By Ali Fraerman
For the past 2 years, I have devoted much of my time to researching wrongful convictions in Chicago, first as an intern at the Northwestern University School of Law Center on Wrongful Convictions, and now as an intern for the Chicago Innocence Center, a journalism based nonprofit that investigates possible wrongful convictions. Many of the miscarriages of justice I have researched or seen first hand have clear solutions. 60 Minutes deemed Cook County as the “false confession capital of the world.” Why? Police interrogation tactics that include torture, from suffocation to waterboarding to pressure stances and more. Over 25% of known wrongful convictions occur based on false confessions. This stems from systematic interrogation practices that use deception and dehumanization to net confessions at all costs.
The absence of overarching regulation of police interrogation techniques leaves the standard, psychologically manipulative methods in use in this country prone to error even beyond the coercive tactics written into the pages of their manuals. The closest thing the United States has to an actual standard of interrogation is the one Americans most often see on Law & Order-- the privately owned, ages old, and uncoincidentally Chicago-based Reid technique sold by John E. Reid & Associates. The company would be quick to tell your officials, as they have told me multiple times, that no part of their manual or training programs condones torture, sleep deprivation, or like techniques. However, the issue with Reid is not solely the explicitly stated rules and procedures, though many are problematic, it is the tunnel-vision approach the technique promotes.
As the technique is written, officers must first become human lie detectors to judge the guilt or innocence of their subject. Then, the officer develops their own “theme” or story of how a crime occurred, attempting to get the subject to agree to their version of events. Officers will claim they already have incriminating evidence of the subject’s guilt, and ultimately, the goal is to get the subject to sign an admission of guilt. Officers will frequently diminish the consequences of assent to the confession by providing the subject with a moral justification of his supposed crime. The technique relies solely on the judgement of interrogating officers, their ability to deceive, and a cursory and ineffective assessment of guilt or innocence. Officers often apply the main tenets of Reid, guilt presumption and deception, in pursuit of a confession with much individual leeway, resulting in a very unregulated interrogation process. It is my belief that a new framework for interrogation should be explicitly codified and accompanied by extensive and standardized training sessions.
In Canada, where the same hodge-podge application of Reid-like interrogation tactics occurs, Dr. Brent Snook, a professor of psychology at Memorial University in Newfoundland, is pioneering a codified interrogation framework the hails from England. Along with local police, who Snook described as “science-minded” and “open to change,” he pioneers PEACE, a technique that addresses the root of false confessions to create a technique that is non-adversarial to such a great extent, it can be used to question witnesses and suspects with little to no modifications.
PEACE is an acronym that stands for the five stages of the technique: Planning and Preparation, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure and Evaluation. In Snook’s words, Planning and Preparation involves gathering as much information as possible to understand the subject, as well as making sure they understand all of their legal rights, what they are being questioned about, and their possible jeopardy. Engage and Explain is all about building rapport with the subject while continuing to be transparent, walking the subject through the process. Account and Closure are the interview part of the process, during which the investigator asks as few open ended questions as possible to allow the subject to give their version of an incident without intervention. At the end of the interview, incriminating evidence may be presented to the subject, and they have a chance to provide an explanation for it. Unlike Reid, no false evidence is ever presented, no lies are told. The subject gets a break every 40 minutes.Each step must be implemented correctly, transparently, and sensitively for a successful interrogation, and Snook has all PEACE sessions recorded. The last “E,” Evaluate, refers to an officer’s reflection on his performance as much as it refers to an assessment of the subject’s statements.
The main rule Snook stressed when describing his five-step framework was a constant respect for the subject. The deception and hostility officers use with guilt-presumptive techniques strips their subjects of both dignity and autonomy. Snook says officers using PEACE must value open-ended questioning for a “humanitarian” approach to interrogation. It also takes into account police transparency and accountability. As written, PEACE rejects deception, and does not ask a police officer to evaluate a suspect’s guilt or innocence throughout the interrogation. The first “E” in PEACE, “Engage and Explain” emphasizes rapport with the subject aided by thorough explanations of the questioning process and their legal rights. The second “E,” and the final step of the framework, “Evaluation,” also encompasses the interrogator’s self evaluation of their adherence to the technique.
Before Snook introduced PEACE training, the Newfoundland police, like many departments in the United States, operated interrogations using the internalized tenets of the Reid technique almost subconsciously. Few officers had much formal training in interrogation tactics. Snook in said he sees a shift in policing culture since the introduction of the PEACE technique. He estimates anecdotally that out of the entire force, about two percent are unhappy with the new humane techniques. Ideally, Snook says PEACE would be carried through by a squad of specially trained and vetted interrogators, something I would strongly recommend. Samuel Jones of John Marshall Law School, a Chicago Innocence Center board member, described an ideal interrogation method as one that utilizes specially trained officers exclusively questioning people of interest. These officers bear no responsibility in investigating the entirety of the case. Without a special interrogating force, Snook says he is still making inroads into interrogation reform through his PEACE training program, administered to every Newfoundland officer. The officers are exposed first during initial training, and then upon promotion to an investigative unit or the constabulary. Snook describes PEACE training as an antithesis to the limited training available from John E. Reid & Associates, which sells training manuals and cursory classes in what Snook says is a problematic “mass rollout,” that creates its own problems by attempting to market a potentially coercive technique to all interrogators, regardless of qualification or ethical mindset.
Yet, police in Canada still can and do justify their adherence to Reid or Reid-based techniques under Canadian case law that Snook describes as allowing “some deception and manipulation” on the basis that so-called “bad-guys,” or presumed suspects, “do not operate on the same level as everyone else.” Police in the United States operate under virtually the same case law through the decision in Frazier v. Cupp (1969) which allows deceptive interrogation techniques. Deceptive methods like Reid found themselves on the basis that lying will be used only in contact with a guilty suspect, but Reid’s idea that police officers can reliably detect guilt or innocence is flawed. Snook is currently awaiting the progressive changes in Canadian Supreme Court case law that would pave the way for the elimination of Reid, and therefore, a necessary change to PEACE interrogations. He is hopeful these changes will occur soon, and they look as though they are on the horizon for Canada-- a provincial court judge condemned Reid in 2015 as a manipulative and confession focused method. However, according to Jones, similar case law in the United States has a long way to go in terms of interrogation reform, stating that interrogation-related issues have not yet reached the attention of the Supreme Court.
In Cook County, we can speed up the process of eliminating adversarial interrogation tactics such as Reid. The key is in standardization of a humanitarian interrogation method, ideally PEACE, that does not stake itself on an ability to net confessions or deceive those unfortunate citizens loosely regulated officers deem guilty. It is an embarrassment that the Reid technique is housed in a city where false confessions have been called an epidemic, and Chicago should be on the forefront of a nationwide reversal in police culture. Somehow, Reid and its teachings have survived decades despite being an accusatory process that upends the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” before a suspect even enters the courtroom. As a public need for community policing emerges, this city is positioned to create a new generation of police officers that are sensitive to their communities. PEACE is a method that gels with growing calls for sensitivity and humanity, and it lends itself to regulation and training, notions that are foreign to today’s police interrogators. Good policing starts with policy reform, and policy reform starts with culture change.