Polygraphs: a winner for justice?

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Polygraphs: a winner for justice?

Mike Rumble, Chairman of the British Polygraph Association (BPA) sets out the case for the increased use of polygraph testing in both our justice system and private commercial settings.

I have been involved in identifying people who lie, cheat and deceive all my working life. Firstly, as a police officer, when after 25 years of service, I retired as a Detective. My career had been varied and included investigations of organised regional and international crime. I subsequently trained as a Criminal Defence Advocate and later formed the largest Legal Agency in the Midlands and I opened a Solicitors Office in the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter.

It was shortly after this that the first elections for the Police and Crime Commissioner were held nationally. I stood as an Independent candidate in that election and it was during one of our many hustings meetings that all the candidates were challenged to explain exactly how our appointment would increase the detection of crime and in particular the woefully poor conviction rate of rapists and sex offenders. Each candidate gave their reply, offering platitudes and sympathy for the victims, but as I sat on the platform I knew that the truth was we would have little or no effect. I left that meeting feeling we had all let down the audience and more importantly the victims and future victims of these horrendous offences.

The election was held some weeks later and the candidate from the largest national party was elected. As I left the election count that hustings meeting was still on my mind. Like an unsolved puzzle, the audience’s questions and our responses were going around and around in my head.

Rightly or wrongly, I felt there was more we could do, and I was going to do it, whatever “it” was. What I didn’t know is that this was the first step to becoming a qualified polygraph examiner or to give it its official title a Forensic Psychophsyiologist.

I suppose to a degree, I was in a privileged position to research the law, policies and procedures that form the framework of a successful prosecution case. I had interviewed both victims and alleged rapists during my police career. Later, as a defence advocate, I had represented suspects for the offence following their arrest, briefed defence solicitors and barristers and given evidence in every level of court from Magistrates to the Royal Courts of Justice. The same answer came up time and again. The suspect would be released without charge because there was insufficient supporting evidence. It was this that turned my attention to how other countries investigate these offences and during that research I identified that many countries use the polygraph as part of the interviewing and evidence gathering procedure.

At every polygraph examination I am asked by clients how the polygraph works and in lay-man’s terms I try to explain, but that is different to understanding and evidencing that it works. There was only one alternative, I had to qualify as an examiner myself.

Over the next two years I trained at the leading Backster School of Lie Detection at their European School in Bulgaria. I qualified and was then invited to stay and work with some of the most experienced trainers, examiners and psychologists working for the Assess Group. Over the next two years, it was there that I gained the real experience of conducting polygraph examinations on criminal suspects and importantly, I was able to evaluate the accuracy of the examinations results through eventual confessions.

In the UK the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) who you may know as the Probation Service have been using the polygraph in monitoring sex offenders when they are released early from prison, on licence.  To date, over 60 convicted sex offenders out on licence in the community have been identified as further offending and returned to prison.

Several police forces have also invested in their own staff being trained as examiners, again to monitor mainly sex offender behaviour.

So why is the polygraph not used more widely in the prevention and detection of crime? A recently published research document identified the use of the polygraph as a positive step forward. At the same time noting that the judiciary believed the use of the polygraph would create delays in proceedings whilst defence or prosecution solicitors challenge any negative effect on their case and delay the core proceedings by demanding a “trial within a trial” on how the polygraph was conducted and the results.  This would in their opinion delay justice and increase significantly the trials legal costs.

But, the judiciaries’ fears could easily be addressed by formulating an approved register of “expert witnesses” not unlike they do for other professions, who are agreed upon by both prosecution and defence prior to the court proceedings leading to trial and their finding are then accepted by both parties.

I strongly believe that the polygraph should be viewed as an investigative aid, like that enjoyed by both fingerprint and DNA evidence.  After all, now a person’s conviction or acquittal relies on 11 human lie detectors, we call them the jury.  They are susceptible to influence from not only the evidence but how skilfully it is delivered or defended by the solicitor or barrister, not to mention any pre-existing bias or prejudices they may hold. The fact of the matter is that you cannot charm or bully a polygraph machine.

The use of the polygraph in the commercial world is another aspect of the benefits of the polygraph test.  It is openly accepted that the majority of CVs submitted by job candidates contain either exaggeration or downright lies.

Any candidate that will have access to company information or finances is an obvious first choice for using the pre-employment screening test.  Newspapers often report of crooked Finance Directors who, held in a position of high esteem are later found out to have embezzled hundreds of thousands if not millions of pounds (in the case of some city traders) before they were caught. 

In the UK our pre-employment checks have developed very little over the years and those with criminal intent have prospered as a result. It really should be a case of “shutting the stable door before the horse bolts”, not afterwards, when the damage is done.

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    Mike Rumble
    Mike Rumble is Chairman of the British Polygraph Association.
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