Talbot sailed through the department’s rigorous physical and mental tests, passing speed and agility trials and a written examination—but there was one final test. Like thousands of other law enforcement, fire, paramedic, and federal agencies across the country, the New Haven Police Department insists that each applicant take an assessment that has been rejected by almost every scientific authority: the polygraph test.
Commonly known as lie detectors, polygraphs are virtually unused in civilian life. They’re largely inadmissible in court and it’s illegal for most private companies to consult them. Over the past century, scientists have debunked the polygraph, proving again and again that the test can’t reliably distinguish truth from falsehood. At best, it is a roll of the dice; at worst, it’s a vessel for test administrators to project their own beliefs.
Yet Talbot’s test was no different from the millions of others conducted annually across the public sector, where the polygraph is commonly used as a last-ditch effort to weed out unsuitable candidates. Hiring managers will ask a range of questions about minor crimes, like marijuana use and vandalism, and major infractions, like kidnapping, child abuse, terrorism, and bestiality. Using a polygraph, these departments believe, increases the likelihood of obtaining facts that potential recruits might prefer not to reveal. And like hundreds of thousands of job candidates each year, Talbot was judged to have lied on the test. He failed.
New Haven allows failed applicants to plead their case in public before the Board of Police Commissioners. So in February 2014, Talbot sat down and recited his experiences with lie detectors. He had first applied to the Connecticut State Police and was failed for deception about occasional marijuana use as a minor. He then tried again with a police department in New Britain, where a polygraph test showed him lying about his criminal and sexual history.
This time he had failed the New Haven polygraph for something cryptically called “inconsistencies.” “[But] I’m not hiding anything,” he said at the hearing. “I was being straight and honest and I’ve never been in trouble with the law. I’m not lying about anything.”
Electronic lie detection is a peculiarly American obsession. No other country carries out anywhere near the estimated 2.5 million polygraph tests conducted in the US every year, a system that fuels a thriving $2 billion industry. A survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2007 found that around three-quarters of urban sheriff and police departments use polygraphs when hiring. Each test can cost $700 or more. Apply to become a police officer, trooper, firefighter, or paramedic today, and there is a good chance you will find yourself connected to a machine little changed since the 1950s, subject to the judgment of an examiner with just a few weeks’ pseudoscientific training.
Last week the technology burst into the news when Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accuses Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her as a teenager, said that she had taken a privately administered polygraph test to help bolster her account of the incident. “While not admissible in court, they’re used by various governmental agencies and many people believe in their abilities,” Douglas Wigdor, a former prosecutor who now represents victims in sexual harassment and sexual assault cases against high-profile men, told The Washington Post.
In one of the biggest surveys of law enforcement use of polygraph screening to date, WIRED filed more than 50 public-records requests with America’s largest federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, seeking to discover how they use the polygraph during hiring and what safeguards they have in place to prevent abuse. The results were erratic—and discouraging. A quarter failed to respond at all, and nearly half said they had no responsive documents— meaning they do not track the age, gender, race, or disability status of those undergoing examination.
But the results obtained offer a peek inside an outdated system that continues to influence who gets hired—and who doesn’t—at some of the most important institutions in the United States. Inconsistent and skewed polygraph screening programs are undermining the very places that are designed to uphold the law—a failure that comes with personal costs.
With the United States’ entry into World War I, Marston approached various government departments with the idea of developing his system as a tool to trap spies. He eventually secured a position in a medical support unit of the War Department (the precursor to the Department of Defense), where he carried out his initial research, often using women in university sororities as subjects.
After the war, Marston trained his focus on the legal system. In 1921, James Frye, a black man in Washington, DC, was accused of shooting a doctor. Frye confessed the crime to police, then a few days later recanted his confession. Frye’s lawyer brought in Marston to test his client’s honesty.
At the time, Marston’s device was a hack: a basic blood pressure monitor, administered with a medical cuff and stethoscope. After subjecting Frye to an examination, he concluded that his story of innocence was entirely truthful and agreed to testify on his behalf. However, the judge objected to the use of an unknown and unproven tool. An appeals court agreed, writing, “The thing from which [a] deduction is made must be sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs.” This became known as the Frye standard. Because polygraphs have never convinced the majority of scientists, the Frye standard has excluded them from most courtrooms for almost a century.
The experience only fueled Marston to make his method more sophisticated. He began working with a device, soon dubbed the polygraph, that measured blood pressure, breathing rate, and skin conductance—aka sweatiness. With some electronic and digital upgrades, these are essentially the same devices in operation today. Marston was media-savvy, touting polygraph technology in a public advertising campaign and, ultimately, even in comic books. While working as a consultant to DC Comics in 1940, Marston proposed a female superhero, Wonder Woman. She would be strong and smart, armed with bulletproof bracelets and an unbeatable lie detector—a Lasso of Truth that prevented anyone within its golden orbit from lying.
In reality, Marston’s design was far from perfect. Mainstream psychologists were concerned that the physiological responses the polygraph recorded could be caused by a host of things other than deception; the device might capture unrelated emotions, such as nervousness, arousal, anxiety, or fear. And once you have results, their meaning is open to interpretation. A polygraph only records raw data; it is up to an examiner to interpret the data and draw a conclusion about the subject’s honesty. One examiner might see a blood pressure peak as a sign of deception, another might dismiss it—and it is in those individual judgments that bias can sneak in.
But regardless of a polygraph’s accuracy, some organizations were beginning to find it useful. The polygraph’s scientific aura gave police a tool to intimidate suspects and recruiters a convenient way to shape their workforce. By the middle of the 20th century, polygraphs were being used by government agencies, factories, and banks to screen employees and investigate crimes, with little control or oversight. During the Cold War, federal polygraph tests were used to target left-wingers and homosexuals in government agencies.
Eventually, science began pushing back. In 1965, the US Committee on Government Operations evaluated the scientific evidence for polygraphy and concluded: “There is no lie detector, neither man nor machine. People have been deceived by a myth that a metal box in the hands of an investigator can detect truth or falsehood.” The next year, the American Polygraph Association was formed to promote polygraphy and provide standards for examiners and technologies.
In 1988, after years of intense lobbying by unions, the Employee Polygraph Protection Act prohibited most private companies from using lie detector tests. But the unions did not get a clean sweep: The Act excluded federal, state, and local government employers, along with private companies whose business is moving cash or drugs.
The American Medical Association had come out against pre-employment screening in 1986, and in 1998 the Supreme Court also chipped in, saying that there was simply no scientific consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable. In 2004 the American Psychological Association said “the lie detector might be better called a fear detector,” noting there was virtually no research validating its use in job screening.
In 1999 the Department of Energy asked the National Academies of Science to review the scientific evidence of the validity and reliability of polygraph examinations, particularly as used for screening.
The resulting committee visited governmental polygraph units and reviewed almost a century of scientific papers and data. Its comprehensive report, which took four years to research and write, was damning. “Almost a century of research … provides little basis for the expectation that a polygraph test could have extremely high accuracy,” wrote its authors. “Polygraph testing yields an unacceptable choice between too many loyal employees falsely judged deceptive and too many threats left undetected. Its accuracy in distinguishing actual or potential violators from innocent test takers is insufficient to justify reliance on its use in employee screening.”
In short, the technology was judged to be pseudoscientific hokum.
It was the polygraph’s tendency to produce false positives that especially worried the Department of Energy. Imagine using a polygraph in an investigation like the one proposed by US senator Rand Paul to identify the author of a damaging anonymous New York Times op-ed earlier this month. If a polygraph is accurate 85 percent of the time, as some data suggests, an investigation of 100 White House senior officials might well identify the guilty individual, but at the cost of falsely accusing 15 others. Shift that accuracy to 65 percent, a figure many critics suggest, and you couldn’t even be certain your culprit would be among the 34 individuals the machine would accuse.
In 2005, the Department of Energy report concluded that “false positives … clearly affect the morale of those for whom such a result is reached. They risk interrupting the careers of valuable contributors to our nation’s defense [and] pose a very serious risk of depriving the United States of the vital services of individuals who may not be easily replaced.”
Christopher Talbot would never become a New Haven police officer. Despite his heartfelt plea, the commissioners voted unanimously to remove him, and dozens of other candidates, from consideration.
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