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What Exactly is the Reid Technique of Interrogation?

July / August 2011 (click here for printable version)

(Please Note: If you wish to print and share an Investigator Tip with your colleagues, the John E. Reid 'credit and permission' statement following the article must be included.)

Part One

Despite the availability of specific information in books, training manuals and on our web site about the Reid Technique of interrogation, it is routinely mis-characterized. The following description from an article by Gudjonsson and Pearse is representative.1

The Reid Technique of interrogation consists of essentially three steps. Custody and isolation (i.e., the suspect is detained and isolated, anxiety and uncertainty are generated in order to weaken resistance). Confrontation (i.e., the suspect's guilt is assumed and he or she is confronted with alleged incriminating evidence that may or may not be genuine; denials are rejected, even if they happen to be true, and the consequence of continued denial is emphasized), and minimization (i.e., the interrogator tries to gain the suspect's trust and provides face-saving excuses for the crime, including suggesting that it was an accident or that the victim deserved it)."
Gudjonsson wrote this article as an attempt identify which questioning procedure, the Reid Technique or the PEACE model (which is essentially a non-accusatory interview) produced more false confessions. Indeed, this is an important area of research, but to accurately answer the question, the techniques must be correctly described. This web tip will identify which aspects of Gudjonsson's description are accurate and which are not.

The Reid Technique does teach that an interrogation should be conducted in private. However, it does not teach to detain non-custodial suspects or to isolate suspects and prevent them from contacting others. This would be blatantly illegal. In a custodial interrogation, the suspect is advised of his Miranda rights and if he invokes those rights the interrogation is immediately terminated.

The Reid Technique does teach that the interrogation should start with a confrontation statement such as, "Tom, our investigation indicates that you caused the death of your wife" or, "Jim our investigation indicates that you have not told the complete truth about the robbery of Jake's liquor store." It does not advocate overwhelming the suspect with real or fictitious evidence early during an interrogation. Reference to real or fictitious evidence is one of five possible responses to deceptive denials that are heard later during an interrogation, and will be discussed later in this tip.

In the Reid Technique the first contact with a suspect is always a non-accusatory interview designed to develop investigative and behavioral information. When the results of the interview and subsequent investigation indicate the subject's probable involvement in the commission of the crime an interrogation becomes appropriate. Consequently, the Reid Technique does teach that the interrogation should be conducted on the basis that the suspect committed the crime. The investigator, of course, may change his opinion of the suspect's guilt based on the nature of the suspect's denials or explanations the suspect may offer, e.g., the suspect acknowledges lying about his alibi or being involved in other illegal activity. Something that Gudjonsson fails to address is that the Reid Technique of interrogation was designed for suspects whose guilt was reasonably certain based on investigative findings, forensic evidence, polygraph results, etc. It is not a technique to evaluate a suspect's credibility or possible involvement in a criminal offense. It is curious that Gudjonsson (who is not an investigator nor an attorney) makes no distinction between interviewing and interrogating a suspect. In his article he refers to the Reid Nine Steps of Interrogation as "interviewing" a suspect.

The Reid Technique does teach that the investigator should discourage weak denials from surfacing by interrupting the denial and encouraging the suspect to listen to the investigator. This tactic, of course, will not prevent all denials from being voiced, especially from innocent suspects. If the suspect voices a denial, the Reid Technique teaches that the denial should be evaluated to identify whether the denial is typical of an innocent or guilty suspect. If the denial is typical of an innocent suspect, procedures are taught how to "step down" and terminate the interrogation.

When responding to denials that are typical of a guilty person, the Reid Technique does teach that the investigator should restate confidence in the suspect's guilt as the following dialogue involving the interrogation of a homicide suspect illustrates:

S: "But sir, I didn't do that to my wife."
I: "There's no question that you did this. The reason I'm talking to you is to find out what caused this to happen."

The Reid Technique does not teach to reject a suspect's denial or to threaten the suspect with consequences if further denials are offered. The following is an example of what is not taught in the Reid Technique:

S: "But sir, I didn't do that to my wife."
I: "Stop lying to me. I know you did this. You know you did this. If you keep telling me you didn't do this I'll make sure you get the maximum time in prison."

Another possible response to a deceptive denial that the Reid Technique does teach is to introduce evidence of the suspect's guilt. Almost always this statement will address actual evidence that either links the suspect to the crime or proves that the suspect lied about some aspect of the investigation. Our training thoroughly discusses the legal aspects of trickery and deceit, which is that lying about evidence is permissible under certain circumstances. Our training also discusses the dangers of lying to a suspect about possessing incriminating evidence, e.g., causing a coerced-internalized false confession, loss of credibility or reputation as an investigator. It is not accurate to portray the Reid Technique as being centered around incriminating evidence, real or fictitious.

The Reid Technique does teach that the investigator should treat the suspect with decency, respect and understanding. Part of the reason for this is to gain the suspect's trust so hopefully the suspect will feel comfortable eventually telling the investigator the truth. The emphasis of the Reid Technique is to create an environment that makes it easier for a suspect to tell the truth. An essential part of this is to suggest face-saving excuses for the suspect's crime which include projecting blame away from the suspect onto such things as financial pressure, the victim's behavior, an accomplice, emotions, or alcohol.

Our training is very specific that these excuses (interrogation themes) should minimize the moral seriousness of the suspect's crime by offering psychological excuses for the crime but not remove legal consequences. Therefore, the technique does teach that it would be proper in a homicide case to suggest that the victim deserved what happened to him. It would also be proper in a hit and run case to describe striking the pedestrian as accidental, in that this description does not remove legal consequences of the crime. In a premeditated murder, however, describing the killing as accidental does remove legal consequences and therefore that theme should not be used as the primary approach (but may be used later in an effort to have the guilty suspect place himself a the scene of the crime).

Gudjonsson's description of the Reid Technique of Interrogation contains some key omissions which are central to the technique, especially when considering false confessions. These are:
  1. The Reid Technique teaches that the investigator should not offer any direct or implied promises of leniency to the suspect. If the suspect chooses, through wishful thinking, to believe that he may be afforded leniency if he tells the truth that is fine. However, the investigator should not make any quid pro quo promises of leniency in exchange for a confession.
  2. The Reid Technique teaches that the investigator should not threaten the suspect with worse consequences if he does not confess. Clearly it would be improper to threaten a suspect with a more lengthy prison sentence (or death penalty) if he does not confess. It would also be improper to threaten to place the suspect's children in foster homes, to revoke his license to practice medicine or deport him to his native country unless he confesses.
  3. Perhaps of most importance, the Reid Technique makes a clear distinction between admissions (which may be offered by innocent suspects) and a confession. A confession represents a statement that not only accepts personal responsibility for committing a crime but contains corroboration consisting of information only the guilty person would know and/or information not known about the crime which is independently verified.
Part Two

In a previous web tip (Responding to Defense Experts' Characterization of Interrogation May - June, 2010) we pointed out some additional misrepresentations often made by defense experts when describing the Reid Technique - here are a few of the comments from that article:

The Defense Experts' Characterization of Interrogation

The following is taken from a report prepared by Dr. Richard Leo on a contested confession case in Wisconsin (Brendan Dassey). It is representative of how many defense experts describe the interrogation process:

A. "The sole purpose for custodial interrogation is to elicit a confession. Contemporary American interrogation methods are structured to persuade a rational person who knows he is guilty to rethink his initial decision to deny culpability and instead choose to confess."

B. "The first step of successful interrogation consists of causing a suspect to view his situation as hopeless. The interrogator communicates to the suspect that he has been caught , that there is no way he will escape the interrogation without incriminating himself, and that his future is determined - that regardless of the suspect's denials or protestations of innocence, he is going to be arrested, prosecuted convicted and eventually incarcerated."

C. "The second step of successful interrogation consists of offering the suspect inducements to confess - reasons or scenarios that suggest the suspect will receive some personal, moral, communal, procedural material or other benefit if he confesses to some version of the offense." There are three forms of such inducements:
  • "Low-end inducements refer to interpersonal or moral appeals the interrogator uses to convince a suspect that he will feel better if he confesses."
  • "Systemic inducements refer to appeals that the interrogator uses to focus the suspect's attention on the processes and outcomes of the criminal justice system in order to get the suspect to come to the conclusion that his case is likely to be processed more favorably by all actors in the criminal justice system if he confesses."
  • "High-end inducements refer to appeals that directly communicate that the suspect will receive less punishment, a lower prison sentence, and/or some form of police, prosecutorial, judicial, or juror leniency if he complies with the interrogator's demand that he confess."
This portrayal of the interrogation process clearly describes techniques that are illegal and, if used, may cause a confession to be suppressed. It certainly does not describe The Reid Nine Steps of Interrogation. In fact, it contains a number of procedures that we specifically teach as being improper.

Reid's Response (the following are excerpts from the full response)

We certainly take issue with the stated purpose of an interrogation being to elicit a confession. On page 4 of our training manual we state that the objective of an interrogation is to elicit the truth from a suspect, not a confession. (We also make the same point in our book, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, 4th edition, 2001)

There are a number of possible outcomes of a successful interrogation other than obtaining a confession. Some of these are: (1) The suspect is innocent; (2) The suspect did not commit the offense under investigation but lied about some aspect of the investigation (motive, alibi, access, etc.); (3) The suspect did not commit the offense under investigation but knows who did. Throughout an interrogation the investigator's goal is always to learn the truth.

Leo states that the first step of an interrogation is to convince the suspect that his situation is helpless. This is an outright false statement. This statement or goal never appears in our text books or seminar manuals. On page 49 of our training manual we teach the opposite, that it is improper to tell the suspect that he is facing inevitable consequences. We reference cases where innocence people falsely confessed because the investigator convinced the suspect that he would suffer consequences regardless of his denials. On page 64 we offer information on how to identify truthful from deceptive denials and, on that same page, acknowledge that sometimes innocent suspects are mistakenly interrogated.

As to the second step of the process, any successful interrogation technique must offer the guilty suspect a real or perceived benefit of telling the truth. This is fundamental to persuasive communication and, on a daily basis, the average person is bombarded with incentives designed to influence their behavior. Whether the message is to buy a particular product, get a medical checkup, or watch a particular television program, all persuasive arguments involves a promise of benefit with one choice and adverse consequences with another choice.

Common law recognized that some promises of benefit or threats of adverse consequences may cause an innocent person to confess. Examples include promises to avoid a lengthy sentence or threats of physical pain if the suspect does not confess. These would fit the description of what Leo calls, "high-end inducements." Countries whose criminal justice system is based on common law forbid interrogation procedures that involve inflicting, or threatening to inflict pain or discomfort onto a suspect in an effort to obtain a confession.....Very simply, an investigator cannot offer or imply a promise of lenience in exchange for a confession.

Applying legal standards, Leo's description of low-end inducements are certainly legal and are advocated in the Reid Technique. The high-end inducements are clearly illegal in the United States as well as Canada and we teach investigators not to use these tactics. There are multiple references to these illegal interrogation tactics in both our training manual as well as our text, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions.

This leaves "systemic inducements" which are designed to get the suspect to come to the conclusion that if he confesses, his case may be processed more favorably by the criminal justice system. From the interrogator's perspective, of course, this is desirable and yet the interrogator cannot mention or imply a benefit of more favorable treatment in exchange for telling the truth. It is perfectly legal, however, to allow the suspect to form his own conclusion that he may benefit in some way by telling the truth.




In a recent decision from the US District Court (Massachusetts), US v. Jacques (May 2011), the court made the following comments in their decision when they rejected the testimony of a defense expert on the issue of false confessions and the experts suggestion that the Reid Technique generated false confessions:

"Professor Hirsch's criticism of the Reid technique appeared, at one point in his testimony, to be that it increased the overall number of confessions, both true and false. (Dkt. No. 262, Tr. 2/3/11, at 35 ("I want to be very clear that, number one, the Reid Technique is too effective. The problem is not that it's ineffective. It breaks down guilty suspects. The problem is that it also breaks down innocent suspects.").) Again, he failed to point to any data supporting even this position, which does not address the central issue here: the relative frequency of false confessions and the factors contributing to it.

In sum, the proffered expert testimony to the effect that the Reid technique enhanced the risk of an unreliable confession lacked any objective basis for support whatever. Although Professor Hirsch insisted that "there is a wealth of information about the risks of the Reid technique," he could point to none. (Dkt. No. 262, Tr. 2/3/11, at 132.) It is true, as able defense counsel pointed out, that all science is not the same, and in the area of false confessions the kind of strictly mathematical support available in other areas may be lacking. But some objective basis other than say-so must be offered, and none was."


In conclusion, the Reid Technique represents a well-defined approach for interrogating suspects who are, in all probability, guilty. It consists not only of specific interrogation techniques, but also admonitions against using specific procedures that may cause a confession to be suppressed or elicit a false confession. The multiple aspects of the Reid Technique of Interrogation are clearly identified but require a thorough study and understanding; the technique cannot accurately be summed up with three principles.

1"Suspect Interviews and False Confessions," Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20:33, 2011.

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