Now We See You: The Reid Technique and 'When They See Us'

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Reid never has acknowledged an uncomfortable truth that this lawsuit may expose if Duvernay and Netflix win: that is, that the Reid Technique, whether used correctly or incorrectly, can cause incalculable harm to innocent people and to justice itself.

By Nancy Gertner and Dean A. Strang

You may not have heard of John E. Reid & Associates, a Chicago firm that teaches law enforcement officers interrogation techniques. But you will now.

Choosing two snippets from When They See Us, Ava Duvernay’s blockbuster series on the false confessions that New York police elicited from five teenaged boys in the Central Park jogger case, Reid has sued Duvernay and the distributor, Netflix, for defamation. It contends that the two bits of dialog—one referring to Reid’s interrogation technique as universally rejected and the other suggesting that the lengthy, arduous interrogations of the five teenagers were consistent with the technique—were false and damaged its reputation and business.

Duvernay and Netflix may be able to defend on grounds that the disputed brief statements are true, or opinion, or within dramatic license. But Reid’s lawsuit raises deeper issues and reveals something about the firm itself.

The lawsuit picks a precarious path. On one side, Reid claims—correctly—to be the leading trainer of police interrogation techniques in the country. On the other side, though, when courts find that interrogations by those trained in the Reid Technique have produced false confessions, Reid denies any fault: Interrogators must have misapplied the techniques. Reid is like Betty Crocker. If your cake isn’t so great, you must not have followed exactly the instructions on the box.

Reid never has acknowledged an uncomfortable truth that this lawsuit may expose if Duvernay and Netflix win: that is, that the Reid Technique, whether used correctly or incorrectly, can cause incalculable harm to innocent people and to justice itself. Whatever the outcome, Reid’s huffing about its reputation and corporate bottom line will assure that millions of viewers who did not catch or appreciate passing references to the Reid Technique will now learn about this company’s methods.

Although the Reid Technique has been updated since 1962, it still rests largely on old beliefs about behavioral psychology and the wishful notion that police officers can become foolproof human lie detectors. Once they have concluded from body language and words that a suspect is lying, Reid trains interrogating officers to reject denials of guilt. It teaches officers they may isolate vulnerable suspects in custody, falsely pose as the suspect’s friend or ally, minimize guilt or consequences to induce a confession, even lie to a suspect by claiming nonexistent evidence. It is confrontational, which can be intimidating. For some officers, it can become about confessions, not about truth.

The results? The National Registry of Exonerations documents that almost one out of eight wrongfully convicted innocent people confessed falsely: about 12%, 304 of 2,503. When you consider youth and mental illness or disability, the percentages skyrocket as those in custody become younger or impaired.

Because the Reid Technique has been used almost exclusively since the mid-1970s in the United States, a fair inference is that many of these confessions occurred with police officers who were, or thought they were, using the Reid Technique. Much of the world has moved on to newer, more reliable, non-confrontational interview techniques. America has not.

And what does Reid do in the face of documented and troubling problems with its technique? It continues to offer seminars for a fee, and points to general cautionary passages in books and website materials that few busy cops read.

What it doesn’t do is take ownership of bad results. Wisconsin officers who manipulated a learning-disabled boy, Brendan Dassey of Making A Murderer, and fed him information to parrot back, later won Meritorious Service Awards for their work in that case. Did Reid speak up then and say, no, those officers misapplied our techniques? Crickets. When the false confessions in the Central Park jogger case unraveled and the real rapist was identified, did Reid explain then how the police misused the company’s teaching? No. Instead, it now sues some of the people who illuminated the injustice.

Unfortunately, Reid does not make cake mixes. When interrogations go wrong, real people get hurt. The innocent sometimes confess falsely and go to prison; when that happens, the guilty escape justice. At some point, people training interrogators in stale, unreliable methods should do something more than complain that their reputation and profits are hurt. They should start teaching only reliable, scientifically sound, 21st century interview techniques. Since 2017, the second-leading trainer, Wicklander-Zulawski, has.

Maybe Reid hasn’t been defamed: Maybe it’s been debunked. Now we can see.

Nancy Gertner is a retired federal judge of the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, who left the bench to teach at the Harvard Law School. Dean Strang is a criminal defense lawyer, a visiting professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, the author of two books of legal history, and one of Steven Avery’s trial lawyers in the cases in Netflix’s ‘Making A Murderer’.