Reid technique is problematic

In 1998, a 25-year-old unsophisticated man in Alberta was arrested for aggravated assault on his infant son.

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.

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