Mystery and crime fiction readers (and writers!) may soon encounter a new approach to police interrogation that may be more effective at producing solid information and valid confessions. Until the mid-1930s, suspected criminals were subjected to the “third degree,” which often included bodily harm or at least the threat of it—like dangling a suspect out of a window (!).
Currently, police mostly use confrontational techniques “a rusty, stalwart invention that’s been around since the days of JFK,” says reporter Robert Kolker in the current issue of Wired.
These supposedly more scientific techniques are based on psychological manipulation, in which police attempt to persuade their suspect that confession is their only reasonable choice. Hallmarks of the technique are the claustrophobic interview room in which detectives appear absolutely convinced of a suspect’s guilt and present a damning version of facts (and even made up “facts”) that paint the suspect as the culprit. (If you want to see a memorable demonstration of this technique, check out this terrific YouTube clip from The Wire.)
The developers of confrontational interrogation justified the use of false information and other tricks because they—and many cops trained in their methods as well as judges and prosecutors—were convinced an innocent person simply would not confess to a crime he did not commit. This post demonstrates what a tragically wrongful conviction that was. Evidence against its reliability started piling up when DNA analysis became available and a large number of convictions were thrown out, even though the accused at some point “confessed.” Further, and contrary to expectation, Kolker says, “The more confident police officers are about their judgments, the more likely they are to be wrong.”
Now a growing number of police departments, starting with the LAPD, recognizes the shaky science behind these methods and are moving to an “investigative” approach more similar to that long used in England and Canada. As a joint effort of the FBI, CIA and Pentagon, the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) studied interrogation techniques around the world, with an eye to producing valid confessions and avoiding false ones among terrorists. Bottom line: “If you want accurate information, be as non-accusatorial as possible.” Now they are trying to spread the word throughout domestic police departments.
I can see changes in fiction—plots where one officer is trained in the HIG techniques, but the partner resists; repeat criminals unnerved by the change in police attitude; and the expansion of information police have to work with when their questioning causes suspects to simply clam up. Of course, in both fiction and real life, many skilled interviewers have used these techniques for years, without official sanction. (Fictional detective Lt. Colombo comes immediately to mind as a possible, possibly extreme example.) Any attempt to change the culture of policing is ripe for drama.