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Lloyd Waters: The polygraph and search for the truth

June 16, 2013|By LLOYD WATERS

There’s an old saying that only children and fools tell the truth. That verse seems to suggest that finding the truth among the rest of us might be as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack.

Most recently, the search for the truth at the Baltimore City Detention Center has involved the use of the polygraph by the Maryland Department of Public Safety to ascertain if certain individuals knew about the corruption at that facility.

One staff person has allegedly been dismissed based on polygraph results.

How reliable is a polygraph result and does this recent action suggest the arrival of a new state policy that might require all correctional staff in the Maryland Division of Corrections to take a similar exam?

The modern polygraph machine was invented in 1921 by John  Larson, who was then a student at the University of California at Berkeley.  This machine has been in use since 1924 by various agencies, such as the CIA, FBI, Los Angeles Police Department and many others as a method of investigation and also for the screening of employees in highly sensitive areas.

The machine, as its name implies, records or graphs the tested individual’s answers to a series of questions. The test is calibrated by the use of control and designed questions asked by the examiner of the individual prior to the actual test.

As the examiner asks the formalized questions during the real exam, the machine then measures certain physical aspects of the person’s breathing, blood pressure, pulse and perspiration.

Those measurements are used to determine whether the person is telling the truth or not.

Polygraph examiners will most likely tell you that the machine is highly reliable.

A 1997 survey of psychologists, however,  suggested that the accuracy rate of the polygraph is no more than 61 percent, and in a 1998 Supreme Court case, United States v. Scheffer, the majority opinion advised, “There is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is  reliable.”

The National Academy of Science in 2003 also suggested that the majority of polygraph research was “unreliable, unscientific and biased.”

I remember one time having a conversation with a retired sheriff about using the polygraph for hiring law enforcement personnel.

Does passing a polygraph today mean that a person’s truthfulness will remain constant throughout their law enforcement career, I asked.

Does truthfulness on Monday translate to truthfulness on Friday?

He gave me a puzzled look, and I then asked if he thought it might be a good idea to give the same test to Catholic priests during that time when sex abuse cases were beginning to surface.

What about other groups where truthfulness and honesty are important?

If state agencies accept the use of a polygraph to be a legitimate tool for weeding out untruthful employees or candidates applying for sensitive jobs in law enforcement, corrections, or Secret Service positions, could we have a similar test for our political friends, since governing a nation seems to warrant a tad amount of truthfulness as well?

How about this idea:

When we have presidential and other political debates, could we wire the candidates up to a polygraph and display their graph results for all to see?

Just look at a few recent incidents in our government where the discovery of truthfulness might be refreshing and beneficial:

• The Internal Revenue Service and its potential abuses.

• The State Department’s comments in regard to Benghazi.

• Eric Holder’s explanation regarding surveillance of our news reporters.

If our society is willing to accept the polygraph as a useful tool in finding truthfulness in a prison, why should we limit its use only to law enforcement and corrections?

If you require a polygraph for one entity, why not make it applicable for all?

Or just maybe — not use it for anyone.


Lloyd “Pete” Waters is a Sharpsburg resident who writes columns for The Herald-Mail.

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