New Study Links Reid Interrogation Technique to False Witness Statements

A new psychological study, accepted by the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, has examined the Reid technique—an aggressive style of police interrogation—and found that this interrogation style increases the occurrence of false statements by witnesses, as reported by The Star.

Brian Cutler, a psychology professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, and student Danielle Loney conducted the study using 60 university students. Their work was inspired by a case where a Canadian man was falsely accused of murder after police used the Reid technique on witnesses.

In Washington, the court will consider the totality of the circumstances to determine if a confession is voluntary, including whether coercive interrogation tactics, such as the Reid technique, were used. See, for example, State v. Schofield, 97 Wn. App. 1085 (1999).

False confessions can happen in any kind of case, but especially in heinous cases such as those involving rape, child molestation, and infant assault. Police feel extra pressure to solve those cases. That pressure can be transmitted to a suspect in interrogation. See, for example, the note I recently posted about Melissa Calusinski, who confessed to throwing to the floor a toddler who later died. In her case, it isn’t even clear that what she confessed she did could have caused the boy’s brain injury.

The Reid technique generally starts with the presumption that the suspect is guilty. The questioning style is accusatory: the interviewer will often state that he knows the suspect is guilty and that he has evidence proving that suspect is guilty, even if no such evidence exists. The interviewer then accuses the witness who gives no incriminating information of either protecting the suspect or being an accessory to the crime.

The study placed participants in separate rooms, each one with a member of the research team who posed as a participant. The two were given math and logic tests to distract the participant from the actual study. A few minutes after the tests were distributed, another research team member came into room to ask if either had seen a cellphone left in the room. However, no cellphone had been left.

The student participants were then subjected to questioning about the fake cellphone disappearance. With the first half of participants, the interviewers asked directly if the participant took the cellphone or saw the other person in the room take it. None of the participants falsely confessed or implicated the other person.

The other half was subjected to the Reid technique. The interviewers insisted that the phone was stolen. If the participant denied seeing anything, the interviewer asked, “how could you [have] miss[ed] it?” and told the participant that they did not believe he did not see something. Some students were threatened with accusations of academic misconduct. In the end, five students falsely claimed they saw the other person in the room steal the cellphone.

Cutler and Looney point out in their study that a stolen cellphone is low-stakes compared with an actual police interrogation. The most threatened in the study was academic misconduct as opposed to an actual police interrogation where witnesses could be threatened with criminal charges. Additionally, the study interrogations lasted a maximum of 30 minutes whereas police interrogations can continue for much longer. In sum, the study concluded that using a more aggressive style of interrogation led to an increase of false witness statements.