There was a time when false confessions were thought to be entirely fictional. DNA testing has taught us that they’re more common than we think. It isn’t that people are rushing to confess to crimes they didn’t commit — it’s that police interrogation methods are designed to wear suspects down. I’ve had defense attorneys tell me that innocent people are more likely than guilty people to falsely confess after extended interrogations because innocent people naively assume that the facts will eventually set them free.
But all of that may be about to change.
For more than half a century, [the Reid technique] has been the go-to police interrogation method for squeezing confessions out of suspects. Its tropes are familiar from any cop show: the claustrophobic room, the repeated accusations of guilt, the presentation of evidence — real or invented — and the slow build-up of pressure that makes admitting a crime seem like the easiest way out.
That’s why it jolted the investigative world this week when one of the nation’s largest police consulting firms — one that has trained hundreds of thousands of cops from Chicago to New York and federal agents at almost every major agency — said it is tossing out the Reid technique because of the risk of false confessions.
Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates, a consulting group that says it has worked with a majority of U.S. police departments, said Monday it will stop training detectives in the method it has taught since 1984.
“Confrontation is not an effective way of getting truthful information,” said Shane Sturman, the company’s president and CEO. “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 much less risky.”
Research and a spate of exonerations have shown for years that Reid interrogation tactics and similar methods can lead to false confessions. But the admission by such a prominent player in law enforcement was seismic.
I suspect that recording interrogations had a lot to do with this, too. You’ll commonly hear police say that a suspect who later claims his false confession was false is lying because during the confession, the suspect revealed details that could have been known only to the culprit. But even conscientious police officers have conceded after watching recordings of their own interrogations that it’s possible to feed such details to suspects without knowing they’re doing it.
The big question now is what will replace the Reid technique.
Fun bit of trivia: The Reid technique itself was once considered a positive reform. John Reid introduced it to replace the old method of “eliciting” confessions from suspects — by simply beating it out of them.