Conventional wisdom says there are several ways to tell when someone is lying. Body-language cues, like crossing one’s arms, can reveal a liar. Being overly insistent about one’s innocence is a dead giveaway. And anyone over 40 who says they’re bummed they missed Coachella? Definitely a liar.
Thing is, the conventional wisdom about how to spot a liar has repeatedly been proven to be bullshit. (Except for the Coachella thing — so much standing!) Yet as John Oliver made clear on the latest episode of Last Week Tonight, the methods police use when interrogating suspects are pretty much all based on that bullshit, which is likely one reason there are an estimated 20,000 innocent people currently serving time in U.S. prisons.
Oliver explained that many cops in the U.S. rely on something called the Reid Technique, named after John E. Reid, a former Chicago police officer who — actually, that’s kind of all you need to know. The business he helped found says it has trained hundreds of thousands of investigators in its methods, meaning those methods are firmly entrenched in the criminal justice system.
“The Reid Technique has become one of those things that just culturally comes with being a cop,” Oliver said. “Like their fondness for donuts, or their complicity in the perpetuation of state-sponsored violence.”
Of all cases overturned by DNA testing nationwide, 29 percent featured innocent people who’d confessed. Why would someone confess? For starters, because the Reid Technique literally teaches police to prevent suspects from so much as saying they’re innocent. Cops also routinely lie to suspects during interrogations in an effort to make them question their own memory, or to believe it’s in their own best interest to confess even if they’re not guilty. (This kind of lying by law enforcement is perfectly legal, by the way.) Cops question people for interminable stretches of time in order to break them down; Oliver explained that one study found false confessions occurred after an average of more than 16 hours of questioning. However, that study was from 2004, and the Last Week Tonight research team should probably avoid 18-year-old data.
Oliver added that according to a 2006 study (come on, guys!) about 80 percent of people waive their Constitutional right to an attorney and agree to be questioned by police. Which makes sense; if you know you’re innocent, what do you have to fear? Plus, even if you could afford it, why would you shell out thousands of dollars for an attorney when you have nothing to hide? But when cops are trained to see guilt in everyone, no one is safe alone in an interrogation.
“When it comes to eye contact, [the Reid Technique] advises that ‘when a person is being less than honest, he may not maintain direct eye contact,’” Oliver said. “But also others ‘may overcompensate by staring.’ Meaning, if you have eyes, you’re basically fucked.”
Oliver called for all interrogations to be recorded in their entirety — currently, many states require only the confessions to be recorded. He also suggested the U.S. makes it illegal for police to lie to suspects, something that several other countries, including Germany and New Zealand, have already done.
“How will investigators get guilty people to confess if they can’t intimidate or lie to them?” Oliver asked. “Well, not to be a total bitch, but their job is literally to investigate, so maybe they could try doing some of that.”