Law enforcement personnel use a variety of procedures to elicit confessions from suspects. The Reid Technique uses psychological methods to elicit confessions from those who are believed to be guilty, without the need to resort to physical force to extract a confession. The technique, initially developed in the 1940s and 1950s, was first published in 1942 by Fred Inbau and was called “Lie Detection and Criminal Interrogation.” The technique has evolved over the years into what is now known as the Reid Technique. The nine-step process for effective interrogation has been used in police-training programs nationally. The Reid Technique or similar methods are routinely used by law enforcement in structuring interrogation. Unfortunately, the Reid Technique is sometimes misapplied by law enforcement. Another problem is that the underlying theories behind the Reid Technique have not been empirically validated. The Reid Technique also has the potential to produce false or inaccurate confessions.
Assumptions Underlying the Reid Technique
The Reid Technique makes a distinction between an interview and an interrogation. These two terms are often used interchangeably as if they refer to the same process. An interview is ostensibly conducted when an officer does not have a lot of evidence to implicate the suspect. It is used to get evidence that may or may not establish guilt. An interview is not accusatory and may be conducted relatively early during a police investigation. An interview can also be conducted in a variety of environments (e.g., home, office, back of a police car), not necessarily at a police station. The interview can be free-flowing and relatively unstructured. The investigator should take written notes throughout the entire interview process.
According to the Reid Technique, an interrogation should be used only for suspects whom the police are reasonably certain committed the offense. The tone of the interrogation is accusatory because it is presumed that guilty individuals are not likely to make incriminating statements unless law enforcement is certain of their guilt. The interrogation involves actively persuading the suspect to admit his or her guilt. The interrogation takes place in a controlled environment. The officer does not take notes until the suspect has told the truth about his or her involvement with the crime, and the defendant is fully committed to that position.
The assumption behind interrogation procedures, according to the Reid Technique, is that most criminal suspects are reluctant to confess because they are ashamed of what they have done. Also, they fear the legal consequences associated with a confession. With most interrogation practices, according to the Reid Technique, it is believed that a certain amount of pressure, deception, persuasion, and manipulation is needed for the truth to be revealed. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that all custodial interrogations are, to a certain extent, inherently coercive because of the power and control inherent in law enforcement.
The Reid Technique assumes that guilty individuals experience greater nervousness than innocent individuals when questioned by law enforcement. It also assumes that the anxiety of innocent people diminishes as the interrogation progresses, while the opposite holds true for the guilty party. Both the innocent individual and the guilty individual may display anger directed toward law enforcement during the interrogation. Guilty feigned anger and real innocent anger look almost the same. Yet unlike the anger from the innocent party, it is presumed that the guilty party has difficulty maintaining that anger over time. There is no research to support any of those suppositions.
The Reid Technique proposes three distinctly different channels through which people communicate: the verbal channel (word choice and arrangement of words to send a message), the paralinguistic channel (characteristics of speech falling outside the spoken word), and the nonverbal channel (posture, arm and leg movements, eye contact, and facial expressions). A behavioral analysis approach is recommended by the Reid Technique to help assess behaviors associated with telling the truth and telling lies. Although mental health professionals routinely observe many aspects of both verbal and nonverbal behavior in assessing psychological functioning, these specially trained professionals are not human lie detectors and are unable to tell by a subject’s verbal or nonverbal behavior (such as a defensive-type posture while sitting) whether a particular statement is the truth or a lie. Nevertheless, investigators using the Reid Technique claim to be able to analyze verbal, paralinguistic, and nonverbal behavior to determine whether a suspect is telling the truth. Critics argue that the technique is based on unfounded assumptions.
These assumptions have not been subject to scientific scrutiny and may result in law enforcement personnel making erroneous assumptions regarding a suspect’s guilt, based on how that suspect sits in his or her seat, the tone of voice the suspect uses, and how denials are worded.
The Nine-Step Process
The Reid Technique involves a nine-step process. The first step, direct positive confrontation, involves directly confronting the suspect with a statement that it is known that he or she committed the crime. Often, the police lie and describe nonexistent evidence that points to the suspect as the offender.
The second step, theme development, is the step in which the police present a hypothesis about the reason for which the suspect committed the crime. This theme minimizes the moral implications of the alleged offense or allows a suspect to save face by having a morally acceptable excuse for committing the crime. While the Reid Technique states that in no situation is an officer to state that punishment will be lessened by admitting to guilt, in fact, quite often, the officer states just that. If the suspect becomes emotional, the interrogator displays an understanding and sympathetic demeanor toward the suspect. If the suspect does not become emotional and the interrogator does not detect remorse about the offense, various other techniques are used, such as attempting to catch the suspect in a lie, playing one co-offender against another, or behaving more confrontationally such as by stating that there is no point in denying involvement in the crime because all the evidence points toward guilt.
The third step, handling denials, involves interrupting a suspect’s denials of guilt. The fourth step, overcoming objections, involves rejecting a suspect’s excuses or explanations. Once the guilty suspect feels that objections are not getting him or her anywhere, he or she becomes quiet and shows signs of withdrawal from active participation. When the suspect becomes withdrawn, the interrogator acts quickly so as to not lose the psychological advantage. In the fifth step, procurement and retention of the suspect’s attention, the interrogator reduces physical and psychological space between himself and the suspect to get the suspect’s full attention. This prevents the suspect from emotionally withdrawing or tuning out from the remainder of the interrogation.
The sixth step, handling the suspect’s passive mood, is a continuation of the fifth step. The police continue to get into the theme of the crime, expressing both sympathy and understanding of the suspect and emphasizing the need for the suspect to tell the truth. When encouraging the suspect to tell the truth, the interrogator might emphasize “the sake of everyone concerned,” “the stress on the victim’s family,” or “decency and honor.”
The seventh step, presenting an alternative question, takes place when the interrogator gives two possible alternatives for why the crime was committed. Both alternatives are incriminating but one is presented as face-saving, more acceptable, or more morally blame-less than the other. Although proponents of the Reid
Technique adamantly state that at no time should an officer state that the morally acceptable option will be less severely punished, many suspects believe that the more morally justified explanation will indeed meet with more lenient treatment.
The eighth step, having the suspect orally relate various details of the offense, involves a one-on-one interrogation with no other officers in the room. It is for the purpose of getting the suspect to give a detailed account of the crime that would establish legal guilt. The ninth and final step, converting the oral statement to a written statement, is done as quickly as possible after the eighth step. Sometimes, the confession will be videotaped, audiotaped, or recorded by a stenographer rather than written by the suspect or interrogator.
Use of the Reid Technique with Innocent Suspects
Although Fred Inbau and his coauthors stress that the Reid Technique should not be used unless law enforcement is certain the confession is being extracted from a guilty subject, often, this technique or others like it are used on innocent suspects. The police may erroneously believe that a suspect is guilty because of faulty police work or bad evidence, or because a suspect engages in suspicious behavior during the initial interview. For example, there are many reasons why a suspect may lie about details to the police even if he or she is innocent. The suspect may have information that he would like to remain hidden (e.g., drug use or an extramarital affair). An innocent suspect may appear overly nervous because of past experiences with law enforcement or because of the intrinsically anxiety-provoking situation of being accused of a crime.
Police interrogation tactics and techniques, particularly with highly suggestible and/or compliant suspects, may produce false confessions. Also, the interrogation tactics may produce statements from the suspect that, although incriminating him or her in some aspect of the crime, may also exaggerate the actual involvement or criminality of the offense.
Unfortunately, very few jurisdictions require law enforcement to record all interactions with the suspect—from the first encounter following an offense to the completion of a memorialized confession. Often, there are discrepancies in the accounting of what transpired. The defendant has one version, but the police have a different version.
Expert Testimony about Interrogation Techniques and Confessions
Even if the confession has previously been determined to be admissible, there is case law to support expert testimony about interrogation techniques that heighten the risk of false, retracted, or distorted confessions. This expert testimony can focus on individual characteristics of a defendant such as psychological vulnerabilities (e.g., low intelligence), interrogative suggestibility, and compliance. The expert testimony can also describe the methods used by law enforcement to extract confessions and how such methods may increase or decrease the reliability of the statements obtained. It can also focus on the interaction between defendant characteristics and the interrogation methods employed by law enforcement.
The Reid Technique and similar methods have been deemed legally permissible interrogation procedures. Although law enforcement and proponents of this methodology attest to its effectiveness in producing confessions in guilty suspects, many mental health professionals specializing in this field believe that these methods increase the likelihood of false confessions with certain types of suspects. A confession, or self-incriminating statement to law enforcement, carries great weight with the jury. There is disagreement in the field as to what percentage of defendants actually produces false confessions. In fact, most people realize that no scientific estimates can be presently made. It is currently impossible to accurately assess the number of false confessions or the percentage of confessions that are false. Nevertheless, false confessions do occur and there are individuals who are at a higher risk for producing false confessions when encountering the Reid Technique.
- Gudjonsson, G. (2003). The psychology of interrogations and confessions: A handbook. West Sussex, UK: Wiley.
- Inbau, F., Reid, J., Buckley, J., & Jayne, B. (2001). Criminal interrogations and confessions (4th ed.). Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen.
- Kassin, S., & Gudjonsson, G. (2004). The psychology of confessions: A review of the literature and issues. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5, 31-67.
- Leo, R. A. (1996). Inside the interrogation room. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 86, 266-303.
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