Security, law enforcement react to change in U.S. interrogation technique

March 10, 2017
Wicklander-Zulawski decision to drop the 'Reid Method' has generated mixed opinions

After Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates, Inc. (WZ), a provider of interview and interrogation training for loss prevention, security and law enforcement, announced earlier this week that it would no longer offer training in the Reid Method, the firestorm began raging. In response, John E. Reid and Associates, Inc. has been sending out a flurry of press releases and statements defending its method. Current and former police and security professionals are weighing in on both sides of the issue, and controversy abounds.

The Reid Method has been a staple of American interrogation tactics since the 1970s. Originated in the 1940s by polygrapher John Reid, the technique incorporates elements of the interview conducted prior to a polygraph examination, the exam itself and the interrogation that takes place following the exam. An interrogator subscribing to this technique corners the suspect in a very small room, which signals that the interrogator is the suspect’s only way out; insists on the suspect’s guilt; and creates a “theme,” or a tale that fits the facts of the case as the interrogator knows them at that moment. Evaluation of “tells” or body movements, techniques such as minimization (“The crime wasn’t really that big a deal”) and maximization (“This is a huge crime – you don’t want to take all the blame for it, do you?”) and the classic good cop/bad cop are also part of the system.

Polygrapher Fern Abbott, a 30-year veteran of the security industry and the director of AFI Security Training Institute in New Jersey, points to her own training as a reason to embrace the change: “Confrontational interviews/interrogations put the suspect on the defense and makes the suspect dig in, denying guilt, whether that’s true or not,” she says. “When I attended the National Training Center of Polygraph Science, directed by Richard O. Arthur [a police polygraph pioneer], the method we were taught that stands out most in my mind is to empathize with the suspect: ‘I can understand why....’ Switching to this technique got me my first confession in my first specific polygraph exam.”

John Demand, a former police officer and the founder of Observation on Demand, a company that provides training in rapid threat recognition and facial recognition, points out that, “we do not have to throw out the baby with the bath water when looking at interrogation techniques. Behavioral analysis, body language and forensic linguistics, as well as interrogation, can be effective in criminal investigation as an adjunct tool to probe for additional clues and investigation.  Although each of these have their failings in some cases, they provide a means to help narrow the field of suspects.”

Detective Sergeant John McGrath, CPP, CTM, (retired) of the Pima County (Ariz.) Sheriff’s Department, agrees. He comments on the statement “that the detection of deception through observation of body language and paralinguistic cues is not reliable. This is absolutely true – and also false. An untrained and inexperienced interviewer will not be able to detect abnormal body language or paralinguistic behaviors,” he says. “Neither can a trained interviewer detect deception by observing body language and paralinguistic behaviors. What a well-trained interviewer may be able to detect, in some subjects, is anxiety which may be correlated with deception. It’s the same principle on which polygraphs operate: Some people get nervous when they lie and have trouble keeping their stories straight as questioning evolves, all of which may produce observable behaviors. In a best-case scenario, these cues will merely give an interviewer and investigator some areas or issues to probe more deeply. It is absolutely not proof of deception.”  

To be sure, the advent of the Reid technique was a welcome departure from the interrogation technique in use at the time: the “third degree” (beatings, torture, etc.). In keeping with the professionalism of law enforcement that J. Edgar Hoover strove for, such as the development of the sciences of fingerprint and document examination and ballistics, this new questioning method relied on a “scientific” psychological approach.

Now, in the 21st century, W-Z is departing from the Reid Method, considering it a relic of interrogation tactics that should recede into the past. According to W-Z, the company has taught the Reid technique under license from John E. Reid and Associates, Inc. for 33 years. W-Z has now made the business decision to focus its training on its own Participatory Method, Cognitive Interviewing, Fact-Finding and Selective Interviewing, and Non-Confrontational Method.

The change comes at a time when evidence-based scientific research, court decisions and the U.S. government have arrived at an agreement regarding the long-used Reid Method: It’s time to move on.

Flying in the Face of Evidence

Legitimate researchers, including Kassin, Fong, Leo, McNall, Köhnken and Shaw, have conducted many scientific inquiries into elements of the Reid technique and found it wanting. Some of the problems include an interrogator’s belief in the reliability of verbal and non-verbal behaviors to indicate deception, as well as police officers’ misplaced confidence in their abilities to detect untruthfulness. The research demonstrates that law enforcement officers have no better success at figuring out whether a person is lying than the average, untrained layperson, yet LEOs have extremely high confidence in their abilities to detect deception. This disconnect creates a circular proposition—that investigators can tell who is being deceitful and, on the strength of that, subject such suspects to techniques that are reserved only for those being deceitful, and the investigators clearly must be correct about who is lying because they are confident in their abilities to make such judgments—that has led to false confessions and subsequent wrongful convictions.

In the communications Reid and Associates has been machine-gunning out in the days following the announcement of W-Z’s decision, it keeps referencing the Reid technique as the “gold standard” of interrogation, reminding readers that the courts and others have found it valuable. It also takes pains to convince readers that “using the Reid technique does not result in false confessions.” Relying on its “Best Practices” to demonstrate the validity of the Method, Reid and Associates emphasizes that an investigator should:

“Conduct an interrogation only when there is a reasonable belief that the suspect is guilty or withholding relevant information. The belief that a suspect is guilty of a crime or is withholding relevant information may be based upon investigative information, evidence, the suspect's demeanor, or verbal responses to interview questions.”

In defending its technique, the organization seems able only to focus on praise it has received over the years. There is no acknowledgement of any flaws exposed by scientific research.

Avoiding criticism and refusing to look toward the future is never a means to improvement. If law enforcement had chosen to dismiss the findings of the Kansas City Experiment, for example, agencies would still blunder around, relying on preventive patrol in the face of evidence that directed patrol is effective and allows for a better use of resources. Likewise, an initial reluctance to accept fingerprints or DNA as evidence was overcome for the benefit of the entire criminal justice system.

Who’s Wrong?

The courts themselves have expressed doubts about the reliability of the Reid Method to produce genuine confessions. This issue is difficult because it goes against logic to believe that an innocent person would confess to something he or she did not do. Neither interrogators nor the public believe anyone would falsely confess, yet research has demonstrated that subjecting a person to typical investigative techniques can easily coerce a false confession.

“Why would someone confess to a crime they didn’t commit?” asks NYPD Sergeant and Detective Squad Supervisor (Ret.) Bill Decker. “To list a few reasons: fear, intimidation, confusion, and simply being tricked into confessing in hopes of a lighter sentence,” he answers. “Why force a confession? It's cheap, and once you have one, the defendant’s chances beating the case in court are next to nil. Also, when police arrive at a scene, there is an extreme amount of pressure to come up with a possible scenario based on physical evidence, location, time and witness interviews.

“It’s not uncommon for the initial theory to be wrong,” Decker adds, “but instead of changing the theory of the crime to meet new information, investigators will push to make the players and their actions fit their theory of crime. Why? Because people don’t like to be wrong.”

“There is no injustice greater than a conviction of an innocent person, so anyone involved in the forensic process – cops, prosecutors, police trainers, etc. – has an absolute responsibility to minimize the risk of false confessions,” says McGrath. “In the cases I’m aware of in which coercive interviews went bad, the interrogators grossly exceeded reasonable time limits (eight-to10-hour interrogations) or the level of coercion employed. These are not techniques taught by or endorsed by the Reid school, although their techniques could be subject to misuse.”

Back to Basics with Non-Confrontational Interviews

The U.S. intelligence community has developed a non-coercive interrogation technique to supplant “third-degree” methods of dealing with terrorism suspects. It has begun training interrogators in the military and in the Los Angeles Police Department in this method – dubbed HIG – which is designed to get suspects to tell their version of events, rather than pressuring them into conforming to a theory of the case that the interrogator finds satisfactory. At the same time, law enforcement in the U.K. have eschewed confrontational interrogations and instead have begun relying on the PEACE method, which incorporates steps labeled, “Planning and preparation, Engage and explain, obtain an Account, Closure, and Evaluation.”

Non-confrontational interviewing makes sense. After all, who would you rather confess to – someone who is in your face, yelling and calling you a liar, or someone who treats you with dignity and allows you to tell your story at your own pace? Research has borne out that the elements of non-confrontational interviewing – providing an open atmosphere as opposed to a cramped interrogation room, establishing rapport with the suspect – are successful in securing genuine confessions.

McGrath cautions that adjustment may be difficult. “I have also been trained on other interview and interrogation techniques, most notably the Kinesic Interview taught by Stan Walters. These techniques are much less confrontational and coercive, and are also very effective,” he says. “The downside to them is that they are significantly more involved and thus difficult to learn.”

Turning a Big Ship Around

A significant obstacle to acceptance of non-confrontational interviewing, of course, is getting buy-in from law enforcement. Even if every department in the nation began implementing non-confrontational interview training tomorrow, human nature and a natural resistance to change dictate that LEOs who have been trained the old way would resist.

The biggest hurdle to widespread approbation is the implied criticism that some older or retired LEOs will hear: Instead of recognizing that a new method is part of the continuum of change, they will take it as an indirect reproach that they haven’t been doing their job properly all these years. Behind that resistance, of course, lurks a nagging thought that maybe – just perhaps – every single one of the confessions they secured weren’t always 100-percent kosher.

Shirley Pierini, CPP, PCI, a former police officer and ASIS International Past President, provides a reality check. “I have some doubts about the success of implementation because the new police officers hitting the streets today have been trained on the Reid method. It will take attrition – years or maybe decades,” she cautions, “because of resistance to a new method and the need for additional training for new and existing officers.”

Maria Dominguez, CPP, Council Liaison for the Phoenix chapter of ASIS International, agrees. “I think this is a positive change, but I believe there will some resistance, as we have with all change. The successful implementation will depend on the commitment of those who will be implementing and overseeing the change,” she adds.

Private security and LP are more willing to embrace this new method because it dovetails with corporate policies. Many companies dictate a limit to how long an interview can last, and confrontational interviews take longer than non-confrontational encounters. In addition, when an employee is the subject of an interview, the fellow employee doing the questioning can risk alienation from other workers when using confrontational methods.

“In the private sector, you have HR and liability concerns that are not as prevalent in law enforcement. Falsely accusing an employee of a crime can have significant legal consequences, so a non-accusatory method of interviewing is preferred. I think the W-Z method is a much better approach, whether interviewing a person in a public (governmental) or private case,” Darin D. Fredrickson, CPP, retired Phoenix Police Department detective and current managing partner of Team Guardian, a Phoenix-based private investigation and security firm, says. “I believe the strategy behind the techniques differs in that a criminal does not have employee rights, whereas an employee does have workplace rights. Often a private union can also have an impact on interviewing. In my experience, there is a much higher admission rate utilizing the W-Z technique versus Reid,” Fredrickson says.

About the Author:

Liz Martinez is a consultant and an expert witness in retail security, particularly organized retail crime, and in forensic linguistics. She is a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics at Arizona State University with a research focus on false confessions, and she serves as the Programs Chair for the Phoenix chapter of ASIS International. She is the author of the book The Retail Manager’s Guide to Crime & Loss Prevention: Protecting Your Business from Theft, Fraud and Violence (Looseleaf Law, 2004) and the novel Sticks and Stones, as well as hundreds of articles and short stories. She can be reached via

About the Author

Liz Martinez

Liz Martinez is a consultant and an expert witness in retail security, particularly organized retail crime, and in forensic linguistics. She is a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics at Arizona State University with a research focus on false confessions, and she serves as the Programs Chair for the Phoenix chapter of ASIS International. She is the author of the book The Retail Manager’s Guide to Crime & Loss Prevention: Protecting Your Business from Theft, Fraud and Violence (Looseleaf Law, 2004) and the novel Sticks and Stones, as well as hundreds of articles and short stories. She can be reached via