John Oliver on police interrogation: ‘If they find you guilty, you’re in big trouble’ | John Oliver

John Oliver investigates the unreliability and predatory nature of police interrogations, which are often aimed at obtaining confessions rather than determining the truth. Confessions are “viewed as the gold standard when it comes to indicators of guilt, because they seem to be more persuasive than DNA evidence”, the host of Last Week Tonight explained on Sunday night.

The guilty plea, however obtained, was “very persuasive”, he added, “because we think it’s one of the things only guilty people do, like posting a Notes app apology or refusing to answer Ronan Farrow’s questions. “.

But confessions can be wrong and forced. Of all convictions overturned by DNA testing, 29% involved false confessions. While that may seem confusing, “there are actually several reasons why innocent people might confess to something they didn’t do,” Oliver said, “and many of those reasons are what happened in the police interrogation room. .”

Modern police interrogation practices in the US evolved after a 1936 Supreme Court ruling against physical coercion. The most popular today is the Reid Technique, which has “influenced nearly every aspect of modern police interrogation”, according to a 2013 New Yorker investigation. “You know, like their fondness for donuts or their involvement in perpetuating state-sponsored violence.”

The technique involves two phases: an interview, an evaluation of trustworthiness through an analysis of dubious behavior (research shows an accuracy of basically 50-50, or “about the same accuracy as a Buzzfeed quiz”, Oliver said), and an interrogation. “If they find you guilty, you’re in big trouble,” Oliver said of the interrogation. “Because when they say they’re looking for the truth, Reid is training officers to divert the conversation from anything that isn’t a confession.

“If an investigator tries to get you to confess, they can put you down,” he continued, citing a study that found that false confessions emerged after an average of 16.3 hours of interrogation.

“The idea that people crack under pressure and admit to being fake shouldn’t be that hard to grasp. It’s a concept that even children’s cartoons get,” Oliver said, referring to a clip from My Little Pony (really) in which a character cracks under interrogation and screams, “tell me what you want me to say and I will say it!”

Complicating matters is that once a confession, even one that is blatantly false, is secured, the investigation tends to stop. And it’s legal in the US for police to lie to suspects about evidence. “The police in this country can lie to you to make you think you have no choice but to confess,” said Oliver, who he called “insane”. Most other countries don’t allow it, “and for good reason – it’s too powerful a tool.”

Overall, “the tremendous pressure of police interrogation, coupled with their ability to find evidence, can actually lead people to question their own memories”, Oliver continues. This tactic, unsurprisingly, preys on people who are already vulnerable – research shows that false confessions play a role in 34% of false beliefs involving those under the age of 18, and in 69% of cases involving mental illness or intellectual disability.

Despite the tactics, there is no guarantee that the jury will see anything beyond confession; only 30 states need to show recordings of all or part of an interrogation. “You can’t get the full story from viewing one short clip,” Oliver said. It would be like basing the plot of One Tree Hill, a teen soap about high school basketball, only on the famous scene of a dog eating a heart transplant.

The current problem with police interrogation is “the same problems we have with police in general,” Oliver said. “They dare to act as they please in a system where they wield undue power with very little protection for civilians, especially the most vulnerable.”

What can be done? Oliver argued that US courts should require that interrogations be recorded and shown in their entirety and that police should be prohibited from lying to suspects, “because it is madness that they are currently allowed to do that”.

There’s been some movement on this front already; Oregon, Illinois and Utah have banned police from lying to juvenile suspects, and New York has introduced laws that would prohibit lying to all suspects and require courts to evaluate the reliability of confessional evidence before using it. “It really should be adopted everywhere,” Oliver said.

Meanwhile, there are decades of cultural conditioning of criminal procedures and police “goals justifying means” to overturn. “Our misunderstandings about police interrogation have been hammered out by the crime drama,” Oliver said, “and they’ve been hammered deeply.”

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