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Commentary

Kat’s Blog: Polygraphs and Integrity

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.

Really?

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.

Hmmm.

 

Join the discussion

  1. M C

    Polygraphs themselves are garbage and if you know what you are doing you can manipulate them however you want. I think they do however serve one good purpose and that is to extract information from the person who believes that they work. If you believe that it works you are more likely to come clean about something before you think the polygraph examiner reports that you are being deceptive. That said nothing good can come from taking a polygraph if you have a choice.

    • James

      I believe they are primarily used as an intimidation tactic to coerce people to make statements that match LE’s expectations. If they want a specific response to a question (i.e. admit guilt) and your pre-exam interview answers don’t match that expectation, an unethical (i.e. the one LE likes to use) examiner will bully you during the pre-exam interview to manipulate the end result of the exam itself. After all, it’s the body’s reaction they care about during the exam questions, not the actual answers themselves, unless of course the answers admit guilt.

      I highly advise those required to take exams to consider the following before taking any polygraph:

      1. Never volunteer to take an exam, and don’t sign any form to that effect. If the exam is compulsory, indicate so on any documents before signing.
      2. If taking a compulsory exam at your expense, insist on selecting an independent examiner, one not known to work for LE, then interview the examiner to determine their credibility and impartiality prior to securing their services.
      3. If you must take an exam with an examiner chosen by LE, be prepared to be intimidated, bullied, and called a liar before the exam even starts. These tactics are likely used to mentally manipulate the subject to produce either a false confession or false polygraph failure when the exam is recorded. Don’t ever go on the record by giving them a false confession. It would be better to endure the fallout of a false polygraph failure than the consequences of a coerced false confession.

  2. TS

    @Kat

    All about the money and the political connections one can have. See the recent Colorado legislation there was overturned because they were gonna do away government contracted for polygraph testing because people on the board needed their income instead of having integrity when using junk science such as this.

  3. Worried in Wisconsin

    During the time I was on supervision here in Wisconsin I took the polygraph test many times. It was explained to me that a revocation could not be initiated solely based on a failed polygraph test. A revocation could, however, be initiated for any facts that were revealed by the parolee/probationer during the pre and post interviews.

    In other words, once you failed the test the goal of the test administer was to get you to admit to something. They also tried during the pre-test interview to get some dirt, but the post test interview is where they pushed really hard. Admit to something, and then it all hits the fan.

    • Ed C

      In the 10th Circuit, even while under supervision, you can’t be forced or coerced to even answer questions that could implicate you in an offense other than one you were convicted of (See U.S. v von Behren (10th Cir., 2016)). That would amount to forced self incrimination. This doesn’t apply to answering questions about probation violations that don’t provide evidence of a new crime. Don’t be influenced by the “if you have nothing to hide, why not” argument. It is essential for citizens to assert their rights in order to reinforce constitutional boundaries on police. Otherwise they become eroded.

      I had a “discussion” with my PO about the ruling, and ended up having to take only periodic maintenance polygraph tests and not an initial sexual history polygraph. That decision implies that they intend to use history polygraphs as a prosecutorial rather than a therapeutic tool.

  4. Jack

    The use of polygraphs and integrity in the same sentence strikes me as oxymoronic haha.

  5. NorthEastPENN

    I had to take several of these while on parole. What a joke they are.
    First off they are given by a company that is contracted by your treatment provider so they are on the treatment providers side to begin with. Their mission is to trip you up.

    One of the polys I took came out with one deception. Of course I knew I was telling the truth on the subject question. I do recall what may have caused the “fail”. At the time of answering the question my mind went to a situation that I had to work with several days after the poly which was causing me to wonder in which direction I had to go. While thinking of that and answering the question at the same time my mind was shifting thoughts for the upcoming situation (which had nothing to do with treatment or parole but work). So that came out as a lie/deception. I knew darn well I told the truth but the treatment provider told my PO and of course he treatened me and the treatment provider then instructed me (with my POs concent) to now instead of attending one group session per week I had to attend two and of course pay for it. So that was $80 a week for three months. I could barely afford to pay my rent at that time and put food on my table.

    Another time a result came up inconclusive – of course the treatment provider group leader insisted that with a result like that it must mean that I was hiding something. Forget about attempting to explain what a inconclusive means in reality they just put their own spin on it.

    So after the first and second tests (above) I learned the secret to taking it. Keep a calm head, don’t think about anything else at all except for answering the question at hand. Focus you mind on one thing only and don’t let it drift off to another thought. I passed all my other polys after that and I even lied a few times (nothing about things serious though), but I realized how fake they really are. You can’t use breathing methods etc as a good examiner will pick up on that. Just keep your mind focused on one thing and don’t let it drift is the secret.

    But who knows. These examiners are contracted by the treatment providers and who is to say that a question that comes up as a lie really came up as the truth. You don’t get to see the written results but you are tortured in group sessions for not telling the truth when you know darn well you did.

  6. Dustin

    Polygraphs as lie detectors are every bit as mythological as Wonder Woman’s magic lasso, coincidentally another creation of the polygraph’s inventor and who, oddly enough, denounced his own invention shortly after its use in police interrogations began to expand. Changes in heart rates, breathing rates, and movement are not standardized or standardizable, will always vary by person, environment, and circumstance, and obviously aren’t exclusive to lying.

    Since my probation was revoked (essentially for “failing” a polygraph and not being able to afford another), I decided to challenge everything in the RSO system, polygraphs included. I flat out tell the administrator that it’s all nonsense and he can skip the pre-interview (which he never does). Any questions he asks about my background or charges, I just tell him to look it up. The first time, he said he did and wanted to see how honest I was going to be, to which I replied that I thought his magic machine was going to tell him that.

    After the spill about the so-called science behind the procedure and he asks if I have any questions, I’ll ask stuff like, “If all that’s true, why does it only work with yes or no questions?”, “So if I lie on any given question and show the same reaction all three times, do you interpret it as truth?”, or “If a significant difference in reaction on one of the three rounds of the same question indicates a lie, is that a 33% or 67% chance that’s you’re wrong?” Usually, he’ll say it’s not a perfect science. Then I’ll ask why it’s treated as though it is, and I have yet to get any answer to that. Next time, I’m going to tell him I’m recording it. If he objects, I can always point out that he records it as well, per APA standards of practice, that the procedure is not medical by law or fact (not subject to HIIPA), that I’m perfectly allowed to record my own conversation and if he refuses, then refuse either in writing or on video. Several polygraphers refuse to “test” (read: interrogate) me now, and I have no problem going to court over it if they or the PO wants to make an issue out of it.

    I should also point out that I raised an ethical complaint against the polygrapher who “failed” me 2 years ago with the American Polygraph Association and have made no secret of it. If they find in my favor, I’m next going to get that polygrapher and his company removed from the state’s approved provider list. I’ve also raised ethical complaints against the “treatment” providers with ATSA and several other mental health organizations they belong to, and am waiting for their results before I go to the state licensing board. Oddly enough, they seem to be fast-tracking me through their stupid program now.

  7. ab

    Despite what certain “experts” claim no definitive scientific connection has been found between anything measured when asking questions and lying or telling the truth. In fact during many of my polygraphs I was told to lie on purpose multiple times.

  8. Bill

    Gary Ridgway the Green River Killer famously passed the polygraph in 1987 while another man who was innocent failed.

    The cops released him allowing him to murder for more than another decade before being caught in 2001 on DNA evidence.

    The polygraph and the Registry failed to protect society from real dangerous individuals while touting success of keeping “paper predators” in check.

  9. someone who cares

    Polygraphs and their machines are nothing but BS, and I can’t believe that some so-called smart people make us believe they work. I have seen these 1930s “machines”. They still look the same, packed in a little suitcase. Really, they can tell if someone is lying? Wow, I didn’t know technology has come this far. Why don’t they use them in court then, save the time of having a jury? These machines can NOT, I repeat can NOT detect lies. All they may detect is nervousness, like a blood pressure machine. My blood pressure is always through the roof at the doctor’s office, but when doing the test at home, it is totally fine. A polygrapher only has to attend a 4 week class. Their offices are in dark shady buildings. And these are the people who can “see” into people’s minds with their “high end” machines? Think about it!! We’ve been told twice that my guy’s poly was deceptive or inconclusive, and he had to attend classes twice a week because of it. One time, we actually called the polygrapher, asking him why he “failed”, and we were told he did not “fail”, but the therapist had told us he did. We called him on it, and he apologized, saying he was confused. Really? That “confusion” almost cost us another $100 a week. It is all BS and corrupt. They are all in it to make money. Heck, if they can really detect lies, they should have much better jobs in higher departments, like defense, etc, making tons of money.

  10. Austin

    IMO, The intent of Polygraphs is to get people to talk and get additional confessions. The more that registrants “believe” that they are real detectors of truth, the easier it is for the interrogator managing the test is able to use it as a way to get people to give them additional information that they otherwise would not.

  11. Faiaoga

    I have been on BOTH sides of the machine; as a DoD contractor and as a probationer. Here are some tidbits of information you might find useful…

    Auto Scoring: Depending upon the state body that certifies polygraph examiners; the machine may or may not, be operating in “auto score” mode. The California Association of Polygraph Examiners does not permit use of auto score mode.

    If you can sincerely emulate (or even have) a “Gomer Pyle” or “Forrest Gump” personality, you are more likely to pass.

    Since the machine detects sudden physiological changes in you body; keeping your thoughts “blank” does not always help. Instead, expose yourself to an “earworm” (tune you can’t get out of your head) and use that to increase the “background noise” in your mind. Ringtones, like Samsung’s “Morning Flower” work for me.

    If you genuinely come off as a Gomer or Forrest personality, you’ll score with an asinine control question like “Have you ever lied to your mother?” Remember to “struggle” with answering the question.

    Visit a Scientology temple and let them “audit” you. Being connected to an E-meter is the next best thing to a polygraph session rehearsal.

    ALWAYS say “yes” to the question “Did you lookup or study how polygraphs work?” You’re reading this now.

  12. Jim Wymore

    Innocent people should not take them. The chance that you will fail them does not make it worth it. However, guilty people should always take them. There’s a chance they will be wrong and say the guy passed.

  13. Trapped

    Always remember the only liar in the room is the examiner. Remember when everyone thought plants had feelings and could feel pain? Where did they come up with that? In the 1960s Cleve Backster, an interrogation specialist with the CIA, conducted research that led him to believe that plants can communicate with other lifeforms. He hooked up a plant to a polygraph machine and subjected it to stimulus like tearing it’s leaves ECT. The machine gave results when the plant was yelled at or injured. He wrote his hypothesis that plants feel pain and have emotions.

  14. C

    My father was a cop.

    He told me repeatedly that no same person would ever submit to a polygraph, regardless of their guilt. Lucky for him, he stopped being a cop before they became mandatory for cops, lol.

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