Watching one of those forensic tv shows, a police officer was accused of murdering his wife. All the evidence pointed to him as the killer. He took a polygraph and passed. He still went to jail. Later, re-creation of the murder scene and testimony by expert witnesses on the angles of gunshots found the officer not guilty, the murder was instead, a suicide.
Passing a polygraph in this case, as in many cases, didn’t really seem to matter. Failing a polygraph is what gets the fingers pointing and tongues wagging, “see there, he failed the lie detector test, he’s guilty for sure.” We’ve been conditioned by the media to believe that polygraphs detect lies.
The issue of polygraphs is strange. If the courts don’t believe in their reliability, if their results are inadmissible, why then are they still being used for maintenance and monitoring of registrants on probation or under supervision? Either they’re accurate or they’re not, you can’t have it both ways.
According to the US Courts, polygraph examinations are given at the discretion of the probation officer “to ensure compliance of supervision and treatment programs.” Their purpose according to the courts is to “serve the statutory sentencing purposes of public protection, deterrence and rehabilitation”.
But if they’re not foolproof, then how are they ensuring, protecting, deterring or rehabilitating anyone? And when polygraphs are failed or inconclusive for no apparent reason, what does that do to the integrity of the registrant taking the test?
I recently heard from a registrant that had routinely passed all his polygraphs while on probation. Suddenly, he failed two in a row. Now his P.O and treatment counselors were questioning whether he was a liar. He knew he had the full trust of family and friends, yet he couldn’t help but wonder, what they were thinking, were they starting to question his integrity, did they believe the test results which he knew had to be incorrect?
The registrant was upset, and rightly so. He was angry that the integrity which he had struggled for years to rebuild, was now in question. He hadn’t strayed from his probation or course of treatment, hadn’t re-offended or had any thoughts of re-offending. He was doing everything he was supposed to, following all the requirements and yet a polygraph result was being used to infer that he was lying, being deceitful. In fact, his P.O. went so far as to tell him there would be “serious consequences” if he failed the next polygraph.
Polygraphs measure and record physiological responses such as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing patterns and galvanic skin response when a person is asked and responds to questions. The polygraph examiner takes those physiological measurements, interprets the results and offers an “opinion”, somewhat subjective, regarding any deception on the test taker’s part.
Here we have a registrant, adamant that he’d done nothing wrong and a polygraph result labeling him as being deceitful.
Now, let’s add a few strange facts into the mix.
During the same few months that this registrant failed his 2 polygraphs, several others in the same treatment group who had also routinely passed their tests, failed their polygraphs as well.
This polygraph technician routinely collaborated with another technician regarding test results.
During those few months of “failed” polygraphs, the polygraph testing company’s state contract was up for renewal but was under-bid by another company. (Later, that contract would fall through and this company would win back their contract, at the new, increased, test rate.)
The registrant with the 2 failed polygraphs had taken both failed exams in the early morning (the time had been scheduled for him, not by him.) Even though test takers are advised to get a good night’s sleep prior to taking the exam, this registrant was required to take both tests after having worked until 1AM the morning of the exam and having gotten very little sleep.
In treatment group when registrants discussed their anger and anxiety over recently failing polygraphs for no apparent reason, counselors asked what they could do to help the registrants pass their exams. (Of course, there was nothing they could do.)
Long story short, during the next round of polygraphs, most of the registrants, including the one with the 2 failed polygraphs, passed.
The test questions were the same as those asked during the previously failed tests. No one had deviated from their supervision requirements, no one had re-offended. Everything was pretty much the same, only this time people were passing their tests.
The treatment counselors and P.O.s were happy. They told the registrants how proud they were that they had passed their exams.
Registrants being forced to take polygraphs that bring their integrity in to question, polygraphs that are scheduled with no consideration as to a registrant’s work/sleep schedule, an unusual amount of “failed” polygraph exams when state contracts just happen to be on the line?
Of course, there’s no proof that anything’s amiss here, but it all sounds a little sketchy, a little too co-incidental. It’s one of those things that make you think, “Hmmm”.
What bothers me is bringing a registrant’s integrity in to question and threatening them with serious consequences when they fail a polygraph. Polygraphs are not 100% accurate and there seems to be numerous physiological issues that can skew the results. People have lied and passed polygraphs and people have told the truth and still failed.
Registrants are assumed to be “deceitful” and threatened with “serious consequences” if they fail a polygraph. On the flip side, when they pass the exam, treatment counselors felt that a “we’re so proud of you” comment would instantly erase the doubts of integrity and deceitfulness that had been heaped upon the registrants just weeks before?
New Year, new price increase, same old polygraph technology.