Tactics Police Use to Get a Confession

Learn about the various techniques used by police officers to get a confession.

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Police officers use a variety of tactics in order to obtain confessions from people accused of committing crimes. If police want to question you, you need to know what to expect and how protect your rights. For more information on dealing with police, see Practical Advice for Dealing with Police Encounters and Questioning by the Police.

If police want to interview you about a crime, there are two key things to remember. First, police interrogations are designed to produce confessions. (For a real-life example of an accusatory interrogation, see the blog post Criminal Injustice Up Close.) Second, the best way to protect yourself—even if you do not believe that you have done anything wrong—is to never make a statement to police without first talking to a lawyer. Police use lots of different tactics to obtain confessions.The best way to avoid saying something incriminating is to not say anything at all. If an officer questions you, tell the officer you do not wish to make a statement and you would like an attorney. Repeat as needed.

The Reid Technique

When police officers suspect a person of a crime, they often use the Reid interrogation technique, first developed in the 1940s. This is the sort of questioning you see in the movies and on television. Suspects are questioned at the police station, in a dingy room, with one officer playing “good cop” and another playing “bad cop.” In police procedurals, there are cigarettes and coffee, and the questioning invariably ends with a tearful confession or a slick defense attorney coming in and shutting down the interview. In real life, the Reid technique is very effective at producing confessions. This is why it has been used for over half a century.

Under this technique, police rely on three concepts that are intended to lead the suspect to believe that confessing to the crime (whether guilty or not) is in the suspect’s best interests:

  • Isolation. Officers isolate the suspect from family and friends, in the hopes that it will make the person feel alone. The reliance on isolation led to the development of the modern, windowless interrogation room.
  • Maximization. The officer starts out by stating that the suspect is guilty. The officer knows it and the defendant knows it. The officer will then present a theory of the crime (sometimes supported by other evidence, sometimes completely fabricated) that offers details that the suspect can later parrot back to the officer. The officer ignores or refutes any claims of innocence by the defendant. This is the “bad cop” portion of the interview. The cop knows that suspect is lying, knows that the suspect did it, and the suspect is wasting everyone’s time with protests of innocence.
  • Minimization. Finally, after the officer had made it clear to the suspect that no claims of innocence will be entertained, the officer moves on to the “good cop” portion of the interview. Now, the police officer tells the suspect that the officer understands why the suspect did it and everyone else will understand too. Won’t the suspect feel better after confessing? If the suspect confesses, good things will happen – a lesser charge, a chance to go home. If not, the suspect will remain in custody forever.

If you are questioned at a police station, there is a good chance you will be subjected to the Reid technique. Avoid saying anything incriminating by keeping your mouth shut and asking for a lawyer.

Informal Questioning

Informal questioning can also occur any time a person interacts with an officer. If an officer stops you and you do not know why, you should assume that the officer suspects you of committing a crime—whether that crime is speeding or murder—and is trying to get you to confess to the crime, and you should act accordingly. Ask if you are free to leave. If you are, then leave. If not, then say that you do not wish to answer any questions and you wish to speak to an attorney.

Lying

It is an urban myth that police officers can never lie. There is no law or rule against police officers saying that certain evidence exists or that a co-defendant has confessed, even if is this is not true. Police are generally prohibited from making threats (“If you do not confess, we will make certain that you never see your children again”) and promises (“If you confess now, we will charge a less serious crime”), although the lines between impermissible threats and promises and allowed police tactics are far from clear. Again, the best way to protect yourself from police tactics it with the assistance of an attorney. Your attorney can investigate the case and find out what evidence, if any, police have against you.

Do Police Tactics Encourage False Confessions?

There have been numerous high profile cases of people exonerated, often by DNA evidence, after falsely confessing to a crime that they did not commit. Psychological research shows that juveniles and people with diminished mental capacity are at greater risk for false confessions and that—crazily enough—people that are innocent may be more likely to falsely confess on the mistaken belief that they can confess, end the interrogation, and then get everything sorted out later. Mandatory recording of police interrogations in their entirety has been shown to reduce false confessions and some jurisdictions have adopted this reform.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

If you are accused of, charged with, or questioned about a crime, do not make a statement to police without a lawyer present. Invoke your rights – say, “I do not wish to make a statement. I am invoking my right to silence. I would like an attorney.” Then, contact a local criminal defense attorney. An attorney can help you decide what, if anything, you should say to police.

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