Seattle could outlaw some police interrogation tricks

Seattle police

We’ve seen it in the movies: a cop tells a suspect they already have the evidence they need, so the person might as well fess up, even if there is, in fact, no evidence.

But this is not the stuff of fiction. While Miranda Rights (“you have the right to remain silent…”) read during an arrest are meant to protect suspects from self-incrimination, these protections are not extended to interrogations. In fact, the Supreme Court has affirmed officers’ rights to lie to suspects if they think it will help with obtaining a confession.

And not only are they allowed to lie, police officers across the country are often trained to do just that.

All of this was the subject of a Seattle Community Police Commission meeting Wednesday. Although the specifics of Seattle Police Department interrogation techniques are vague, the concern is how their use could lead to false confessions and a breach in hard-earned community trust.

In response, an effort to rewrite a Seattle Police Department policy to forbid these practices is now in its early stages. The city’s Community Police Commission hopes to work directly with the police department to change rules around interrogation, but it's not ruling out taking a legislative approach.

Coercive techniques such as lying or promising things that can’t be delivered are effective at obtaining confessions. But those techniques can produce false confessions "especially among people who are young, have intellectual disabilities, or are vulnerable in the first place," said Seattle University Law Professor Deborah Ahrens.

According to Ahrens, it can be difficult to measure the extent of how often these Hollywood-esque techniques lead to false confessions. (Only 20 jurisdictions require that interrogations be recorded, she pointed out). But, she said, 25 percent of people who are convicted and then later exonerated were jailed as a result of a false confession. And that number, she continued, excludes those who were never exonerated. “If your proof of whether or not someone did it is the confession, guess what’s driving that confession?”

In 2012, the City of Seattle agreed to overhaul its police department in an agreement with the Department of Justice. The goal of that process has always been to eliminate unconstitutional practices, specifically the excessive use of force.

But the reform process doesn't necessarily include overhauling practices that may be questionable but are not unconstitutional, such as lying and intimidation while interrogating a suspect. The courts have repeatedly protected these techniques. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a confession from a homicide suspect was admissible even though officers had falsely told him an accomplice had implicated him.

The Seattle police manual doesn’t offer a lot in the way of detail for how a detective should question a suspect. But according to a 2014 case study of the Seattle Police Department from the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, SPD officers do use “accusatorial” interrogation methods, defined as “Trying to manipulate and control the suspect to obtain a confession, confrontational.”

Seattle Police Officer Guild President Kevin Stuckey said he’d certainly heard about officers using “rouse” techniques.

SPD didn't immediately provide comment detailing its interrogation techniques.

A common interrogation technique used by officers across the country is derived from the so-called Reid Technique — a set of interrogation principles developed by the private firm John Reid and Associates, which has roots back to the late 1940s. The Commission was briefed on the technique on Wednesday.

The technique focuses on officers becoming human lie detectors by reading verbal and nonverbal cues (if a suspect scratches his face, you can interpret it to mean this). The Reid technique encourages the use of props (a manila folder that stands in for evidence). It also encourages speaking with certainty (“we know you did this”) and offering suspects an avenue out (“maybe you felt pressured into it?”).

But the training, according to Benjamin Goldsmith of the King County Department of Public Defense, has no basis in science or psychology. “It is, respectfully, nonsense,” Goldsmith, a supervising attorney, told the Commission.

Goldsmith said he attended a Reid training in Bellevue in 2014 to better understand the practice. There were 6 SPD detectives in his class.

A better interrogation technique, he offered, is for police to find common ground with suspects, calling it an approach that's "a lot less harmful to the community than ‘I’m going to get someone to talk to me by lying to them.’”

It would be ironic, several commissioners mused at the meeting, if Reid-like techniques became more effective precisely because community members trusted more that the officers would not lie to them.

Commission members are hopeful the police department will agree to take a second look at interrogation practices and make an internal decision to adjust them. But they also haven’t ruled out working with the Seattle City Council to take a legislative approach to changing the policy as well.

The traction may already be there: Guild President Stuckey said he was more than willing to talk it over.

“We should always be reviewing,” he said. “We should always be looking at whether this is something we should be continuing. I think that that’s gotten us in trouble in the past when we don’t review.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.