By Robert Kolker
The modern style of questioning criminal suspects—the set of techniques practiced fruitlessly by those first detectives in the Medellin case, and familiar to all of us from a thousand police procedurals—is a rusty, stalwart invention that’s been around since the days of JFK. It has a proud history: Born during a period of reform, it started out as an enlightened alternative to the bad old ways of policing that preceded it.
Until the mid-1930s, police still widely used the “third degree”—that is, torture—to get suspects to talk. Officers across the country hung suspects out of windows, dunked their heads underwater, and hit them. In 1931 a presidential panel known as the Wickersham Commission called attention to the brutality of the third degree. Then, in 1936, the US Supreme Court effectively outlawed the practice with its ruling in Brown v. Mississippi, a case involving three black men who were beaten and whipped until they confessed.
Police closed ranks at first, but they eventually came around to new approaches. J. Edgar Hoover, for one, was especially keen to rebrand his agents as advanced practitioners of law enforcement science. “Third-degree methods, an ill-trained officer might think, perhaps a severe beating, will force a confession,” Hoover said at the time. “But the trained officer, schooled in the latest techniques of crime detection, will think otherwise.” Crime labs were developing new methods of solving cases—ballistics, fingerprinting, document examination—and with them came a new, more psychological approach to interrogation.
The most influential nonviolent method of questioning suspects debuted in 1962 with the first edition of Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, by Fred Inbau, a Northwestern University law professor who ran one of the country’s first crime labs, and John E. Reid, a former police officer turned polygraphy expert. Now in its fifth printing, the book set the mold for police interrogations in America. Through the 1940s and ’50s, Reid had built a reputation as a master interrogator, extracting confessions in over 300 murder cases. He and Inbau likened the interrogator’s task to “a hunter stalking his game.” An interrogation, they explained, should be designed to persuade a suspect that confessing is the only sensible option; to get confessions, they wrote, police must sweep up suspects in a wave of momentum that they’ll find impossible to reverse.
All the major tropes of a traditional police interrogation can be traced back to Reid and Inbau’s manual: the claustrophobic room, the interrogators’ outward projection of certainty, the insistence on a theory of the case that assumes the suspect’s guilt. (The manual calls this a “theme.”) The interrogators bolster that theme with what they characterize as incontrovertible evidence, which can include facts drawn from real detective work (“We know you got off work at 5 pm”) or details that are completely fabricated (“The polygraph says you did it”). Toward the end, interrogators are encouraged to “minimize” the crime in a consoling sort of way (“He had it coming, didn’t he?”). All the while, they cut off all denials until the suspect cracks. Detectives are allowed to use deceit and trickery because, as Inbau and Reid explained, none of these techniques are “apt to induce an innocent person to confess a crime he did not commit.”
Picture: Sgt. Brian Godette (https://www.dvidshub.net/image/920411) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons