Getting Confessions: The Reid Interrogation Technique

by Allen Browning on August 11, 2015

Various methods have been used in police interrogations to elicit a confession. By far the most popular method used for over seventy years is the Reid Technique. This interrogation method assumes guilty suspects can be identified from certain behavioral cues. It is said to be proven as highly effective at getting confessions; however, there has been criticism about it for many years because it has been linked to many wrongful convictions. Around 25 percent of post conviction DNA exonerations have been associated with a false confession from authorities using the Reid Technique. Even one of the first cases in which John Reid used this technique turned out to be a false confession. More and more scientists and scholars are saying this approach is based on outdated psychology.

There are several components incorporated in this technique, including room design and how the investigator conducts the interview. There are three spatial zones the investigators use, which can be seen in the diagram on the right. The first is the social zone which is between 4 and 12 feet. The next one is the personal zone between 1.5 and 4 feet. The last is the intimate zone less than 1.5 feet. Spatial zones are important because there are varied levels of comfort associated with each zone. Investigators are instructed to get in closer as they continue through the steps of the interview.

The interrogator stands in such a confrontative way as to establish dominance. While standing or sitting four feet from the suspect, he holds in his hands what appears to be a case file, while not having a pencil or paper present.

The interrogator blames other things for the crime happening, reasoning that the defendant did not really want to commit a crime but wanted to do some other thing. This is done in a monologue by the interrogator, in which he tells the defendant he knows he is not a bad guy, the interrogator minimizes the seriousness of the suspected actions of the defendant, offers sympathy for him and understanding why he did it, while insisting (maximizing) the defendant did the crime. During this time the defendant is not allowed to disagree with anything associated with guilt, because “I’m sorry but that doesn’t make sense.” Techniques are used to prevent the defendant from talking, and the defendant is led to believe that a confession will lead to a softer penalty. The interrogator cannot outright say that, but he leads the witness to draw that conclusion.

Denials are cut off, and the interrogator returns to his theme of guilt as being the only scenario that makes sense. He may start his monologue all over again. And again.  And again, all while the defendant is made to feel he cannot leave, and he cannot leave until he agrees with a scenario laid out by the interrogator, a scenario which is, in fact, a confession.

The interrogator is trained to handle various types of responses to this treatment: denials, objections, passivity, etc. All are designed to return the defendant to the interrogator’s theme.

The interrogator will usually try to end the session with only two alternatives that make sense, both point to guilt. He knows one is false and carries a far greater penalty, but there is the lesser one that is an “out” for the defendant, and life will be better if he just acknowledges that scenario.

I personally witnessed one in which a defendant was told he would never be allowed to be around his stepchildren again if he denied guilt, but that he could put this all behind him by acknowledging his conduct was intentional, not accidental, and then the healing could begin by getting the defendant some counseling. The interrogator, of course, did not mention agreement with the officer could also put him in prison for 20 years.

This entire process is generally videotaped, with the officer having no pen or paper in hand. Once he gets the defendant to nod or agree, he will want to get the defendant to sign a paper admitting he intentionally did what the officer claims he did. Sometimes the interrogator will give the defendant a typed statement with errors intentionally included, so he can instruct the defendant to manually change those errors before signing the document, giving the impression the defendant carefully thought through this statement before signing..

The interrogator assumes that the suspect is guilty, so the purpose of the interrogation is not investigative. The purpose is to get a confession from the suspect, not to find out the truth. This form of interrogation can coerce innocent suspects to confess to crimes they didn’t commit, and some will even believe in their false confessions. It can also persuade a witness to transform, invent, or retract an eyewitness account, so it fits the ideas of the investigator. People more likely to have false confessions includes: juveniles, developmentally disabled, mentally ill, and easily suggestible people.

Once a defendant has given his assent to the “guilty” version laid out by the interrogator, jurors unaware of the coercive nature of this interrogation always find the defendant “guilty,” even if the defendant has objective proof of his innocence.
Unfortunately, the odds are against justice for the innocent person who has been convinced he has no alternative but to agree with the interrogator for one reason or another, and who finally nods in assent at the end of a two hour session with a large man who appears to be blocking his exit. For the time being, the best that can be done is to educate jurors as to the unreliability of this interrogation technique, the incentive it provides to get innocent people to agree they have done wrong, and the specific facts of the defendant’s situation that demonstrate it is more likely he is not guilty.

Allen Browning is an attorney in Idaho Falls, Idaho who handles personal injury and criminal defense cases. He has over 30 years of experience and handled thousands of cases. Call (208) 542-2700 to set up a free consultation if you are facing legal trouble or you have been involved in an accident. Check out for more information about Allen and Browning Law.

Sources for more information:

Searby, Bruce, Colette Tvedt, and Andrew T. Wise. “Winning Tips for Complex Cases.” NACDL’s 35th Annual Seminar. Colorado, Aspen. 11 Jan. 2015. Lecture.

Allen Browning

Allen Browning

Attorney at Law at Browning Law
I handle personal injury cases and criminal cases in Idaho Falls, Idaho. My background as a trial lawyer allows me to serve these clients well, and I enjoy handling these types of cases. Browning Law is organized to assist these clients, with two full-time secretary/paralegals handling personal injury cases exclusively and one secretary/paralegal assisting on criminal cases. A full time bookkeeper on staff organizes the financial information on each personal injury case and assists me in negotiating settlements for personal injury clients. I am very proud of all the people who work for me. These are competent, hard-working, motivated people that understand the importance of doing a great job for each client. At the same time, they are a joy to work with on a personal basis. My clients regularly tell me how much they appreciate the help they have received from my staff. For more information about Allen please visit: For more blogs visit:
Allen Browning
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