The Reid Technique Bites Back. You Decide.

Posted: May 1, 2013 in False Confessions
Tags: , , , , ,

In my previous post, I included a link to Psychology Today’s Shadow Boxing blog, which carried a brief interview in which I was critical of the Reid Technique, the most commonly used technique for interrogation taught in American police training.  This prompted an email to me from Joseph Buckley, the President of John T. Reid and Associates, Inc., in which he defended the Reid Technique.  I advised Mr. Buckley that I could not include his entire missive, but would be glad to include some of it.  He said, in part:

False confessions are not caused by the application of the Reid Technique, they are usually caused by interrogators engaging in improper behavior that is outside of the parameters of the Reid Technique – using improper interrogation procedures – engaging in behavior that the courts have ruled to be objectionable, such as threatening inevitable consequences; making a promise of leniency in return for the confession; denying a subject their rights; conducting an excessively long interrogation; etc.

Mr. Harris suggested that the goal of the Reid Technique is to get a confession – that is not correct; it is to learn the truth.

On page 4 of our training manual and page 5 of Criminal Interrogation and Confessions (5th ed, 2011) we state that the objective of an interrogation is to elicit the truth from a subject, not a confession.

In a subsequent email, Mr. Buckley suggested this link to his web page,  particularly the entry for March 11, 2012.

For my part, I stand by what I told Shadow Boxing, and I stand by everything I said about the Reid Technique in my book, Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science.

For starters, I did say that the goal of the Reid Technique is to get a confession.  Mr. Buckley says that isn’t true.  What he doesn’t say is that until 2011’s fifth edition — through all of the previous editions — what the book said was “an interrogation is conducted only when the investigator is reasonably certain of the suspect’s guilt” (or words to that effect). This statement was changed after many commentators quoted it as perfectly descriptive of the Reid Technique’s reliance on an underlying assumption of guilt for all interrogations.  But even after changing the statement, the presumption of guilt underlying the whole process did not change.

But to me, what this comes down to is which side, Mr. Buckley or his many critics, have the science behind them.  On this dimension, it’s not a close call.  Rather than pull all of this out here, take a look at an excellent article by Keith Findley and Michael Scott, “The Multiple Dimensions of Tunnel Vision in Criminal Cases.”  (The link is to the abstract; you can then download the article for free.) Go right to page 333–340, where the authors lay out the case against the Reid Technique and (unlike Reid’s own materials) support their arguments with a vast amount of research literature.  Here’s a small slice (with footnotes omitted):

[T]he process of assessing an interview is likely to produce misjudgments about the suspect’s veracity and guilt. Police are trained to look for signs of deceit in the interview process to help them determine whether to shift from an interview to an interrogation. Police also use their interpretations of guilty responses to help them shape the remainder of their interrogation, and the content of their testimony at trial. Yet, considerable research indicates that people are poor intuitive judges of truth and deception.  In clinical studies, people consistently perform at only slightly better than chance levels (with typical accuracy rates of about 45 to 60 percent, when chance is 50 percent) at distinguishing lies from truth…Indeed, most studies indicate that trained detectives and others with relevant on-the-job experience “perform only slightly better than chance, if at all,” and do not perform more reliably than untrained individuals…Additionally, the signs that police officers are trained to believe indicate lies are not empirically related to lie detection…Research confirms that most police officers rely on such indicators.  But research also convincingly shows that such cues are not indicative of fabrication, and can actually reduce accuracy.

Read and evaluate.  You decide.

  1. […] in a short blog post, but it is worth reading. I will say, however, that the Reid Technique is still widely used by law enforcement today. This is true despite widespread criticism and clear evidence […]

  2. […] you scroll down in this post to the comment section, you can read why John Cencich defends the Reid Technique and impresses on […]

  3. Dana Rodden says:

    The Reid Technique is founded on the psychological third degree. It has been constantly driving in reverse since the 1940’s. I am not surprised they are ‘modifying’ their model again. The courts have been challenging their methods for 60+ years. Turn the bus around and implement new witness based approaches.
    The courts have trying to reign in these methods for too many years. Fortunately audio-visual has brought these methods out of the closet and some judges have called for end to the Reid approach. Since 86% of police interviews are with witnesses, victims, and informants its time to learn effective witness-based methods of interviewing. And the research clearly shows PEACE, and Conversation Management work far better with suspects than Reid anyway.
    Its a no brainer.
    Why use methods that have so much fallout.
    All citizens have the right to be treated fairly and respectfully regardless of your suspicions. And if you so certain they did it then get the evidence and use the drip-feed or grimace methods.

  4. Brian Cutler says:

    Pointing out that the Reid Technique (and related interrogation procedures) sometimes leads to false confessions does not necessary disparage the Reid Technique. The Reid Technique appears to be very effective for eliciting confessions from guilty people, which means getting at the truth. But all techniques have error rates. Surely one cannot defend the assertion that the Reid Technique has an error rate of zero. And, as argued earlier, less skilled investigators probably make more errors than more skilled investigators, but errors are errors and cannot be ignored. The social influence processes underlying the Reid Technique are powerful, which is why they lead to confessions from guilty people. But when the same social influence processes are applied to innocent people — even if these occasions are rare — false confessions may result. One does not have to conclude from this analysis that the Reid Technique is flawed but rather that the technique, like any other technique, sometimes leads to errors. Those errors include (but are not limited to) false confessions.

  5. James Dowling says:

    As a retired police detective who has experience in interviewing or interrogating literally thousands of subjects, I feel compelled to comment on this issue. I agree with Mr. Buckley & others who have stated that interviews & interrogations must be conducted by skilled & experienced investigators “with integrity.” Just like any tool in the investigator’s resources, if it is misused or applied incorrectly, it will result in faulty conclusions. In addition to high integrity, any good investigator must be completely objective. Interviews & interrogations are just part of the big picture of conducting a complete and competent investigation. Without the Reid technique or some of the other proven enhanced questioning techniques, investigators would be severely limited in their skills to uncover the truth. I have never known a seasoned police detective with integrity to walk into an interview/interrogation assuming the subject is guilty, absent some other strongly suggestive evidence. If that were common practice, I am sure we would see a much lower conviction rate of those charged with violent crimes. Remember, no one is ever convicted on just a “confession” by itself. There has to be some corroborating evidence other than a person’s confession. Otherwise, the Kennedy assassination would have been solved long ago. James C. Dowling, CPP, M.A. retired law enforcement (33 years)

    • Mr. Dowling: Two thoughts in reply.
      First, let me correct something. You state, “There has to be some corroborating evidence other than a person’s confession.” Actually, in most American jurisdictions, there is no such requirement, and people are convicted with just a confession. Sometimes, whatever additional evidence there may be is very thin, and the confession is for all practical purposes the only thing that gets the conviction.
      Second, I want to make clear that, for me, this is not an issue about the integrity of police officers. I believe the great majority of police officers to be persons of high integrity. They have no interest in getting the “wrong guy,” and certainly don’t set out to do so. But even persons of the highest integrity can end up with the wrong result when the tactics they use do not actually do what they purport to do. That’s the issue with the Reid Technique. It all rests on the ability of the officer, in the interview (before interrogation), to make a determination of whether the suspect is telling the truth. And, to be blunt, the existing research on the RT and how it teaches officers to tell truth from deception demonstrates that it has no empirical support. This is not to say that officers can’t learn to tell truth from deception, or that other tactics (such as methods in use in the UK) cannot equip officers to do a better than average job at this. But I have seen nothing that tells me that the RT improves officers’ ability to do that.

      • James Dowling says:

        Hi David: This reply is in response to your comment on Linked In about 25% of the Innocence Project exonerations coming from false statements of guilt or false confessions:

        Fair enough David. One in four involved false statements of guilt or false confessions. I think we would all be hard pressed to prove that those false statements or false confessions were directly the result of an investigator using the Reid Technique. My sense of things is that it was just bad police work – especially when you consider such factors as “dry labbing” and flawed witness identification. This is not a perfect world and any experiential training that law enforcement can avail themselves of is certainly more helpful that just trying to “wing it” on an interview or interrogation. As far as any jurisdiction anywhere in the U.S. that would even attempt to convict someone on a “confession only” case, they need to go back to remedial law school if there is such a thing. I agree that there really needs to be better science involved with law enforcement & jurisprudence. I am sure it will continually evolve into something that is much more fair for those accused of any crime in this country. As many have said “US justice ain’t perfect, but it is better than most.”

        Best regards, James C. Dowling, CPP, M.A.

  6. In any discussion it is important to have correct facts. As one example, Mr. Harris suggests that it was not until our 5th edition of the book, published in 2011, that we made the statement that the goal of an interrogation was to learn the truth. In fact, we made that same statement in in our 4th edition, published in 2001, on page 8, and have always taught that principle at our training seminars.

    • Mr. Buckley: While your fourth edition does state on p. 8 that the goal of an interrogation is to learn the truth, this statement by itself is misleading — both as stated here, and in the book.
      1) The statement about learning the truth comes ONLY AFTER explaining that the first stage of the process, the interview, is designed to determine whether or not the suspect is telling the truth. See pp. 5–7. Thus by the time the officer comes to the interrogation, the decision on truth or deception has already been made. Thus only one outcome — a confession of guilt — will square up with what the officer is geared to expect.
      2) In an interrogation, officers using the Reid Technique are told that “Deceptive suspects” — as determined in the earlier interview stage — “are not likely to offer admissions against self-interest unless they are convinced that the investigator is certain of their guilt.” Officers must therefore use a definite, “accusatory statement, such as, “Joe, there is absolutely no doubt…” (p. 7) Officers are instructed that any less certain statement will cause the suspect to deny involvement. Research has shown that such definite statements are one of the major ways that sine innocent parties are moved toward false confession.
      3) If none of this were enough to explain the real purpose of interrogation using the Reid Technique, the “learn the truth” statement is followed by this statement, on the same page: “An interrogation is conducted only when the investigator is reasonably certain of the suspect’s guilt.” So, we’re told that the purpose is to learn the truth; but we would only be interrogating if we are already reasonably certain of guilt.

  7. Thomas W. Allen says:

    I’ve taken the Reid course, and I think Dr. Harris’s finding fault with the Reid approach is a little unfair. There’s an interview portion of the Reid techinique that precedes the interrogation portion. Ultimately the police are trying to solve a case, identify a suspect, and gather evidence to support their proposition that the suspect has committed the acts they are accusing the suspect of. The suggestion that people are poor judges of truth and deception is particularly troublesome for anyone outside of the ivory towers of academia. On a daily basis, we have to judge whether a person is telling us the truth or lying to us just to function. If you start with the premise that people are fundamentally incapable of determining what’s true and what’s false– you end up chasing your tail trying to figure out whether the professor was lying to us when he said that people are unable to tell what’s true and what’s false.

    • Mr. Allen: You turn this idea back on me in an amusing way. But the point is not whether I can tell whether a suspect is lying or not, or whether a typical civilian can, or even whether a police officer can. The question is whether the Reid Technique (RT) gives those trained in any advantage in being able to discern truth from lies. The only evidence — not beliefs, evidence — out there that has tested the RT shows no significant gain in being able to tell truth from falsehood by virtue of the RT’s training. This does NOT mean that no police police officer can become skilled at telling the difference between truth and lies; many do. But the evidence simply does not support the idea that it is the RT that helps them do this. As for the “interview portion” of the RT, that is when the officer is supposed to determine (before interrogation) whether the subject is truthful, But there is no evidence to back up the idea that techniques suggested there — observing “the suspect’s behavioral responses to interview questions” such as “posture, eye contact, facial expression, and word choice, as well as response delivery” (I’m quoting from the fourth edition, p. 6) give the interviewer any insight into truthfulness or lying. Without the purported ability to tell truth from lies by using the RT, there is no basis to the rest of it.

      Let me be clear: there are ways that police officers can often (not always, perhaps, but often) tell truth from lies. But there’s no evidence to suggest that the RT gives that ability to them.

      • susan freiman says:

        What does give police officers, or anyone, the ability to distinguish truth from a lie, other than corroborating documents?

        • James Dowling says:

          Unfortunately Ms. Freiman, documents have been known to lie also (as in forged, doctored or altered). My experience is that there is no “one” foolproof way to know if someone is being truthful or not. It is the totality of evidence & circumstances, which may come in many forms, which tends to point to honesty or possible deception. Forensic evidence, using scientifically approved analysis, is a huge piece of the “truth” picture. That, coupled with good old fashioned police work in reconstructing a crime scenario, are very good starts at solving a crime.

  8. Mr. Reid may assert that the purpose of the interrogation is the truth, but the title of the manual tells the truth about its purpose: “Criminal Interrogation and Confessions (5th ed, 2011)”

  9. susan freiman says:

    Excellent. Thank you. I work for refugees seeking asylum, and the bias displayed by immigration officials, coupled with the courts’ reliance on their “expertise,” leads to distortions which impair the search for justice.

  10. Erik Mansoor says:

    I’m glad I came across this article.

    I recently applied for a position for which certification in either The Reid Technique or Wicklander-Zuwlaski is desirable but not necessarily required.

    Can anyone here tell me the difference between the two courses?

  11. Erik Mansoor says:

    I’m glad I came across this article. I recently applied for a position for which certification in either the Reid Technique OR Wicklander-Zulawski is desirable but not necessarily required.

    I have neither. Can anyone tell me the difference?

    • Jay Martin says:

      Eric, the two techniques are based on similar methods, but different approaches. If you are working in a private sector capacity, then I would recommend W-Z. If looking for work in public sector law enforcement, then the RT is more common. Both are effective and specialized training is a must if you intend on doing interviews/interrogations.

  12. John R. Cencich. J.S.D. says:

    Hello David,

    I have found that the Reid Technique works brilliantly when used correctly and by an investigator with both experience and integrity. In such cases, there is virtually no chance of a false confession, and if one somehow did result, the investigator would recognize it for what it was and immediately reject it. After all, experienced investigators with integrity do not want false confessions or wrongful convictions any more than anyone else. In my view, Mr. Buckley is 100% correct in that it is the improper behavior of the investigator that may lead to a false confession. The technique itself is designed to elicit the truth. My statements may sound somewhat bold to those who have been indoctrinated otherwise, but I would be happy to discuss further the finer points of my position.

    John R. Cencich, J.S.D.

    • John: I agree strongly that police officers do not want to convict the wrong people, do not want false confessions, and I believe that the great majority of them are persons of the highest integrity. Yes, improper behavior of the investigator may lead to a false confession. But the real issue is whether the Reid Technique can do what it purports to do: train officers to be able to distinguish between truth and deception. At present there is no evidence that it can do this, and there is evidence that the “behavioral responses” that the Reid trainee is instructed to observe (see my reply to Mr. Allen, above) do not give any basis for discerning the truth of the statements made by suspects. Officers can learn to be good judges of truth — better than average people can — but there simply isn’t any reason to think that Reid Technique training helps them do this.

      • John R. Cencich. J.S.D. says:

        Hello again, David:

        Let me first say that you’ve done a great job provoking debate. That’s a good thing! So please allow me to add this: As someone who has used the RT for well over 20 years in hundreds if not thousands of cases, the ultimate purpose of the technique is to get to the truth. The RT is about getting a confession from someone who committed the crime or determining that the suspect did not. The RT book does include instruction on ways to assess whether someone is deceptive, but those are additional tools that may be used to assist an investigator at getting to the truth. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. Personally I don’t use them. I prefer to concentrate on the RT itself, which is about methods of questioning that are designed to elicit incriminating responses from individuals who committed the crime, and which works. Assuming it is done lawfully, that’s what we all want, correct? And the RT goes so far as to teach how to identify individuals who confess to crimes they didn’t commit, however rare of an occurrence. Once again, if done properly by an officer with true experience and absolute integrity, only valid confessions or exonerations will be produced. Who can argue with that? We need to remember that it is not about truths and lies. The journey for a guilty person in the interrogation process will almost always include lies and truths. We know that. What is important is whether we get a guilty person to confess (through lawful means) or to exonerate the innocent.

  13. Patti says:

    My thoughts: The underlying assumption of all police officers is that a suspect is guilty until proven innocent no matter what stage of the investigation they are in. Therefore it stands to reason that during later interrogations, the Reid Technique (used by these same police officers), would also rest on this premise of ‘suspect guilt’ rather than ‘suspect innocence’. And officers always have a 50/50 shot of being right about a suspects guilt or innocence… just like one always has a 50/50 chance of being right about a coin toss.

  14. Cmdr. Paul Ruffolo says:

    David……….I responded to your inquiries twice and you indicated that you would respond back.I have not received your response.Now your on the attack again ref: the Reid Method…….I would be happy to intelligently discuss this with you and your book,if you so desire to contact me. but please stop the attacks on police systems that have been very unbiased and effective,in spite of someone who has given a negative response to the Reid System.I’m not quite sure what the point is.Until they’ve conducted untold numbers of legitimate interviews,I would suggest that they be very careful of what they are saying,because it simply isn’t accurate………..Looking forward to speaking with you…………Respectfully…………Cmdr. Paul Ruffolo

    • Cmdr. Ruffalo: Thank you for your post, and I apologize for not responding earlier. My statements here about the Reid Technique are not an attack; I do not consider what I have written, anywhere, to be an attack on police systems. I do consider it my responsibility to tell what I know when I have something to offer. My point here is fairly narrow. Police officers can certainly become better judges of truth versus deception than others, and many are. But the empirical evidence on the Reid Technique does not support its assertions. There is no evidence that training in the Reid Technique makes police officers significantly better judges of the truth than untrained persons. There may be other ways to accomplish this, but the Reid Technique is, and remains, unproven. Thank you for contributing here.

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