“Reid” This: Is It Time To Change Police Interrogation Techniques?

Recently, a news story made its way across the Calgary news landscape: Alberta Provincial Court Judge Dinkel ruled an inclupatory statement made by the accused, Christa Lynn Chapple, inadmissible as evidence at the trial. The ruling found the statement was not given freely and voluntary as a result of the police interrogation. The actual ruling was made earlier this summer, but received media attention as journalists connected the decision to a recent field study on police questioning practices.

This study is one of a series of studies on Canadian police practices researched by the psychology department at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. The primary researcher, Brent Snook, associate professor of psychology at the university, also co-authored another published study from 2012 on the training of Canadian police in the “technique” of interviewing witnesses. The same Memorial team, of Snook, MacDonald, and Eastwood, also published an earlier study in 2010 on how Canadian police administer the right to silence and the right to retain and instruct counsel – both are required cautions to be given to an accused in police detention as a result of the Charter and Charter case law interpretation. Eastwood and Snook both published a paper in 2009 on how understandable to the accused the right to silence caution was when actually given by the arresting police officer.

Clearly, this group of researchers has looked long and hard at Canadian police investigatory practices and techniques and are well equipped to comment on police practices generally. Comment, they did - in the opening statement of the police training study paper, the authors find that “Two recent field studies on how Canadian police officers interview witnesses suggest that most interviewers are not employing best practices.”

This deficiency in practice was further identified in the most recent study on police questioning. Specifically, the researchers were concerned with the practice of the police to ask “close-end” or leading questions, which did not permit a free flow of information from the witness. Often, the interrogators “violated the recommended 80–20 talking rule and interrupted witnesses … in almost 90% of the interviews.” Such line of interrogation, which requires the investigator to control the interview and the information flowing from the questioning, does not, in the researchers opinion, allow for accurate and complete statements. A lack of training, supervision, and feedback was identified as the main reasons why the interview practices were so inadequate.

It is this kind of interview technique which was at the core of the Chapple case. Christa Lynn Chapple was an operator of a day home for children and had in her care a young child who subsequently suffered an unexplained head injury. At the time of the incident, Chapple was interviewed twice with no charges laid. A year later, after the police received forensic information from Dr. Matshes, a forensic pathologist, Chapple was arrested for aggravated assault and brought in for questioning. It must be noted, as Judge Dinkel also noted, that Dr. Matshes was under investigation for coming to “making unreasonable conclusions” in his forensic findings. In any event, Dr. Matshes opinion that the injury was done by non-accidental blunt force trauma caused the investigators to believe that Chapple was involved despite the lack of evidence to tie her to the injury and despite her previous denials.

The interview spanned over eight hours. It was an arduous interview in which Chapple tried to exercise her right to remain silent at least 24 times. Each time she attempted to exercise her right, the police interviewer ignored Chapple and immediately took over the interview by talking over her. In this interview the 80-20 rule, also known as the Pareto Analysis, requiring the suspect to speak 80% of the time, while the interviewer spoke 20% of the time, was practically reversed. The interview was peppered with long monologues from the police questioner, leading questions, and a repeated disbelief in the statements of Chapple, when she was actually given the opportunity to say something.

This form of questioning is known as the Reid Technique, a line of questioning formulated by Joseph Buckley in the 1950’s, where the investigator uses control of the witness and lengthy monologues to extract a confession. The technique, as Judge Dinkel described in Chapple, “a guilt presumptive interrogation disguised as truth-seeking interview” where “innocence is not an option.” The interview, according to Judge Dinkel’s findings, “was bent on extracting a confession at any cost.” The cost was, in fact, too high as the statement, taken in utterly oppressive circumstances, was deemed involuntary.

There are fortunately lessons to be learned from the courts when evidence is not admitted. The administration of justice, when faced with such findings of a judge, must rethink the practice or the implementation of a technique to ensure the system does not come into disrepute. Fortunately, Calgary Police Services is doing a review of their practices and training. Hopefully, they will be reviewing the studies of Snook and his team as well.

The Reid Technique is still being used across North America. This is in stark contrast to the studies from Memorial University and in defiance of a global trend to ensure miscarriages of justice, through false confessions, do not occur. The only way we can ensure this will not happen is by preserving and protecting the rights of an accused person, which goes to the very core values of our criminal justice system such as the presumption of innocence.

In previous postings, I have discussed the importance of the presumption of innocence to our criminal justice system. Those postings can be found here and here. In the next posting I will expand on the reason why a statement made by an accused to a person in authority, such as a police officer, must be freely and voluntarily given to be admissible in court. The reasoning, as I will discuss, ties into one of the major “themes” of criminal law: choice.