Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Police interrogation a 'guilt presumptive' process

The raft of DNA exonerations nationwide has focused greater discussion in recent years on a handful of common sources of provably false convictions. While erroneous eyewitness IDs dominate among causal factors, more than a few erroneous convictions have resulted from false confessions.

While the fact of false confessions is inarguable (in Austin's infamous yogurt shop murders, for example, dozens of people confessed to the same crime), the mechanics of how that occurs are only just beginning to be understood. While some false confessors are mentally ill or seeking publicity, others succumb to pressure to confess by police interrogators.

Hoping to "
to educate potential clients about police tactics and the psychology of the confession," Texas attorney and blawgger Stephen Gustitis examines new research on police interrogations from an article called Mourning Miranda by Charles Weisselberg analyzing training and tactics used by California police. (Others have commented on this writing here and here. ) Writes Gustitis:
Weisselberg started by distinguishing between an “interview” and an “interrogation.” An interview is non-accusatory. It's “free-flowing and relatively unstructured.” Its purpose is to gather information. An interrogation, on the other hand, is “accusatory,” conducted “in a controlled environment,” and involves “active persuasion.” Officers are trained and understand the difference between an interview and an interrogation. During an interview police establish rapport with a suspect and use verbal and non-verbal information to decide whether, in their view, a suspect is telling the truth. If officers become “reasonably certain of the suspect’s guilt,” they may initiate an interrogation. Consequently, an officer’s initial judgments about truth, guilt, and culpability determines whether the suspect will be interrogated. In contrast to interviewing, interrogation is a “guilt-presumptive" process.

Next consider the nine potential components, or steps, used in many police interrogations. First is the confrontation statement by the interrogator. Then the interrogator interjects a reason for the commission of the crime, usually a morally acceptable one. Then the interrogator prepares to overcome the suspect's denials. Steps four through six guide the investigator in overcoming the suspect's reasons why he would not, or could not, have committed the crime. In step seven the police offer a statement supporting the suspect's morally acceptable reason for committing the crime. And the final steps are take the oral statement and convert it into a written confession.
In a followup post, Gustitis further described common interrogation practices, declaring that typically:
police wanted to first isolate a suspect, allowing them to sit alone and in sparsely furnished surroundings. This increased stress and increased the person's incentive to free themselves from the situation. Then by confronting the suspect outright the police hoped to increase anxiety and induce a sense of hopelessness.

Investigators regularly confront suspects and emphasize to them the only question remaining open is "why" (and not "whether") they committed the crime. In other words, the police presume the person under interrogation is guilty. Additionally, some of the most common police tactics include appealing to the person's self-interest, confronting them with actual (or purported) evidence of guilt, undermining their confidence in denials, appealing to the importance of cooperation, offering moral justifications for committing the crime, and minimizing the seriousness of the offense.

The Miranda court recognized the prevalence and use of these police interrogation tactics and concluded isolation was one of the most significant aspects of these methods. They concluded custodial interrogations contained inherently compelling pressures that undermined a person's ability to make free and informed choices whether to speak to the police.
Weisselberg's description of interrogation tactics jibes closesly with that offered earlier this year by academic Richard Leo in his book "Police Interrogations and American Justice," who argued that police routinely use coercion, fraud and deception in ways that contribute to false confessions. Lying to suspects in particular can generate false confessions as well as other negative outcomes. Such practices are prominent features of the so-called Reid technique (see a description here) which forms the basis for most police interrogation training in the United States.

Recording interrogations would solve some but not all of these problems; many police interrogation techniques are based on inherently coercive approaches that lack scientific support. Particularly suspect is reliance on the interrogating officers' ability to detect deception that supposedly justifies use of more coercive techniques. Ironically, then, one of the main arguments against recording interrogations has been that police want to keep those suspect tactics secret for fear the public won't support them:
The F.B.I., in documents defending its policy [not to require taped interrogations], argued that taping was not always possible, particularly when agents were on the road, and that it was not always appropriate. Psychological tricks like misleading or lying to a suspect in questioning or pretending to show the suspect sympathy might also offend a jury, the agency said.
“Perfectly lawful and acceptable interviewing techniques do not always come across in recorded fashion to lay persons as proper means of obtaining information from defendants,” said one of the once-secret internal Justice Department communications made public as part of the investigation into the dismissals of the United States attorneys.
That's not an acceptable reason to oppose taped interrogations, particularly in circumstances where a suspect has been isolated and read their Miranda rights. Just like cockroaches scatter when you turn on a light, my guess is that recording and thus exposing these tactics to scrutiny by judges and juries would, in the long run, result in their defenestration. At a minimum, recording would allow more comprehensive post-investigative analysis by researchers to identify unproductive approaches and best practices. Until then, for the foreseeable future, coercive tactics will remain a routine part of American police interrogation.


Anonymous said...

I would imagine that taking a gun into an interrogation room and holding at the back of a suspects head might induce a false confession too......

Anonymous said...

The entire criminal justice system has become "guilt presumptive". We recently had a local trial that got a lot of media attention. Based on comments from people on media websites most people in the community assumed the guy was guilty before the trial. One lady even said she wouldn't make a very good juror because the guy looked guilty and he wouldn't be on trial if he hadn't done something. I would be some of thejurors went in with the same idea. All that was necessary was for the prosecution to confirm their assumptions and give them a reason ( any reason at all ) to disbelieve the defense. This resulted in a man that I think was probably innocent being sentenced to life in prison. We should really stop saying that someone is "innocent until proven guilty". That is at best a myth, a lie. Our system, law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, jurors and even most of the public often presupposes guilt.

Anonymous said...

I have long wondered why that phrase isn't, "Innocent UNLESS proven guilty?" That suits the American system much better.

Anonymous said...

In Texas it's more like "Guilty UNLESS proven innocent"

Anonymous said...

How is any of this a surprise to people? Cops are not the 'good guys'. They are there to infringe the rights of someone accused, or thought to have committed a crime. They are not there to find truth, they are there to help convict people.

Anyone that believes that Police in any form or fashion were put into place 'to protect and server' has always been a few rocks shy of a dump truck. Police, are arms of 'justice'. They are employed to beat dissenters, cart people off to jail, to ensure the government in power stays in power. It is there to oppress its citizens, not protect them. If Police were around to protect you would see far fewer police beatings, and far more police rescues.

Anonymous said...

In Dallas County,they just reduced the public defender's office by two felony defense attorneys,while the remainder has less than five years experience and can be hired without experience.On the other hand,the paid defense attorneys don't want to work for their fees,they want you to take the plea bargain. If you aren't broke going into the system,you'll be broke coming out.Attoneys delay the trials and cite for investigative reasons,but they aren't investigating,merely delaying but depleting your retainer.Only the very wealthy can get any sense of justice.The poor are guilty when the cuffs go on.The rest are guilty when the money is gone.Great system.

Anonymous said...

The recent Rothgery v. Gillespie decision could play an unexpected role in the future of these interrogations.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Texas courts have been underestimating the importance of the article 15.17 hearing. In this hearing, a judge informs the defendant of his right to attorney, right to remain silent, and his right to terminate the police interview at any time.

The way the congress wrote the law it pretty much says the arresting officer needs to take the suspect to the judge immediately. The courts were pretty lax about that in the past if the officer gave the Miranda warnings but it will be interesting to see if they take the urgency of the 15.17 hearing more seriously now that SCOTUS has ruled that TX was underestimating its significance vis-à-vis one of the fundamental rights of the accused.

Anonymous said...

"The poor are guilty when the cuffs go on.The rest are guilty when the money is gone.Great system."

Well said.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if any of you are police officers or have ever been enrolled in a Criminal Justice education program. Then maybe you would all actually know what you are talking about. You would also understand the reasoning for the "tactics" used in an interview/interrogation setting. Try actually taking an interview/interrogation class at your local college if it is offered, and become learned on the subject.

Anonymous said...

Oh yea, and the next time one of you our someone you know gets robbed, raped, or murdered I guess you might as well not bother calling the police since we arent the "good guys" and we arent there to protect and serve.