John Oliver on police interrogations: ‘If they have decided you are guilty, you’re in big trouble’ | John Oliver
John Oliver investigated the unreliability and predatory nature of police interrogations, which are often aimed at extracting a confession rather than determining truth. Confessions are “viewed as the gold standard when it comes to an indicator of guilt, as they can apparently be more persuasive than even DNA evidence”, the Last Week Tonight host explained on Sunday evening.
An admission of guilt, however obtained, is “wildly persuasive”, he added, “because we think that they’re one of those things that only guilty people do, like posting a Notes app apology or refusing to answer any of Ronan Farrow’s questions”.
But confessions can be false and coerced. Of all the convictions overturned by DNA testing, 29% involved a false confession. While that might seem baffling, “the truth is, there are a number of reasons an innocent person might confess to something they didn’t do,” said Oliver, “and a lot of that comes down to what happens in a police interrogation room.”
The modern practice of police interrogations in the US developed after a 1936 supreme court ruling outlawing physical coercion. The most popular now is the Reid Technique, which has “influenced nearly every aspect of modern police interrogations”, according to a 2013 New Yorker investigation. “The Reid Technique has become one of those things that just culturally comes with being a cop,” Oliver explained. “You know, like their fondness for donuts or their complicity in the perpetuation of state-sponsored violence.”
The technique involves two phases: the interview, an evaluation of trustworthiness via dubious behavioral analysis (studies show the accuracy is basically 50-50, or “around the same accuracy as a Buzzfeed quiz”, said Oliver), and the interrogation. “If they have decided you are guilty, you’re in big trouble,” said Oliver of interrogations. “Because while they say they are looking for the truth, Reid trains officers to steer the conversation away from anything that’s not a confession.
“If an investigator is trying to get you to confess, they can grind you down,” he continued, citing a study which found that false confessions came after an average of 16.3 hours of questioning.
“The notion that people crack under pressure and falsely confess really shouldn’t be that hard to understand. It’s a concept that even children’s cartoons get,” Oliver said, referring to a clip from My Little Pony (really) in which a character cracks under interrogation and shouts “tell me what you want me to say and I’ll say it!”
Compounding the issue is that once a confession, even a blatantly false one, is secured, investigations tend to stop. And it’s legal in the US for police to lie to suspects about evidence. “The police in this country can flat-out lie to you to make you think you have no choice but to confess,” Oliver said, which he called “crazy”. Most other countries don’t allow it, “and for good reason – it is far too powerful a tool.”
As a whole, “the overwhelming pressure of a police interrogation, coupled with their ability to invent evidence, can actually make people question their own memories”, Oliver continued. These tactics, unsurprisingly, prey on already vulnerable people – research shows that false confessions played a role in 34% of wrongful convictions involving those under 18, and in 69% of cases involving mental illness or intellectual disability.
Regardless of the tactics, it’s not guaranteed that juries will see anything beyond the confession; only 30 states require showing the recording of all or some of the interrogation. “You just cannot get the full story from seeing one short clip,” said Oliver. It would be like basing the plot of One Tree Hill, a teen soap about high school basketball, just on its infamous scene of a dog eating a heart transplant.
The current issue with police interrogations is “the same problem that we have with policing at large,” said Oliver. “They’re emboldened to act however they’d like in a system where they hold an undue amount of power with very few protections for civilians, especially the most vulnerable.”
What can be done? Oliver argued that US courts should require that interrogations be recorded and shown in their entirety and that police should be banned from lying to suspects, “because it is madness that they are currently allowed to do that”.
There has been some movement on this front already; Oregon, Illinois and Utah have already banned police from lying to juvenile suspects, and New York has introduced legislation that would ban lying to all suspects and require courts to evaluate the reliability of confession evidence before using it. “That should be adopted absolutely everywhere,” said Oliver.
In the meantime, there’s decades of cultural conditioning from crime procedurals and “ends justify the means” cops to undo. “Our misconceptions about police interrogations have been hammered in by crime dramas,” said Oliver, “and they’ve been hammered in deep.”