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The Lie Detector and your career

Would you risk your career, your family,  or your future and take a polygraph test?   Most police officers in Virginia are required to take a polygraph test to become police officers.  All police officers are required to take a polygraph test if they are ordered to take one by their Chief.  In July, 2000 the law will change slightly, but not enough to protect yourself from the results of a polygraph test that goes bad.

    "According to the American Polygraph Association, when a proficient examiner uses an established testing procedure to investigate a specific question, 'the accuracy of the generally in the range of 85-95%.'  The accuracy rate was the number of correct results as a percentage of all definitive test results; inconclusive test results, for which a second examination is usually recommended, were excluded.  Including those results would have lowered the range of apparent accuracy."

To make this example extremely clear.... If 100 people took the polygraph anywhere from 5 to 15 people would fail the test.  Not because they lied, but because they took the test.  With results like these, why are police officers subjected to the polygraph by their employers?

    The polygraph -- or "lie detector" -- test purports to offer the diagnostic confidence that can be found with precise medical tests such as electrocardiographs or serum electrolyte determinations.  Such diagnostic confidence, however, is far more difficult to achieve in the complex and often subjective psychological realm of truth and deception.   The limitations of polygraph evaluations can be appreciated by applying the tools that physicians use to interpret other diagnostic tests.
    Lie detection by the polygraph assumes that telling a lie causes specific and reproducible physiological responses related to the arousal of the autonomic nervous system.  In turn it is assumed that an experienced polygraph examiner can elicit these responses routinely.  In fact, these crucial assumptions remain unproved.  Autonomic arousal may be caused by deception but it may also be caused by myriad potentially confounding factors, ranging from stress, fear, and anxiety to anger and embarrassment.  Deception itself cannot be measured directly.*

*The New England Journal of Medicine July 9, 1992 p.122

Here is what the Virginia Chiefs of Police say

1.  There is no evidence that law enforcement agencies are abusing the right to use the polygraph.  A statewide "solution" to what may be perceived as a local problem by some individuals bars the effective administration of justice statewide.

2.  The polygraph is used as a tool to develop additional evidence in cases of "he said - you said".  The real utility of the polygraph is to prevent people from changing their original story in anticipation of, or following, a polygraph examination.

3.  Prohibiting officers from taking a polygraph shifts the burden to the complainant.  Law enforcement administrators are now going to have to ask the citizen to take the polygraph, instead of the officer.   This does not engender public confidence in the police.

4.  Prohibiting law enforcement officers from taking the polygraph essentially guts the active investigation of internal sexual harassment complaints in "he said - she said" cases.  The law enforcement enforcement administrator would not be able to require the polygraph of either officer is one claims harassment and the other denies it.   This will set back the progress we have made in reducing this problem.

5.  More often than not officers are exonerated rather than implicated as the result of taking a polygraph.*

*The above was obtained from a 3/3/00 facsimile distributed by the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police to its membership in response to HB1125 which was supported by VCOPS and its statewide locals.  Oh, and by the way, they suggested that Chiefs appear in uniform because "Uniforms help to make you more visible and instantly credible".......... Just like lie detector tests....?

Polygraph History:

The CIA, and other secrecy-obsessed government agencies continue to rely on the polygraph for screening employees and job applicants.   Generally overlooked is that the private job market was ruled out of bounds for the lie detector by Congress in 1988.  The definitive study of the reliability of the polygraph was published in 1983 by the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a nonpartisan highly respected research agency that works for the Congress.  Requested by Congress to assess the scientific validity of the polygraph," OTA followed its customary practice of consulting the nation's leading experts, studying the relevant research literature and identifying what is known with certainty about the subject under examination.

In the case of the polygraph, it concluded that claims for the validity of the device, originating mainly with the peddlers of polygraph services, far exceeded any scientifically acceptable evidence of lie-detecting prowess.

Polygraph "theory" if it can be dignified as such, holds that deception by a person wired up to the machine sets off telltale changes in rate of breathing, blood pressure and electrical impulses on the skin.   The polygraph industry has always stressed the importance of proper interpretation of the squiggly lines produced by recording instruments attached to the machine, attributing failures, in roundabout, self-serving reasoning, to poorly qualified testers.   The main problem, however, isn't the voodoo artists at the controls.  Its the crackpot machine itself.

In a damning series of findings, OTA reported, "There is no known physiological response that is unique to deception."   The report noted that the CIA and its companions "believe that the polygraph is a useful screening tool.  However, OTA concluded that the available research does not establish the scientific validity of the polygraph for this purpose.  The best that OTA could say about the polygraph was that it might have some limited validity in "specific criminal incidents."  But the report went on to observe that in such cases,"the polygraph test detects deception better than chance, but with error rates that could be significant."  As for this supposedly revealing physiological responses the congressional study reported that they could be masked "by physical movement, drugs or other techniques to avoid detection as deceptive."

Also cited as a concern were "false positive errors where innocent persons are incorrectly identified as deceptive."  That last problem, which could easily plunge an innocent person into disaster, was the big selling point when Congress banished the polygraph from civilian jobs in 1988. *

*The above information was obtained from an article written by Daniel S. Greenberg, editor and publisher of Science & Government Report, A Washington newsletter.

Here are news reports that the Virginian-Pilot Newspaper printed while the polygraph bill was being discussed in the Virginia General Assembly.

1.Virginia Beach Officer is classic example of testing gone bad
2.Polygraph Bill Stalled
3.Modified Polygraph Bill appears assured of passage

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There a site on the internet devoted to the abolition of the polygraph.  Visit it and see if you can get involved.

The Following Web Sites will tell you more about the Polygraph.  These sites tend to deal with the polygraph used as a screening device but they contain many other good resources. 

October 8, 2002
NY Times Online

Polygraph is Unreliable
US advised against using Polygraph

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