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Fontana’s widely condemned interrogation helps fuel efforts to stop police from lying

‘We need to take a pause and say maybe we shouldn’t be telling officers to lie to people to get them to tell you the truth,’ says one reformer

Thomas Perez Jr. rips his shirt off during a police interrogation in the suspected killing of his father, who had been reported missing but was later found alive. (Screen grab from Fontana police video)
Thomas Perez Jr. rips his shirt off during a police interrogation in the suspected killing of his father, who had been reported missing but was later found alive. (Screen grab from Fontana police video)
Tony Saavedra. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register)
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They call it “the box” — the cramped, anxiety-inducing room where police conduct interrogations, pushing and probing for a confession or at least case-solving information.

It was in the box that Fontana police detectives grilled Thomas Perez Jr. in August 2018, ardently urging him to admit to killing his missing father, saying they had recovered the body and it now bore a toe-tag in the morgue. They suggested the family dog, Margosha, would be euthanized because of Perez’s actions.

After 17 hours, the psychologically coercive tactics did their job and a mentally exhausted Perez attempted to kill himself in the interrogation room and finally confessed. But the confession unraveled when police discovered that his 71-year-old father, Thomas Perez Sr., wasn’t dead, but was at Los Angeles International Airport awaiting a flight.

While Fontana police had engaged in trickery, deception and outright lying, and had substantial reason to believe an assault had been committed. But the tactics — which cost the city nearly $900,000 to settle a civil rights lawsuit — have added fuel to a growing movement in California and throughout the nation to change the way law enforcement officers conduct interrogations.

Science-based training

California’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) has begun phasing in new science-based training that does not allow deceptive and aggressive, psychologically manipulative techniques. Instead, it favors a more empathetic, humane approach. Training programs that teach deception, such as lying about DNA results or an accomplice’s cooperation, will not be certified by the state, said spokesperson Meagan Poulos.

Additionally, the Fontana case is being used by at least one trainer as an egregious example of what not to do.

“Those are horrible tactics. You don’t tell someone, ‘We’re going to impound your dog if you don’t tell us the truth,’ ” said Dennis Gomez, a former Orange Police Department officer and the new owner of Behavioral Analysis Training, or BATI, in Tustin. “This is very extreme. … I was completely shocked (by the Fontana interrogation) and I was disgusted by it.”

BATI has trained 40,000 officers throughout California and is changing its curriculum in line with the state’s shift in interrogation techniques, Gomez said. While some Fontana officers have taken the BATI course, it does not appear the detectives involved in questioning Perez went through the training, he said.

“This is still happening and I don’t know why,” Gomez said. “(We teach) do not go through these aggressive tactics, do not lie, do not deceive, do not, do not, do not.”

Wherever they were trained, the Fontana investigators thought they could stretch the limits.

“It’s like if one aspirin is good, four would be awesome,” said El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson, a leading reformer in California. “They’re well-intentioned. They think they’re trying to solve a case and they have been trained it’s acceptable to lie and be aggressive and, the fact is, it’s not.”

Pierson added: “We need to take a pause and say maybe we shouldn’t be telling officers to lie to people to get them to tell you the truth.”

Pierson has instructed his prosecutors to reject any case primarily built on confessions obtained through deceptive, threatening or psychologically manipulative interrogations.

Why lying is legal

For decades, hundreds of thousands of police officers throughout the United States have been told that it is legal to deceive suspects.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1969 ruling Frazier v. Cupp, held that deception alone wasn’t a good enough reason to throw out a confession. That ruling was supported by lower courts in various states and taught in interview and interrogation classes from coast to coast.

Armed with the court decision, experts say, police were free to deceive and psychologically manipulate suspects, increasing the chance of getting a false confession. Research shows that one-fourth of the cases exonerated through DNA testing involved people who confessed to crimes they didn’t commit, according to a 2012 paper by Daniel Harkins in the Southern Illinois University Law Journal.

“When your defenses are worn down, when you’re cognitively and emotionally depleted, when police lie … it creates this perfect storm where confession seems to be the best idea at the moment,” said Hayley Cleary, an expert in police interrogations at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.

“That’s the fundamental problem in America, accusatory-style interrogation. They are trained to go in looking for a confession, confirmation bias,” Cleary said. “If you’re convinced this guy is guilty and he gives you information that conflicts with his guilt, you’re going to ignore their denials.”

Roots in Salem witch trials

Evidence of false confessions can be found as far back as the Salem witch trials, researcher Saul M. Kassin wrote in 2009. According to Kassin, from the 19th century through the 1930s, police employed the “third degree,” physically assaulting suspects and using psychological torture — including the deprivation of food — to draw out the “truth.”

Kassin said the technique began to wane in the 1960s and was virtually nonexistent by 1986. Nowadays, police officers are trained, for the most part, not to inflict physical harm or deprive subjects of their physical needs, such as bathroom breaks.

But aggressive, confrontational, manipulative techniques by detectives often feigning empathy are still taught, reformers say. Also taught are what reformers call “pseudoscience,” in which interrogators attempt to determine who is lying based on body language, word choice and behavioral cues, such as avoiding eye contact, giving a delayed response or not proclaiming their innocence ardently enough.

Success through such methods amounts to a coin-flip, maybe a little more for law enforcement, reformers say.

“Interrogators confront the suspect with accusations of guilt … that are made with certainty and often bolstered by evidence, real or manufactured, and refusal to accept alibis or denials,” Kassin wrote.

He added that false confessions occur when a person develops such a profound distrust of their own memory that they become vulnerable to the influence of an interrogator.

The Reid technique

In the United States, the premier interview and interrogation program was developed more than 60 years ago and taught by Chicago-based John E. Reid and Associates. More than half a million officers nationwide have been trained in the Reid technique, which teaches that nonverbal and behavioral cues can be indicators of lying. Reid also counsels investigators to follow the law, which allows deception, but not to lie about “incontrovertible” evidence, such as the existence of fingerprints.

The Reid technique distinguishes between the introductory interview and the harsher interrogation, counseling that investigators should only interrogate people they believe are guilty and disregard weak denials. Nevertheless, according to company literature, suspects should be treated with “decency, respect and understanding.”

The Reid method has become the target of reformers and critics who say it could generate false confessions.

“They maintain they don’t interrogate innocent people,” researcher Cleary said. “They’re thinking that they can deduce someone’s guilt or innocence based on their emotional reaction is false.”

Joseph Buckley, president of Reid & Associates, disputes that there is any scientific evidence that the firm’s methods cause false confessions. Company literature also says that eliciting the truth, not getting a confession, is the main goal.

‘Society has changed’

Besides teaching legal deception, Reid trains police officers to minimize the moral seriousness of the crime, to suggest “face-saving excuses” by blaming financial pressures, an accomplice, emotions or alcohol as a way of getting the suspect to open up. The interrogator implies the crime is somehow morally excusable, justified or accidental.

“Your serious bad guys aren’t going to acknowledge anything unless they are caught,” Buckley said. “If they don’t think the investigator has it … and is just fishing, they don’t think there is reason to tell us anything.”

He continued, “The courts haven’t changed. Society has changed. … When the courts change their view of something, all of us will change our practices.”

Raul Saldana, a retired Hermosa Beach detective sergeant, says lying to suspects within the confines of the law is a valuable tool for investigators already hobbled by such requirements as advising suspects of their Miranda right to remain silent.

“We’re just evening the playing field,” said Saldana, who served 28 years in law enforcement. “Sometimes you have to get creative. You do what you have to do against bad people. … Sometimes you’ve got to fudge.”

In California and six other states, lawmakers have made it illegal for police to lie in any way to juvenile suspects, who are deemed more impressionable than adults. Lying to adults remains legal.

Nuances of new techniques

However, POST, the state agency in charge of certifying police officers and their training, is rolling out new interview and interrogation techniques that do not rely on deception or dishonesty. Downplaying the seriousness of the crime or justifying the behavior — a practice called minimization — while not condoned by POST, would not necessarily be considered dishonest unless the investigator is saying something he or she knows to be false, Poulos said.

Presenters who teach behavioral analysis — such as BATI — that relies on such things as body language to gauge deception also must submit proof to POST that this technique is supported by scientific evidence and doesn’t lead to false confessions.

The changes by POST means that more officers will be taught and subsequently use more ethical techniques, said Pierson, who has pushed since 2020 for the change. He has hosted training sessions for dozens of California law enforcement agencies in the new techniques.

‘Urban myth’ of old tactics

“There has been an urban myth within policing for decades that the only way to obtain information is to use interviewing tactics that employ pseudoscience and psychological coercion, and that urban myth is finally being debunked,” he said.

New courses are being developed through POST borrowing from scientifically confirmed methods first developed during the Obama administration by Liverpool-based forensic psychologists Laurence and Emily Alison for use in the international intelligence community.

Their method, known as Observing Rapport-Based Interpersonal Techniques, or ORBIT, has shown that rapport-based methods based on active listening, genuine empathy and professional curiosity generate higher rates of evidential information. The end goal is to gather information to test against the evidence rather than get a confession.

“(It’s) nonjudgmental, not ‘finger-wagging, finger-pointing, I’ve already figured it out,’ ” said Laurence Alison, who with Emily Alison analyzed thousands of hours of interrogations of suspected terrorists.

“We are seeking the truth, what is able to be proven or not, not can I get this person to confess regardless of what the evidence says,” added Emily Alison.

‘Being straight’ with suspects

To that end, the method does not rely on threats, intimidation or making accusations, but on trying to clear up discrepancies in the subject’s story until it either becomes clearer or falls apart. It is based on curiosity, keeping an open mind and being straight with the suspect.

“Rapport-building sounds very warm and fluffy, that’s why people think it’s not going to work,” Emily Alison said. “(But) if that person feels seen by you, it’s actually much harder for them to lie.”

Laurence Alison said any method that encourages police to make their own judgment about someone’s guilt and then seek a confession is biased and shouldn’t be taught.

The research couple said the United States is at a tipping point in how interrogations are conducted.

“People want to keep a few bits of the old and tack on a few new bits, and that’s not the way it works,” Emily Alison said. “To be effective, the investigator’s whole mindset has to shift from seeking confession to seeking the truth.”

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