Starr discussed need for science-based interviewing techniques

A parent’s worst nightmare: an infant is rushed to the emergency room because of fatal brain swelling.

An emergency room doctor, who hadn’t slept for 48 hours, told the police officers who arrived at the hospital that an injury like that must have been caused by trauma from the child being beaten.

The police then questioned the infant’s father, Adrian Thomas, for 10 hours, lying to him and dismissing his denials until he finally confessed to hurting his child. He was sentenced to 25 to life.

Thomas never hit his son.

The baby’s brain swelling was caused by an infection, and Thomas’ false confession in 2008 was reported in the documentary “Scenes of a Crime” – a film that journalist Douglas Starr used to examine the interrogation strategy used by some police officers, the Reid technique, which he has investigated and found has elicited many false confessions from suspects.

Starr, a science journalism professor in Boston University’s graduate program who recently published an article titled “The Interview” which detailed this interrogation strategy in The New Yorker, presented his findings at FSU on Tuesday, March 3 in DPAC.

Starr went through the process of being trained by the Reid technique, signing up at a professor, and hiding the fact that he is a journalist.

The main facets of the Reid technique are watching body language, dismissing denials, offering the suspect a moral excuse, lying about evidence and producing a confession.

The technique is a mixture of “maximization,” which means ignoring the denial, and “minimization,” which means offering a justification and understanding for the crime, he said.

He added this is a “myth-based technique,” meaning it’s based on false science such as body language and apparent agitation compared to “science-based techniques,” which are founded on actual proven psychology.

English professor Sam Witt asked at the end of the presentation about the psychology of the police officers, and why they “seem so dug in in this country” and didn’t seem to understand the harm of what they were doing.

Starr said he thinks the police officers “want to do the right thing but are trained badly.”

He added that he expects to see “some progress” in the next 50 years, but not a significant amount.

Starr interviewed a lawyer for the Police Benevolent Association who, Starr said, explained that “our system is so adversarial. There always has to be a winner and a loser.”

He added that the American police system is more difficult to change on a large scale because unlike the British system, it is not centralized.

In the presentation, Starr also discussed an alternative option used in England which is called PEACE.

“It’s based on the understanding that lying is not anxiety-producing, but it is a cognitive load,” Starr said. This means, if people are asked about the details of their stories over and over again, and if they are lying, they will slip up and the buildup of inconsistencies will condemn them.

This system takes British police officers years of training to master. The American police system doesn’t require training for interviewing at all.

Senior Craig Boland said, “It was eye-opening to see the varying techniques of interrogation. Seeing how the U.S. simply wants a confession, whereas the U.K. actually looks for the truth, it probably made a lot of people rethink the justice system in this country.”

Senior Matt Davis said, “It was interesting how flawed the standard practice of interrogation in the U.S. is – especially the fact that officers can lie to get a confession.”

Senior Brittany Wallace said, “It brought to my attention how misleading the United States justice system is. With the shocking facts of the high false confession rates and seeing actual footage of the interrogation process, it all just made me question how come nothing has been done.”

Senior Aliana Ciampa said, “Starr gave a really informative, and in some ways disheartening, presentation of the reality of some of the practices employed during interrogation in a time when trust towards the police is at a low.”

Senior James Lindsey said, “I liked the advocation for a reasoning-based approach to getting information rather than an intimidation-based approach. Reasoning people through their own stories is a much more accurate and respectful way to locate fallacies than scaring people into saying what you want to hear will ever be.”


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