Interrogation Training Firm Eyes New Market in K-12 Schools

I recently read an article in The New Yorker that reported that John E. Reid and Associates, the nation’s largest interrogation methods trainer of police and private security personnel, has been working to expand into training elementary and secondary school staff.

The Chicago-based firm developed The Reid Technique®, which it calls the world’s “most widely used” interrogation methodology. The firm says since 1974 it’s taught interrogation methods to over half a million law enforcement and security employees.  Its clients include the CIA, the DEA, and every U.S. military branch.

Nevertheless, its methodology has drawn strong criticism from legal and psychological commentators, who view it as unduly coercive, not scientifically validated, and likely to produce false confessions. Even with that knowledge, school administrators’ groups have sponsored shorter versions of The Reid Technique training in at least eight states, including New York, Illinois and Michigan.

The Reid training manual, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, written by the company’s founder, a former Chicago policeman, and a Northwestern law professor, sets out a three-stage method using a single investigator — the firm recommends against group questioning or “good cop, bad cop” teams. In the initial fact-gathering phase, the investigator interviews the subject in an isolated setting, to build rapport and assess the interviewee’s truthfulness.

Unless the investigator no longer views the interviewee as a likely suspect, in the second behavioral analysis phase, the investigator closely scrutinizes the suspect’s appearance and behavior for telltale signs of guilt or deception (such as posture, fidgeting, frequent lip-licking, and not making eye contact). Although one criminologist calls such indicators “mythological,” the company says its trained investigators can determine deception at least 85% of the time.

The final phase, which usually takes at least several hours and is the most stressful, is a nine-step interrogation, designed to ratchet up psychological pressure and produce a confession. It employs numerous court-accepted stratagems. One is what the company calls “minimalization” – i.e., sympathetically suggesting motives or circumstances that might help the suspect rationalize the offense.

Another tack, “maximization,” takes the opposite approach, increasing the subject’s stress – e.g., by refusing to listen to protestations of innocence; saying no one doubts the subject’s guilt, only whether the crime was pre-planned or spur-of the-moment; or confronting the suspect with fictitious evidence – for example, telling the suspect he or she has been implicated by an eyewitness, associate or security camera.

Do Reid’s interrogation methods pressure suspects so much some make false confessions? Critics point to examples like the five New York City teens convicted in 1989 of the rape and near-fatal beating of a Central Park jogger; after Reid-style interrogations, each confessed to taking part in the attack and implicated companions, although DNA evidence linked none of them to the crime. They were released in 2002, after the actual perpetrator confessed.

Some experts point out false confessions very frequently occur in cases where defendants are convicted but later exonerated; the percentage is significantly larger for school-age defendants. The Reid firm vigorously defends the reliability of the methods it teaches, ascribing false confessions to police incorrectly using its methods.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police, in a 2012 Justice Department-funded publication, offered best practice guidelines for interrogating children and adolescents. Because of adolescents’ susceptibility to suggestion and less-developed minds, it recommended having a friendly adult (such as a parent, guardian or family officer) at the interrogation, not using fictitious evidence, and other improvements to the process.

Opponents of increased police presence in schools claim it builds a “pipeline to prison.” So schools may need help in developing disciplinary techniques that protect students’ rights. The real question is whether they will get them from a firm whose techniques for interrogating adults are widely criticized.

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