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Sleep deprivation linked to false confessions


Tactics that are commonly used by law enforcement agencies in New Jersey and around the country have once again been linked with false confessions. Civil rights advocates have widely criticized the use of the psychologically aggressive Reid Technique against emotionally vulnerable individuals, and those protests may soon be growing louder. Researchers at Michigan State University have found a connection between false confessions and the common police practice of keeping suspects tired and confused. The research has been published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Law enforcement say that tactics such as sleep deprivation and the Reid Technique are needed to break down truculent and combative suspects, but civil rights advocates say that they should not be used against vulnerable individuals such as children, the emotionally unstable or those with learning disabilities. It is believed that between 15 and 25 percent of those serving time in prison or jail for crimes they did not commit provided police with a false confession.

The researchers came to their conclusions after observing how fatigue impacted the way that 88 individuals responded to aggressive questioning. The research revealed that participants who had been deprived of a night's sleep were far more likely to make a false admission than those who had slept for eight hours before being questioned.

While research indicating that fatigue results in a false confession about half of the time may raise some eyebrows, it is unlikely to lead to the substantive reform of law enforcement policies and procedures. Veteran police officers often use guile to build rapport and establish empathy, but these approaches may be far less effective when an experienced criminal defense attorney is present. Defense attorneys may seek to keep the atmosphere calm and the questions relevant, and they could demand that interrogations cease when their clients are fatigued or otherwise impaired.

Source: PBS Frontline, A Rare Look at the Police Tactics That Can Lead to False Confessions, Gretchen Gavett, Dec. 9, 2011

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