Don’t Talk to the Police

In my book, Align: Discovering Customer Information that Matters, I discuss how confirmation bias must be combated in order to truly learn what customers are trying to do. One thing that stops us hearing customers is talking too much. This tendency, for some, arises from a fundamental discomfort with silence. In the book, I give tips for getting comfortable with silence, because letting the customer talk, unhindered, is critical for aligning. You’ve go to let them think and answer questions in their own time.

While discussing discomfort with silence, I refer to a video called Don’t Talk to the Police, a lecture recorded at Regency University in 2008. In it, an Officer Bruch explains that one of his interrogation techniques relies on the fact that people can’t handle silence for very long. He uses this knowledge to secure confessions in the interview room.

In customer meetings, such discomfort can lead us to ‘bail out’ the customer. That’s a problem, because, after asking a question, the customer often needs time and space to think about the answer. The problem with our discomfort is that, it can trigger one into talking before the customer has a chance to think. You interject and offer multiple choice options that, unwittingly, narrow the customers’ view. Often, these options you list are options you want to hear. This is the stuff of confirmation bias.

A beta reader of Align, suggested I give readers an optional exercise: watch the 50 minute Regency University video and identify instances of confirmation bias. I did the exercise myself, and have written up my thoughts below.

Results: I found fifteen instances of confirmation bias in Don’t Talk to the Police.

When I watched this video the first time, months ago, the officer’s presentation was off-putting. However, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I felt that way. This time around, as I documented my observations, the reason was clear.  Confirmation bias seemed to be baked into all layers of our justice system.

Optional Exercise: How many instances of confirmation bias,did you find in the video, “Don’t Talk to the Police[1] with Professor James Duane and Officer Bruch?”

1. 5:30: James Duane discusses a point made by Paul Rosenzweig, “It’s difficult for anyone to know in advance just when a particular set of statements, made in advance, will be considered by a prosecutor to be relevant to some investigation.” In other words, out of all statements made to the police, they can cherry pick any combination of statements to make their case. Cherry picking favorable statements is a hallmark of confirmation bias.

2. Section 801d2a / rules of evidence state that everything a suspect says can be used against them, but not in their favor, as it’s considered hearsay. This might lead a detective to further disregard exculpating statements as they can’t be used anyway. Perhaps a stretch, but I found it to be somewhat surprising. Again, the prosecution gets to cherry pick whatever comments they wish, and omit all exculpating evidence. It could lead to a biased case against a person.

3. 12:15: This example is heart breaking. It’s an extreme example of confirmation bias – a behavior that I call a ‘fishing expedition’ in my book. A fishing expedition is an extreme, overt and fully conscious act, whereby an interrogator asks leading questions to steer a person toward giving up information that the questioner wants to hear – whether that information is true or false does not matter to the person holding the fishing pole. The example is about Eddie Joe Lloyd, a naive kid who got wrongly convicted of a heinous crime: From www.innocenceproject.org,[2] “Lloyd was convicted of a brutal 1984 murder of a sixteen-year-old girl in Detroit, Michigan. While in a hospital receiving treatment for his mental illness, Lloyd wrote to police with suggestions on how to solve various murders, including the murder for which he was convicted. Police officers visited and interrogated him several times in the hospital. During the course of these interrogations, police officers allowed Lloyd to believe that, by confessing and getting arrested, he would help them “smoke out” the real perpetrator. They fed him details that he could not have known, including the location of the body, the type of jeans the victim was wearing, a description of earrings the victim wore, and other details from the crime scene. Lloyd signed a written confession and gave a tape recorded statement as well.”

Mr. Lloyd was naive. He trusted the police, and they knowingly tricked him into a confession, despite having no evidence of his guilt. This seems to be on the same level as William J Casey (which I discuss in the book): outright disregard for evidence of the truth, blinded by single minded determination to secure a conviction.

4. 13:00 The case of Earl Washington. This one’s bad too. Mr. Washington had the IQ of a ten year old. He was heavily coached into a confession, and quickly convicted of the rape and murder of a 19 year old woman. If you can bear it, read the account at www.innocenceproject.org[3]. Here’s one startling bit: “Psychological analyses of Washington reported that, to compensate for his disability, Washington would politely defer to any authority figure with whom he came into contact. Thus, when police officers asked Washington leading questions in order to obtain a confession, he complied and offered affirmative responses in order to gain their approval.”

The man was naive and polite. And in their quest for a conviction, authorities took advantage of him. That’s bad enough. What’s worse, is that when blood tests showed that the real perpetrator’s blood contained a rare plasma protein, a protein that Washington lacked, authorities amended their forensic report to reflect that the test was inconclusive. They did this without re-testing any samples. That poor man sat on death row for 17 years. This goes way beyond casual, inadvertent confirmation bias. This is the stuff of terrifyingly zealous and intentional wrongful prosecution. The authorities actions were overt and fully conscious; they asked leading questions to steer a person toward giving up information that they wanted to hear. This was another fishing expedition. You wonder how people could do such a thing. Just wait until we hear from Officer Bruch, and I’ll offer a possible explanation.

5. 15:00 Cherry Picking One Sentence. In this example by Professor Duane, the police picked out one sentence out of an entire statement. “I never liked the guy.” Cherry-picking statements out of context is a hallmark of confirmation bias.

6. 18:30 Answer to the class quiz. Most students thought that three people had been shot. However, Professor Duane had never said anyone had been shot. People assumed that to be the case. This case of confirmation bias is manifested in erroneous memory recall. All of us, cops and civilians alike, tend to, as Prof. Duane notes, “hear things, or fill in the details.” When we do this, it’s usually in support of whatever storyline we believe. People heard “gangland style slaying,” and assumed that meant a shooting.

7. 30:20 Officer Bruch states his bias. He says, “People are stupid.”

8. 31:58 Officer Bruch says, “My job is to develop probable cause, develop a good case. A great case is a case with a confession. Get it to the Commonwealth’s attorney, so that they can prosecute the case with little if any effort. The Commonwealth’s attorneys love those cases, … because they come with a stack of files that high in court every day. So that’s my job.”

What I heard in this statement is that his goal is to get a confession in order to make the prosecutor’s job easy. I didn’t hear that his goal was to discover the truth. This seemingly mis-guided goal, in itself is not evidence of confirmation bias, but wait, it’ll tie in soon.

9. 33:00 Officer Bruch likens himself to an Olympic boxer in his interrogation prowess, whereas the suspect is like a person with no experience in the ring. I’m not sure this falls under confirmation bias, but it sure seems unfair, and he acknowledges this. It’s further evidence that in pursuit of his goal – to secure a conviction – any and all tricks are valid, even if the match up is uneven.

10. 33:50 Officer Bruch states another bias. “On the other side of it, I don’t want to put anyone who’s purely innocent in jail. But I try not to bring anyone into the interview room who is innocent.” In other words, if a suspect is in an interview room, Officer Bruch, by definition, believes that person is guilty. He has clearly stated his bias. That’s two now: “People are stupid,” and “anyone who is in an interview room is guilty.”

11. 34:25 The language of fascism. Admittedly, this is a bit of a stretch in terms of categorizing under confirmation bias, but bear with me. You’ll notice that Officer Bruch often refers to suspects as “these people.” It’s a subtle word choice, but comes with profound effect. By using this phrase, he’s delineating space between himself and the suspects. Remember, once they’re in the interview room, he believes they are not only stupid, but guilty too. When we refer to a group as “these people,” often we are casting them into a group of ‘others’, who are ‘less than’ us in some way. Use of this language is one step down the path of dehumanizing others. Down this path lies disregard for human rights, and a denial of equality. At the end of this road lies savagery. This is the kind of language that precedes fascism. Seems a stretch, I know. But tune back in. At 37:15, Officer Bruch takes it farther, referring to “one type of individual” as a “hood rat.” This isn’t some throwaway off the cuff incidence of name-calling. Indeed, he indicates this is an institutionalized and common term. He says, “I can’t try and act like, what we call, lovingly, a hood-rat.”

Stephen Fry, a British scholar, author, and comedian, has given numerous lectures on the language of genocide. He notes that when people start referring to other groups as vermin, they pave the way for “extraordinary brutality.” Now, I’m not arguing that Officer Bruch believes that all suspects should be exterminated like rats. However, his language suggests that he considers his suspects to be lesser humans. This is a clear bias. Remember, he’s stated that he’s an “Olympic boxer” in interrogation technique, and that the goal of his job, as he describes it, is to get a confession. In furtherance to that goal, he seems to be saying he has no reason to hold back any tricks of the trade. As a police officer, he’s entitled to mislead or outright lie. He says he’s done as much. So, I don’t think its a stretch to say that his interviews are probably in line with many of the fishing expeditions I’ve described in this book. He seems like a nice guy. But so seemed the Nazi who wrote the letter that Stephen Fry relayed in this snippet of one of his talks[4]. No, I’m not saying that Officer Bruch is a Nazi. But neither were the detectives and prosecutors who seemed to have no qualms about locking away Eddie Joe Lloyd and Earl Washington. I would imagine that they too, had the goal of getting confessions. They might have believed that anyone in the interview room was probably guilty, and they were willing to use any deceptions to secure confessions. In the end, they wrongfully locked away two men who were as naive as children, and helpful to their detriment.

It’s my contention that misguided goals, combined with strong and clear biases, can lead such people to fish for what they want to hear, and drive toward resolutions that, when stepping back for perspective, might run counter to their own moral code. These are alarming cases of confirmation bias. The language of fascism is grease in the machine of this mental failing, and it falls easily from the mouth of Officer Bruch. I hope he’s right when he says he doesn’t put away innocent people. I’m not so confident.

12. 40:00. Officer Bruch says he tricks suspects into talking to him “off the record,” even though there is no such thing. He goes on to say that, after having his secretary transcribe the audio (that lucky bastard has a secretary to type up his notes – I’m jealous), he often destroys the audio. Why? Because it’s his word against the witness. What he’s implying is that the audio tape could be used to dispute his recollection. By destroying it, he needn’t worry. If he was truly a truth seeker, and as open to disconfirming data as he was toward confirming data, he’d have no motive to destroy these tapes.

13. 44:15. “The jury looks at a defendant sitting next to a … defense attorney, that’s strike one. The jury is already looking at that as being someone who did something that put them into that chair. Strike two: they get a uniformed police officer up there, they get someone in wearing a suit that’s a detective up there who is a professional witness, … and if they confessed, … that’s strike three… I know you’re innocent until proven guilty … the perception is if you’re (sitting there, the jury) perceive that person is a hoodlum, is a criminal.”

What Officer Bruch is saying is that the jury is biased against the suspect before the trial even begins, This is used as a scare tactic. It’s manipulative.

14. 45:00 Officer Bruchs tricks people into writing ‘apology letters,’ that are then used, 100% of the time, in court as evidence of confessions. I’m not sure this is confirmation bias, it’s outright manipulation.

15. 48:25 In an effort to make us feel better, Offcer Bruch assures, “as an offer of support, I don’t try to send innocent people to jail.”

I found small comfort in that closing statement. Perhaps that’s what he believes, but he also believes that suspects in his interrogation rooms are stupid, guilty rats. He believes that asking leading questions, and making misleading statements, are valid techniques in securing confessions. He may think he doesn’t send innocent people to jail. However, between his biases and his methods, I’m guessing, he probably does.


[1] https://youtu.be/6wXkI4t7nuc
[2] http://www.innocenceproject.org/cases-false-imprisonment/eddie-joe-lloyd
[3] http://www.innocenceproject.org/cases-false-imprisonment/earl-washington
[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohrtFuxUzZE