Understanding False Confessions: The Better Way

Police business is a hell of a problem. It’s a good deal like politics. It asks for the highest type of men, and there’s nothing in it to attract the highest type of men. So we have to work with what we get…

Raymond Chandler, The Lady in the Lake

Winston Smith

The last installment of this series outlined the enormous flaws that exist within the Reid Interview and Interrogation Technique. The available data and research makes clear that the Reid Technique is deeply flawed, its inherent structure leads towards false confessions because of the manipulative tactics used to elicit confessions from its subjects. If we know now that our methods are ineffective at best and counterintuitive at worst, then a new model for police interview must be found. As Reid is used widely within the United States, to find a new, effective model for police interview we must journey outside the United States, perhaps to the United Kingdom.


The UK’s current model of police interview, titled the PEACE Method, was created in 1992.  The PEACE Method is the result of an analysis of hundreds of police interviews (Porter 2011, 63; Roberts 2012, 8). The reason for a change in police interview technique was a string of “high-profile false confessions” that pushed British law enforcement to transition from a confrontational to an investigative process (Kassin et al 2010 a, 27).  To solidify the transition, the Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act was established in 1984 with the goal of reducing psychologically manipulative tactics (ibid).

The PEACE model is used in lieu of an interrogation, as law enforcement agencies in Britain are no longer taught interrogation techniques (Porter 2011, 63). Analyses of law enforcement in England have shown that “the confrontation-based tactics of maximization and minimization are in fact seldom used (Kassin et al 2010 a, 14).” The PEACE method has proliferated into various other nations such as New Zealand and Norway (Kassin et al 2010 a, 47). Construction of this model included the input of police, lawyers, and psychologists (Porter 2011, 63). PEACE is an acronym which is used to highlight the five stages of the interview; planning and preparation, engage and explain, account clarification and challenge, closure, and evaluation (College of Policing 2016). Below is the framework for the interview model.

investigation-peace-model(College of Policing 2016)

The first step of the PEACE method, planning and preparation, is crucial for the success of the interview and investigation that depends on it (ibid). For this step, it is necessary for the interviewer to take part in a planning session that “takes account of all the available information and identifies the key issues and objectives… (ibid).” The authors of the PEACE method give its users advice for consideration when they are creating their plan, such as recording the interview plan, considering the characteristics of the interviewee, practical arrangements, and making a written interview plan (ibid). Through the planning, the interviewer “analyzes the investigative objectives, develops a timeline of key events, and prepares the questions based on the analysis of existing evidence (Porter 2011, 64).”  
The second step of the PEACE method, engage and explain, is the first step in engaging the interviewee in a conversation (College of Policing 2016). PEACE encourages its users to participate in active listening which allows for the interviewer to build rapport with the interviewee (ibid). The establishment of rapport allows for the interviewer to pinpoint evidentiary information given by the interviewee, manage the flow of the interview, and “communicate interest to the interviewee in their account (ibid).” When building the rapport, the interviewer should keep in mind the interviewee’s background and personal characteristics (ibid). When the PEACE interview begins, it is imperative that the reasoning for why the interviewee is there in the first place is clearly articulated: “‘You are here because you have been arrested for (offence)’ (ibid).” Along with articulating why the interviewee is there, it is important to make know the goals of the interview and provide the interviewee “an outline or route map of” the interview and should provide the necessary legal cautions (ibid; Porter 2011, 65).

The third step of the PEACE method, account clarification and challenge, is where the interview truly begins as this is where the interviewer hopes to obtain information from the interviewee (ibid). PEACE instructs that in this step the interviewer must initiate and support the conversation through the use of open ended questions like, “‘tell me what happened’ (College of Policing 2016).” The interviewer should engage in actions such as using phrases like “‘mm mm’” to encourage the interviewee to finish their story, allowing the subject to pause during their account of the events so that they are able to recall all necessary information, and using nonverbal techniques “such as adopting an appropriate posture and orientation towards the interviewee (ibid).

The fourth step of PEACE, closure, is where the interviewer should “accurately summarize what the interviewee has said, taking account of any clarification that the interviewee wishes to make (ibid).” This stage should also be planned so the interview does not abruptly end and any lingering questions that the interviewee has are answered (ibid). The interviewer should end the interview by either “preparing a witness statement if appropriate or, where the interviewee is a suspect, by announcing the date and time before turning the recording equipment off (ibid).” After doing this, the interviewer must explain to the interviewee what will be the next steps (ibid).

The last step, evaluation, consists of the interviewer reviewing what had occurred during the interview (ibid). This reflection has three goals: to analyze the possible need for further action, to synthesize the information provided within the interview to the larger investigation, and to reflect on how the interviewer performed during the interview (ibid).

Some may believe that this technique is lacking as there is no interrogation stage. Commonly, many would believe that to get to the truth, you must be accusatory or heavy handed. This seems not to be the case. The predecessor of PEACE, PACE, was studied, and it was found that “the use of psychologically manipulative tactics had significantly declined–without a corresponding drop in the frequency of confessions (Kassin et al 2010 a, 27).” In addition to the drop in the use of psychologically manipulative tactics, “[t]he past-PACE confession rate is also somewhat higher in the UK than in the US (ibid).” This shows that without the use of psychologically manipulative tactics police were able to maintain the same amount of confessions, even beating out the United States, while theoretically reducing the number of false confessions.

Studies have shown that the use of investigative interviews, such as PEACE, give law enforcement enough to implicate their interviewee through the information gathered from the interview (Kassin et al 2010 b, 47). This is corroborated in that confession rates in the United Kingdom have remained steady throughout the conversion to PEACE, with confession rates remaining at “approximately 50% before and after PEACE’s implementation in 1992 (Porter 2011, 71).” What is important to note, however, is that in the United Kingdom, interviewees do not have the right to remain silent, as their silence may be used against them in court (Porter 2011, 71-72).

When an investigative interview technique was studied in a cheating paradigm, the investigative interview technique was found to lower false confession rates, 40% to 17%, while increasing the rate of true confessions, 67% to 77% (Kassin et al 2010 b, 47). The PEACE method is assumed to, overall, be less likely to elicit false confessions as it is not guilt presumptive or overly confrontational (Gudjonsson & Pearse 2011, 36). In studies focusing on deception detection, techniques that favored “strategically withholding incriminating evidence rather than immediately confronting the suspects with the evidence” were more effective in identifying deceptive subjects (Kassin et al 2010 b, 47). In a 2010 article, Meissner et al showed “emerging laboratory data showing that the inquisitorial U.K.-type interview technique is superior to the accusatory Reid-type technique in producing fewer false confessions and an increased number of true confessions when the CI technique of Fisher and Geiselman (1992) is used (ibid).” Gudjonsson and Pearse note that any laboratory study raises the issue that it is impossible to mimic real-life interviews and all the inputs that go into a real-life interview (ibid).

While there are differences between the legal structure of the United Kingdom and the United States, what is clear is that the PEACE Method works, it works well and better than the Reid Technique. Through adopting PEACE, we would be able to lower our false confession rates and possibly raise the amount of true confessions with the added bonus of dropping psychologically manipulative tactics. What’s not to love? Unfortunately, implementation is never easy and seems to be unlikely in the United States.

Saul Kassin, an expert in false confessions, is skeptical of the adaptation of our current Reid style techniques to an investigative interview technique such as PEACE (Douglas 2013). Through numerous interactions with various police departments and prosecutor’s offices, Dr. Kassin “holds out little hope for the kind of wholesale change that was adopted in Britain (ibid).” The reasoning for his belief is that the “culture of confrontation…is too embedded in our society (ibid).” What also hinders the adaptation of this type of a model akin to PEACE is the gap of knowledge between the current literature about wrongful convictions and the “working beliefs of executives in police departments (Zalman & Smith 2007, 918).” In their study, Zalman and Smith found that 73% of law enforcement either disagreed or strongly disagreed that an interrogation can result in a wrongful conviction which is coupled by the fact that 70.9% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that officers should be persistent (ibid). This only further illustrates the disconnect between knowledge and action in the leadership of American law enforcement agencies.


While there is the canyon between knowledge and implementation, there are those who are working towards a PEACE model. Neil Nelson, a retired homicide detective in St. Paul, Minnesota, devised a system called RIP, which stands for Rapport-Investment-Partnership. Nelson characterizes his model as “‘all about information-gathering and not about getting a confession’” and teaches this model to police departments, but only those “that hear about him, usually by word of mouth (ibid).” While there are individuals working towards this goal, it is small scale change and not as wide reaching as is needed.
It continues to boggle the mind that while the most popular system of police interview and interrogation in the United States has continually been proven wrong, ineffective, and manipulative, it continues to be further entrenched into our law enforcement. What is truly the most shameful aspect of this is not the failure for techniques to improve, but the gap of knowledge that exists between the literature focusing on wrongful convictions and the chief executives of large police departments, who have the ability to make these necessary changes (Zalman & Smith 2007, 918). The ignorance to entertain that false confessions are even possible, continues to perpetuate the system that has so inexcusably harmed Christopher Abernathy and the many other individuals who have fallen into the same sad circumstances as him. It is unacceptable for us to continue a system which victimizes our fellow citizens and imprisons them for actions they did not do. What is needed is not unknown. What is left to do is finally act upon the knowledge we have.

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