The case for nonprofessional public safety with less training and fewer resources
Imagine armed private citizens patrolling the streets and viewing security cameras instead of sworn professional law enforcement officers. A shocking experiment by the Oregon city of Cave Junction last year has many precedents in history and in the present day. Furthermore, evidence suggests that it probably won’t prove worse for civil liberties or public safety than enlarging police budgets and expanding sheriff patrols.
In October of 2019, the Hawai’i Supreme Court ruled that police illegally coerced a confession when they misled a suspect about the results of a polygraph test administered during his interrogation. The problem with the police conduct in this case, however, lies not in their dishonesty but in their use of polygraphs at all. The Court’s ruling leaves unchallenged the belief that pseudoscientific lie detection can contribute reliably to criminal investigations. It in fact reinforces the aura of legitimacy around this practice by suggesting that there would be a proper way to use lie detectors. As a scholar of criminal justice issues for over two decades, I am confident that polygraph tests should play no role in law enforcement.
John Larson, the inventor of the lie detector, came to regret his part in its application to law enforcement. Looking back on its use years later, he described it as “little more than a racket” and “nothing more than a psychological third-degree aimed at extorting confessions” no different from “physical beatings.”(1) One of Larson’s first applications of the polygraph to crime investigation prefigured this insight. While attempting to solve a series of thefts at the women’s residence hall at the University of California, Berkeley, Larson asked several residents to submit to questioning while a device measured their heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. Rather than finger an untruthful suspect, Larson used the device to trick a young woman into thinking that it had revealed her guilt. This tactic, followed by additional police ruses, brought her to the brink of suicide and ultimately elicited a confession according to historian Ken Adler’s account.(2)