Polygraph technology has changed with the times

Darrell Cole
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It’s not what you see in the movies

Sgt. Brian Richardson talked to Amherst Rotarians about the RCMP's truth verification section.

Sgt. Brian Richardson of the RCMP’s Nova Scotia truth verification section demonstrates polygraph technology with Amherst Rotary Club president and former RCMP officer Paul Calder (centre) and Sgt. Al Carroll of the Cumberland RCMP.

AMHERST – Contrary to what you make see in the movies, taking a polygraph doesn’t involve a smoky room, a large machine, and a police officer using trick questions to break down a suspect.

Speaking to members of the Amherst Rotary Club earlier this week, Sgt. Brian Richardson of the RCMP’s Nova Scotia truth verification unit said the polygraph is just another tool police have at their disposal when investigating a crime.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about how the polygraph works and you sometimes hear about how someone can beat the polygraph when I reality you can’t. If you’re asked a question about a crime and you have first-hand knowledge of that crime it’s going to show,” Richardson said. “The RCMP has been using the polygraph since the early 1970s and it really is very accurate. It’s a very valuable tool to assist in investigations.”

Richardson, who spent several years working as an RCMP officer in Amherst, is one member of a four-person truth verification unit in Nova Scotia. Two officers, including Richardson and the program supervisor, are located in Truro and two are located in Bedford.

The Nova Scotia unit, he added, is also responsible for Prince Edward Island and Nunavut and the four-person team is quite busy doing forensic work, criminal work, statement anaylsis and pre-employment screening for all RCMP candidates.

Members of the truth verification unit also spend time working with police investigators on interview techniques and helping to develop questions that can be asked of a witness or a suspect.

Richardson told Rotarians that polygraph technology has changed a lot over the years from the big box with the moving arms to a digital format that has the data collected by a laptop computer and instead of the analyst sitting at the table reading the moving arms, he could be in another room reading the information on a computer screen.

The polygraph instrument, he said, detects and records physiological features in the body including heart and respiration rates, how much blood the heart is putting out while being tested, sweat gland activity and how much blood is flowing to the extremities during a test.

He said physiological functions will occur involuntarily under stress. By continually monitoring body responses, any changes that occur as a result of questioning can be observed.

“The underlying premise behind the polygraph is a person’s fight or flight reponse,” Richardson said. “As you grow up we are all taught what’s right or wrong. We all make mistakes as we go through life, that’s human nature. Once a person is attached to the polygraph and we start asking questions they know have repercussions you’ll get a different physiological response than you to a question where there are no repercussions.”

A polygraphist can determine if the answers provided are consistent with truthfulness or attempted deception. On rare occasions, Richardson said, the results are inconclusive and the test is later repeated.

“In a lot of cases someone responsible for a crime doesn’t want to take the test because they know their deception will be detected during the polygraph test,” he said. “The majority of the people we interview are truthful.”


Twitter: @ADNdarrell

Organizations: RCMP, Amherst Rotary Club

Geographic location: Nova Scotia, AMHERST, Truro Bedford Prince Edward Island Nunavut

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Recent comments

  • Doug Williams
    May 18, 2014 - 16:03

    The polygraph test is the most important test any of you will ever take. Until you take one, you have no idea how traumatic and grueling it can be - it is that way for a reason. The polygraphers want you to be so frightened that you "spill your guts". Some federal agencies give bonuses to polygraph operators that get the most damaging admissions! In fact, many people are so intimidated that they make statements that the polygrapher will use to disqualify or incriminate them - some people are so frightened that they confess to things they haven't even done! There are millions of people who have been falsely branded as liars, simply because they had a nervous reaction when they answered a question. They have had their lives ruined because they believed the lie that the polygraph was reliable and accurate as a "lie detector", and that the polygrapher was an honorable professional who would treat them fairly. They found out the hard way that the polygrapher was just an interrogator - that the polygraph was just a prop he used to frighten and intimidate them. And worse yet, that the polygrapher could accuse them of lying without any evidence to prove that accusation and they could not challenge or appeal his decision! That's not fair, it is not the way things should be done in this country, but that's the way it is! And that's the way it will continue to be until it is stopped completely - THE POLYGRAPH HAS NOT CHANGED IN ALMOST 100 YEARS - IT IS A FRAUD AND A SCAM AND IT MUST BE SCRAPPED! I am the only licensed polygraph expert who has ever told the truth about the polygraph, and the truth is, the polygraph is not a "lie detector". I have been telling the truth about the scam called lie detection for almost forty years now in hopes of destroying the dangerous myth of "lie detection". Carl Sagan said, "If it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth." I was instrumental in destroying a large part of the polygraph industry by getting most polygraph testing outlawed in the private sector. In 1988, with the passage of the EMPLOYEE POLYGRAPH PROTECTION ACT, administering polygraph tests actually became a federal crime! Even the U.S. Supreme Court refused to admit polygraph results into evidence, and ironically it was the U.S. Justice Department who argued that the polygraph results were not reliable and should not be admitted into evidence! I was a member of the Office of Technology Assessment, (an investigative arm of the U.S. Congress), studying the validity and reliability of the polygraph - our report basically said it was worthless as a "lie detector". I also testified in the U.S. Congress in support of the EPPA. But, there were exclusions written into the law that allowed the government - local state and federal - to continue to use the polygraph. They attempt to justify these exclusions on the grounds that the government needs this tool to protect national security and the law enforcement officials need it to protect the integrity of the criminal justice system. I have proved the polygraph is not a "lie detector" - the Congress, the Justice Department, the OTA, and all those with any scientific credibility agree with me - so there is no justification for the government to continue to use it on the pretext that it protects our national security or the integrity of the criminal justice system. It is FOOLISH and DANGEROUS to use the polygraph as "lie detector" - the theory of "lie detection" is nothing but junk science. It is based on a faulty scientific premise. The polygraph operators have the audacity to say that there is such a thing as a "reaction indicative of deception", when I can prove that "lying reaction" is simply a nervous reaction commonly referred to as the fight or flight syndrome. In fact, the polygraph is nothing but a psychological billy club that is used to coerce a person into making admissions or confessions. It is FOOLISH and DANGEROUS for government agencies to rely on the polygraph to "test" applicants, or to conduct any type of investigations relating to national security. It is FOOLISH and DANGEROUS for the criminal justice system to rely on an instrument that has been thoroughly discredited to determine whether or not a person is truthful or deceptive, or to use it to guide their investigations in any way - especially when the results cannot even be used as evidence in a court of law! And it is FOOLISH and DANGEROUS for anyone to believe they will pass their polygraph "test" if they just tell the truth! When you factor in all the damage done to people who are falsely branded as liars by these con men and their unconscionable conduct, this fraud of "lie detection" perpetrated by the polygraph industry should be a federal crime! The protection provided to some people by the EPPA should be extended to protect everyone from this insidious Orwellian instrument of torture! Shame on anyone who administers these "tests" - and shame on the government for continuing to allow this state sponsored sadism!