Skip to content

Reid technique is problematic

Speaker's Corner

In 1998, a 25-year-old unsophisticated man in Alberta was arrested for aggravated assault on his infant son. After several hours of interrogation, during which time he repeatedly denied having hurt his son, he was left in the interview room. Sobbing, he wrote out an apology and made comments like, “How could I have done this?”

The investigating officers in M.J.S. [2000] A.J. No. 391 managed to overcome the suspect’s refusal to accept responsibility for the offence by the use of what is known as the Reid technique, an interrogation approach developed in the United States by John E. Reid & Associates.

The Reid technique instructs investigators to engage in “behaviour symptom analysis,” relying on patterns of conduct that supposedly indicate whether or not the suspect is telling the truth. The interrogation begins with the investigator asserting his absolute certainty of the suspect’s guilt. The suspect is relentlessly pushed to accept culpability.

Moral justifications may be proffered (for example, that the suspect experienced abuse as a child, or that they inflicted the injuries unintentionally).

The suspect may be confronted with exaggerated or fabricated evidence.

They may be told that the proof of their guilt is incontrovertible, given that all other suspects had been cleared.

The investigator may present two alternative versions of the suspect’s conduct, one of which is significantly worse than the other, and encourage the suspect to adopt the less serious model.

A suspect who remains silent or continues to deny involvement may be faced with an investigator unwilling to accept that position, confronting him with the investigator’s theory of what “really” happened and endeavouring to overcome any reluctance to confess.

The trial judge was very critical of the methods used by the police on the suspect in the Alberta Provincial Court Criminal Division case, characterizing it as a “classic illustration of how slavish adherence to a technique can produce a coerced-compliant confession.” He ruled the evidence inadmissible.

He also wasn’t the first to reach such conclusions in assessing the impact of the Reid technique on the admissibility of evidence and was, by no means, the last. 

In R. v. Thaher, 2016 ONCJ 113, Justice Peter Andras Schreck refused to admit a Reid-based confession by a mentally ill, fatigued man accused of attempted murder and questioned for more than seven hours. Referring to the Supreme Court of Canada decision in R. v. Oickle, 2000 SCC 38, [2000] 2 S.C.R. 3, Schreck characterized the method as a “shoddy police practice … shown to be coercive and to produce false confessions.” 

In R. v. Goro 2017 ONSC 1236, Halton and RCMP police officers executed a warrant for footprint impressions on a man under investigation for a cold-case murder.

He was never told of his right to counsel, cautioned or told he was free to leave at any time. Rather, he was interrogated for almost six hours.

In the face of lengthy police monologues insisting on his guilt, he denied culpability but some of his statements could have been contradicted by forensic evidence.

In the ruling, Justice Dale Fitzpatrick found it unnecessary to decide the Reid issue due to overriding Charter issues on detention.

However, he stated, “[U]se of the Reid technique or something akin to it does not automatically render a statement inadmissible. . . However, the technique is inherently coercive and for that reason has been the subject of considerable judicial and academic criticism.”

One may wonder why some police services continue to use such questionable methods, given the risk of wrongful convictions, unsuccessful prosecutions and the attendant failure to investigate and apprehend the real perpetrators. 

It can’t be for a lack of alternatives. The investigative interviewing approach involves a thorough and objective investigation of both the offence and the suspect.

It is followed by an open-ended interview where the suspect is allowed to talk freely in response to open-ended, non-confrontational questions, which has proven to be very effective in gaining admissions that don’t involve the risk of false confessions. 

One such technique, known as PEACE (preparation, engagement, accounting, closure and evaluation), involves officers asking follow-up questions based on the answers given as well as other information compiled by the investigators.

One need only watch the very skillful interview of Col. Russell Williams by Ontario Provincial Police detective Jim Smyth to see how a suspect may be engaged in non-confrontational dialogue, ultimately leading to false statements and a full confession to acts of murder.

Several countries in Europe and elsewhere have successfully implemented the investigative interviewing method. In the United States, Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates, a private agency involved in training police officers for many years, has discontinued teaching the Reid technique as a result of concerns over false confessions.

While several police services in Canada have incorporated the use of investigative interviewing methods such as PEACE into their training, many have not yet chosen to discourage or discontinue the use of the Reid technique.

Judicial commentary on the problematic aspects of this method of interrogation is going into its second decade. 

I encourage members of the legal profession to add their voices to those who have urged our police services to cease utilizing the Reid technique once and for all. Let’s hope they’ll listen. Our justice system would certainly be better if they do.

Jeffrey Manishen is a partner with Ross & McBride LLP practising criminal defence law in Hamilton.

  • Reid's legacy

    Tim Moore
    According to Mr. Buckley, “there is absolutely nothing coercive about the Reid Technique”. Dozens of DNA-exonerated persons who falsely confessed prior to their convictions would beg to differ. With the Reid technique, suspects’ beliefs regarding the costs and benefits of confessing are manipulated through the use of accusatory procedures and emotion-based appeals designed to reduce perceived responsibility. Trickery and deception are commonplace as is the presentation of false or exaggerated evidence. Research findings, along with data from the Innocence projects have shown that these confrontational approaches can elicit confessions from the guilty and innocent alike. When investigators have an a priori belief in a suspect’s culpability, their interrogations tend to be longer and more psychologically intimidating. It is a slippery slope, cultivated by the Reid manual’s reliance on behavioral cues to deception, accompanied by the oft repeated mantra that innocent suspects are immune to these tactics. A wealth of psychological and socio-legal research has demonstrated that the Reid technique's assemblage of pseudoscience, misinformation, and self­-delusion does not advance the goals of the criminal justice system. Mr. Manishen is correct to encourage the police to discontinue its use. Timothy Moore, PhD, C Psych, Dept of Psychology, Glendon College, York University
  • The Reid Technique

    Joseph Buckley
    In this article Mr. Manishen makes several references to the Reid Technique: “In R. v. Thaher Justice Schreck refused to admit a Reid-based confession by a mentally ill, fatigued man accused of attempted murder and questioned for more that 7 hours…” We teach that when questioning a person who is mentally disabled there are numerous precautions that should be exercised. In fact, in the US case US v. Preston [F.3d ----, 2014 WL 1876269 (C.A.9 (Ariz.)] the US Court of Appeals reviewed the confession of an eighteen-year-old with an IQ of sixty-five. The court pointed out that the investigators did not follow the cautions we suggest when interviewing individuals with mental limitations, and as a result found the confession to be inadmissible. As for the length of an interrogation we teach that if a suspect remains adamant in their denials after a 3 or 4 hour period the investigator should consider terminating the questioning and re-evaluate the suspect’s status. Given these two points it is apparent the investigators were not conducting the interrogation I accordance with our guidelines. “In R. v. Goro 2017 ONSC 1236,…[the judge] stated, “[U]se of the Reid technique or something akin to it does not automatically render a statement inadmissible. . . However, the technique is inherently coercive and for that reason has been the subject of considerable judicial and academic criticism.” There is absolutely nothing coercive about the Reid Technique. Our core principles are as follows: • Do not make any promises of leniency • Do not threaten the subject with any physical harm or inevitable consequences • Do not conduct interrogations for an excessively lengthy period of time • Do not deny the subject any of their rights • Do not deny the subject the opportunity to satisfy their physical needs • Withhold information about the details of the crime from the subject so that if the subject confesses the disclosure of that information can be used to confirm the authenticity of the statement • Exercise special cautions when questioning juveniles or individuals with mental or psychological impairments • Always treat the subject with dignity and respect • The confession is not the end of the investigation – investigate the confession details in an effort to establish the authenticity of the subject’s statement False confessions are caused by investigators engaging in improper behaviors – making threats of harm, promises of leniency, denial of rights, etc. Joseph P. Buckley President John E. Reid and Associates Chicago, IL US
  • Reid technique

    Michael D Cannon
    "The suspect may be confronted with exaggerated or fabricated evidence." So basically the cops get to say "we faked up this evidence that makes you look guilty, so you better confess and hope for a good deal." "One may wonder why some police services continue to use such questionable methods" Not really, it gives them a win more often than not.
cover image


Subscribers get early and easy access to Law Times.

Law Times Poll

An Ontario judge is once again calling on the provincial government to fix long waits at assessment offices. Do you think the province needs to step up its efforts to address these delays?