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How Police Interrogation Works


Photo courtesy
Earl Washington, Jr., a mentally retarded man, was almost put to death for a crime he confessed to but didn't commit. He was released from prison in 2000, nine days before his scheduled execution.

Interrogation has always been a controversial subject. Any time a law-enforcement officer goes into a room with a civilian and shuts the door, people are going to question what happens inside. And any time that officer leaves the room with a confession, the questions are going to escalate. Was the confession coerced? Did the police violate the suspect's rights?

The real question is probably a much larger one: Can police interrogation ever be a fair process? How can a system designed to manipulate a suspect into confessing be non-coercive? The debate about the fairness and morality of police interrogation techniques is an ongoing one, with several issues at the forefront.

First, interrogation is guilt-presumptive process. The goal is to get the suspect to confess. Once the interrogation begins, a detective can unconsciously ignore any evidence of innocence in pursuit of a confession. This is a common psychological phenomenon -- people often "filter out" any evidence that does not fit with their already-formed viewpoint. Interrogation is designed to make a suspect extremely nervous, and signs of stress like grooming and fidgeting, which are taken as positive indicators of guilt, might just as easily indicate the stress of an innocent person being accused of a crime he didn't commit. There's also the issue of latent coercion. While police may not explicitly offer leniency for a confession or threaten punishment if someone won't confess, they may imply promises or threats in their language and tone. For instance, when detective Lauria told Nikole Frederick that "without an explanation of what happened people would assume the worst," Frederick may have understood that to mean that if she confessed to the crime but explained why she did it, the consequences would be less severe than if she kept her mouth shut.

In a more general way, a lot of the human rights concerns surrounding police interrogation have to do with the fact that psychological interrogation techniques bear an uncanny resemblance to "brainwashing" techniques. The interrogator is attempting to influence the suspect without the suspect's consent, which is considered an unethical use of psychological tactics. A lot of the techniques used to cause discomfort, confusion and insecurity in the brainwashing process are similar to those used in interrogation:

  • Invading a suspect's personal space
  • Not allowing the suspect to speak
  • Using contrasting alternatives
  • Positioning confession as a means of escape
Confessions and the Constitution
The primary Constitutional Amendments referred to in Supreme Court decisions regarding the admissibility of confessions are the Fifth Amendment, which guarantees a person's right to not incriminate himself, the Sixth Amendement, which guarantees the right to a speedy trial, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees the right to due process. When the police hold and interrogate a suspect for three days without charging him with a crime, they've violated that suspect's right to due process. When the police string someone up in a tree and whip him until he confesses, they've violated that person's right not to incriminate himself (among other rights).

The more stress a suspect experiences, the less likely he is to think critically and independently, making him far more susceptible to suggestion. This is even more true when the suspect is a minor or is mentally ill, because he may be poorly equipped to recognize or fight off manipulative tactics. A process designed to cause someone so much stress that he'll confess just to escape the situation is a process that leaves itself open to false confessions. Researchers estimate between 65 and 300 false confessions per year in the United States. Here are just a few false confessions that investigators have uncovered:

  • Peter Reilly, 1973 Peter Reilly was 18 years old when his mother was found murdered in their home. After eight hours of interrogation by Connecticut police, he confessed to brutally murdering her. A jury convicted him of first-degree manslaughter based on his confession, and he served three years in prison before a judge set him free in the face of new evidence indicating someone else committed the crime.
  • Earl Washington, Jr., 1982 Earl Washington, Jr., a man described by psychologists as "mildly retarded" with an IQ of 69, confessed to raping and murdering a 19-year-old woman after undergoing interrogation. He was convicted on the confession alone and spent 18 years in prison, half of that time on death row. Nine days before his scheduled execution, the governor of Virginia pardoned him because DNA evidence had revealed that the actual perpetrator was another man. (Watch this video clip of an interview with Earl Washington, Jr., after his release.)
  • The "Central Park Five," 1989 After more than 20 hours of interrogation, five teenagers -- Raymond Santana, 14, Kharey Wise, 16, Antron McCray, 16, Kevin Richardson, 14, and Yusef Salaam, 15 -- confessed to raping and beating a woman jogging in Central Park in New York City. They spent between six and 12 years in prison (four out of the five were tried as minors) before another man confessed to the crime in 2001. DNA evidence confirmed that this other man was in fact the Central Park rapist.
  • Michael Crowe, 1998 Michael Crowe was 14 years old when police interrogated him without a parent or other adult in the room. He eventually confessed to stabbing his 12-year-old sister to death after the interrogator told Michael of false physical evidence against him. He was charged with the crime, but at pre-trial hearings, a judge deemed his confession to be involuntary. DNA evidence later led police to the man who actually murdered the girl.

Michael Crowe's entire interrogation was videotaped, and that tape assisted the judge in determining that the confession was involuntary. Just videotaping the confession itself can do little to ensure the legality of the process that led up to it, and critics of police interrogation techniques point to mandatory taping of all interrogations from start to finish as a step in the right direction. Another possible solution to the problem of false confessions is to train police to recognize subtle signs of mental illness that make a false confession more likely. Many within the law-enforcement community cite prohibitive costs as a reason not to mandate solutions like these and maintain that the problem of false confessions is not as big as critics suggest. Still, most of us see one false confession that leads to conviction as one too many.

For more information on police interrogation and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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More Great Links


  • "Case Study: Success With the Reid Technique."
  • "Central Park Justice." Online NewsHour, Dec. 24, 2002.
  • "Confessions: Police Interrogation, Due Process, and Self-Incrimination." FindLaw.
  • "General Interrogation Techniques." Just Cause Law Collective.
  • Irsay, Steve. "Fear Factor: How far can police go to get a confession?"
  • "Jury: Investigator must pay ex-death row inmate.", May 5, 2006.
  • Kassin, Saul M. and Gisli H. Gudjonsson. "True Crimes, False Confessions." Scientific American Mind.
  • Kurz, Dylan. "Dominance and Submission: How the Police Use Psychological Manipulation to Interrogate Citizens."
  • "Police Interrogation." freeBEAGLES.
  • Redlich, Allison D. , Ph.D. "Law & Psychiatry: Mental Illness, Police Interrogations, and the Potential for False Confession." Psychiatric Services.
  • "The Reid 9 Steps of Interrogation, In Brief." Practical Aspects of Interview and Interrogation.
  • "The Reid Technique of interviewing and interrogation: Case studies."