Interrogation Company Insists That ‘When They See Us’ Got It Wrong

Interrogation Company Insists That ‘When They See Us’ Got It Wrong

In “When They See Us,” a Netflix series that dramatizes the Central Park jogger case, five black and Hispanic teenage boys are interrogated by investigators in scenes that show them bewildered, scared and alone.

In the show, as in reality, the boys make statements under pressure, implicating themselves and one another in the brutal rape of a woman who had been jogging in Central Park in 1989.

The case was sensationalized in news headlines, and the boys were wrongfully convicted. Their convictions were vacated in 2002, and their story became a poignant and painful testament to racial injustice, prosecutorial overreach and other problems that have plagued criminal justice in the United States.

In the Netflix series, created and directed by Ava DuVernay, one character refers to the investigators’ harsh questioning methods as “the Reid technique,” a set of guidelines used by law enforcement agencies across the country in interrogation.

A lawsuit filed this week argues that this characterization was wrong. The plaintiff, John E. Reid and Associates, which trains investigators to use the Reid technique, is suing Ms. DuVernay and Netflix for defamation.

The Reid technique is a method of questioning people who are suspected of committing a crime. It consists of three stages: a fact analysis, an investigative interview and a more confrontational interrogation.

If a suspect reaches the third stage, the guidelines say, an investigator should briefly leave the room, come back (possibly with a prop, like a folder) and tell the suspect that the evidence suggests he or she committed the crime, even if that is not true.

“Andy, there isn’t any doubt at all that you are the person who took this money,” reads a line of sample dialogue from the book “The Investigator Anthology,” which provides an overview of the Reid technique. “I want to sit down here with you and see if we can’t get this thing straightened out.”

Critics of the technique say that it can lead to false confessions. But the company has argued that false confessions arise mainly when the guidelines are not followed correctly — for example, when investigators physically abuse people or fail to take special precautions when dealing with minors.

The first episode of “When They See Us” shows the teenagers in police interrogation rooms. In those scenes, investigators tell the boys that they have been accused of rape, lead them to believe that they can go home if they cooperate, coach them on what to say and, in some cases, physically assault them.

But the Reid technique prohibits “striking or assaulting a subject, making any promises of leniency, denying a subject any rights, conducting excessively long interrogations, or denying a subject any physical needs,” the lawsuit says.

“Reid also urges that extreme care and caution be used with juveniles or those mentally impaired,” it continues. “All of this information is publicly available upon even the most cursory of searches.”

In the fourth and final episode of “When They See Us,” the Reid technique is referred to by name. The scene, set in 2002, includes three people portrayed by actors: Nancy Ryan and Peter Casolaro, of the Manhattan district attorney’s office; and Mike Sheehan, who served as a detective in the Central Park jogger case.

“You squeezed statements out of them after 42 hours of questioning and coercing,” Mr. Casolaro says to Mr. Sheehan in the scene. “Without food, bathroom breaks. Withholding parental supervision. The Reid technique has been universally rejected. That’s truth to you?”

“I don’t know what the Reid technique is,” Mr. Sheehan responds, including an expletive.

Philip M. Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University, said he did not know what the Reid technique was either when he used an approximation of it as a police officer in New Hampshire in the 1980s. He had not been formally trained in the method and learned about it from other investigators.

The first time he used it, he said, it was to get a confession from a man who had been accused of child abuse. It worked. And while Dr. Stinson said he did not doubt the veracity of that confession, he now questions the methodology.

“I’ve always thought of it as psychological gamesmanship,” he said. “You’re playing a game where you’re trying to really sort of outfox and confuse somebody into making a confession.”

The lawsuit says that John E. Reid developed the technique and that it was first taught to investigators in 1974.

Mr. Reid, a former Chicago police officer, had been considered an expert on interrogations since at least the 1950s. “Criminal Interrogation and Confessions,” a book he co-wrote, is now in its fifth edition and has been a prominent text in criminal justice since its initial publication in 1962.

That first edition contained recommendations that echo the Reid technique today. It, too, warned that physical abuse could lead to false confessions. (It added that “the effects of indirect physical abuse, such as temporary denial of food, sleep or other physical comforts, are not so predictable.”)

The 1966 Supreme Court ruling on Miranda v. Arizona, which barred the police from interrogating suspects who are in custody without first advising them of their constitutional rights, cited the book — highlighting sections on how investigators could encourage speech or dissuade people from seeking a lawyer — as evidence of why people were entitled to be reminded of those rights.

So while the technique and training methods might have been formally codified in the 1970s, Dr. Stinson said, the principles of interrogation introduced by Mr. Reid, who died in 1982, have been a major influence on police interrogators for more than half a century. And many officers, himself included, did not learn about the techniques through formal training sessions from John E. Reid and Associates.

“As a result of that, over the years, things like the Reid technique have degenerated into really going off the rails in terms of how they’re being implemented,” Dr. Stinson said.

Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has called for all police interrogations to be recorded on video, pointed to several documents and articles over the past decade that raised concerns about the reliability of methods like the Reid technique.

The methodology, he added, “has more than its share of critics among scientists and practitioners alike.”

The lawsuit challenged the idea that the technique is losing relevance. It noted that Reid clients have included the F.B.I., the State Department and all branches of the United States military. A training schedule on the company’s website shows that hundreds of courses have been scheduled in cities across the United States from now through the end of 2020.

But the company, which is based in Chicago, said it had attracted negative attention because of the Netflix series.

“At nearly all of its seminars and programs, Reid now fields questions and negative feedback regarding ‘When They See Us,’” the complaint said.

“Accordingly, Reid has now dedicated a regular section of its training seminars and programs to addressing” the series and the case, the complaint added, calling it “a drain” on time and resources.

The lawsuit, filed on Monday in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, seeks monetary damages and an injunction that forces Netflix to either stop streaming the series or “delete the defamatory references.”

Netflix declined to comment on the lawsuit. Neither John E. Reid and Associates, its lawyers nor representatives of Ms. DuVernay responded to requests for comment.

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