confession cases into categories. There are "voluntary" false confessions, like the many presumably unstable people who claimed credit for the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in order to get attention. Then there are "compliant," or "coerced," false confessions, in which people are so ground down by an intense interrogation that, out of desperation and naïveté, they think that confessing will be better for them in the long run. The third category, "persuaded," or "internalized," false confessions, may be the most poignant. Here, the interrogator's Reid-style theming is so relentless, the deployment of lies so persuasive, that suspects--often young and impressionable or mentally impaired--end up believing they did it, however fleetingly.

And yet, even in the face of these documented cases, police and prosecutors have resisted admitting that false confessions are even possible. In court, they routinely move to reject expert testimony on the phenomenon by saying it goes against common sense that an innocent person would ever confess to a criminal act. But a wealth of research since the 1990s has shown that false memories are remarkably easy to implant. And in 2015, Julia Shaw, then a psychology PhD candidate in British Columbia, conducted a study that took direct aim at the idea that ordinary, innocent people would never confess to a crime they didn't commit. In fact, she found that people can be made to do it quite reliably.

In just three one-hour sessions, Shaw was able to convince 21 of her 30 college-age subjects that they'd committed a crime when they were around 12 years old--assaulted another child with a weapon, for instance--and had a run-in with the police as a result. She supplied details that were recognizable to the subjects--the location where the assault supposedly happened, who the other child was--drawn from information their parents provided in a questionnaire. Shaw tells me she designed her study to mimic the techniques used in some false-confession cases. "I'm essentially marrying poor interrogation tactics with poor therapeutic tactics," she says. The results were so strong, in fact, that she stopped administering the experiment before she had run through her full sample.

John E. Reid & Associates, a training organization that holds the official copyright on the Reid technique, maintains that problems only arise when cops deviate from the Reid formula. "False confessions are caused by investigators stepping out of bounds," says Joseph Buckley, the organi­zation's president.

While false confessions that send people to prison are the most serious problem with modern police interrogations, they aren't necessarily the most common one. Day to day, these practices may undermine good police work in another way: As a confrontational strategy built for extracting confessions, standard interrogation technique can be an ineffective tool for gathering lots of useful and accurate information. Some suspects end up confessing falsely under the glare, but far more do what Campos-Martinez did: They clam up. They sense all too readily that they're in the presence of "a hunter stalking his game," and they behave accordingly. A number of scholars have called for a wholesale shift from a "confrontational" model of interro­gation to an "investigative" one--one that would redesign interrogations around the best evidence-based approaches to eliciting facts from witnesses and suspects.

Of course, that's easy to say. If police have stuck by their methods, it's partly because, in America at least, they've had nothing truly viable to replace them with. "Up until now, a lot of the work on false confessions has been about social justice," says Christian Meissner, a psychologist at Iowa State University. 1 "What we really lacked in the field was an alternative." Then came the HIG.

In 2010, to make good on a campaign promise that he would end the use of torture in US terror investigations, President Obama announced the formation of the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, a joint effort of the FBI, the CIA, and the Pentagon. In place of the waterboarding and coercion that took place at facilities like Abu Ghraib during the Bush years, the HIG was created to conduct noncoercive interrogations. Much of that work is top secret. HIG-trained interrogators, for instance, are said to have questioned would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The public knows nothing about how those interrogations, or the dozen or so others the HIG is said to have conducted, unfolded. Even the specific training methods the HIG employs--and that it has introduced to investigators in the Air Force, Navy, and elsewhere--have never been divulged.

At the same time, however, the HIG has become one of the most powerful funders of public research on interrogations in America. Scholars have used HIG funding, for instance, to make a careful study of law enforcement models from England and Canada, which both abandoned Inbau-Reid-style interrogation tactics long ago as unethical and unreliable. In recent years, Canadian police have been moving toward a technique called the "cognitive interview," a nonconfrontational method that's meant to get the subject narrating as much as possible--no theming or yes-or-no questions. And for more than a decade, the UK has used a similar method known as PEACE, an acronym that stands for Planning and preparation, Engage and explain, obtain an Account, Closure, and Evaluation. Police in England aren't even permitted to lie to suspects. A HIG-funded metastudy published in 2014 indicates that PEACE is more effective at producing true confessions and protecting against false ones than an accusatory approach.

In all, the HIG has funded some 60 studies in psychology and the behavioral sciences at universities around the world, digging into what works and what doesn't in interrogations. Some have focused on how to "prime" witnesses--that is, how to create environ­ments that put people in an open, talkative frame of mind. They've learned that people tend to divulge more information when sitting in a spacious room with windows (the very opposite of what the old Inbau-Reid model recommends) and that holding a warm beverage can actually create positive impressions of the people around you.

Other researchers have dabbled in lie detection, but in a way that bears little resemblance to Reid's emphasis on polygraph results and telltale fidgeting. HIG research is highly influenced by the work of UK-based researcher Aldert Vrij, who studies the "cognitive load" that lying puts on the brain. "Truth tellers ultimately will be able to give you far more detail that you can go and check," says Steven Kleinman, a veteran military interrogator who has worked with the HIG. "No matter how good the cover story is, it's not going to be as rich as a real-life story." Liars, in other words, have to work much harder to invent and keep track of details. One way researchers have found to bring this strain and effort to the surface is to ask witnesses to tell their stories in reverse chronological order: Liars have a much harder time with it.

But the central finding running through much of HIG's research is this: If you want accurate information, be as non-accusatorial as possible--the HIG term is "rapport-building." This may sound like coddling, but it's a means to an end. The more suspects say, the more that can be checked against the record. The whole posture of the interrogation--or interview, as the HIG prefers to call it--is geared not toward the extraction of a confession but toward the pursuit of information.





Posted by at May 24, 2016 3:51 PM

  

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