Why Does the CBRP Use Polygraph Tests?

In my never-ending quest to discover just what $25 million buys the Cape Breton Regional Municipality in terms of police protection, I recently visited the police force web site, which features this little collage of photos in its header:

Yes, our CBRM cops, calling in expired plates (left), patrolling wooded areas (right) and repelling alien insurgents (center). With you and for you.


Liar liar

At the very bottom of the page, in a list of Cape Breton Regional Police (CBRP) departments, I was amazed to discover the existence of a Polygraph Unit, otherwise known as a “Lie-Detector Unit.”

The Polygraph Unit has two certified examiners who conduct polygraph tests for criminal investigations and pre-employment screening.

When conducting a polygraph test, an instrument is used to measure the person’s body physiology. It then records the responses to the polygraph charts and the polygraph examiner analyzes the charts to determine if the person involved was being truthful or not.

First, I would just like to note that having two certified polygraph examiners means the CBRM has one more than Toronto’s police force does:

The Toronto Police has a detective who is trained to administer psychophysiological detection of deception tests (lie detector tests).

Second, I was surprised to see the Polygraph Unit listed because I thought the use of lie detectors had been pretty thoroughly debunked. Turns out, debunking a technology and phasing out its use are two very different things.


Lynda Carter, Wonder Woman (By ABC Television (eBay item photo front photo back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Lynda Carter, Wonder Woman (By ABC Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Lasso of Truth

There’s some dispute as to who invented the lie-detector. As Geoff Bunn, author of The Truth Machine: A Social History of the Lie Detector, told the Daily Beast:

[T]he lie detector that we understand, the polygraph machine, with the three different measurement devices—those were all already in use by 19th-century criminologists. All the lie detector guys did was put them in the same box.

One of two men most associated with the lie-detector as we know it — William Marston — thought it could be used to “resolve emotional problems of couples as well as being used in crime solving.” The other, Leonarde Keeler, even had an admirable reason for promoting it — he wanted to stop Chicago cops from beating confessions out of suspects. (Both men had odd cartoon connections: Marston invented Wonder Woman, with her Lasso of Truth, and Keeler may have been the model for Dick Tracy. I mention these facts because everyone who writes about the lie-detector mentions them — how could we resist?)

Although some claim the advent of computers has led to “dramatic” changes in the technology, I’d beg to differ. Oh, sure, the groovy analog machines with the pens drawing lines on scrolling graph paper have been replaced by “sophisticated algorithms” and computer monitors, but the underlying “science” remains the same — when you lie, your breathing, blood pressure and perspiration can give you away.

And that “science” is, well, dodgy. According to the American Psychological Association (APA):

There is no evidence that any pattern of physiological reactions is unique to deception. An honest person may be nervous when answering truthfully and a dishonest person may be non-anxious.


‘Mystique of science’

When polygraph examiners administer tests, they first do a series of “control” questions. As the APA explains:

The control questions are designed to control for the effect of the generally threatening nature of relevant questions. Control questions concern misdeeds that are similar to those being investigated, but refer to the subject’s past and are usually broad in scope; for example, ‘Have you ever betrayed anyone who trusted you?’

A person who is telling the truth is assumed to fear control questions more than relevant questions. This is because control questions are designed to arouse a subject’s concern about their past truthfulness, while relevant questions ask about a crime they know they did not commit. A pattern of greater physiological response to relevant questions than to control questions leads to a diagnosis of ‘deception.’ Greater response to control questions leads to a judgment of nondeception. If no difference is found between relevant and control questions, the test result is considered ‘inconclusive.’

Don’t let the lack of a subject in those sentences fool you: that “pattern of greater physiological response to relevant questions” doesn’t lead to “a diagnosis of ‘deception'” all by its lonesome. A human being detects the pattern and delivers the diagnosis.  And that, believe it or not, is why polygraph evidence hasn’t been admissable in the Canadian criminal justice system since 1987, when it was given the boot in a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Béland and Phillips.

Writing for the majority in that case, Justice William Rogers McIntyre basically said that determining the credibility of witnesses is the job of judges and juries, whose judgement should not be superseded by the opinion of a polygraph expert:

The results recorded by the polygraph instrument, their nature and significance will reach the trier of fact [the judge or jury] through the mouth of the operator. Human fallibility will thus still be present, but now fortified with the mystique of science.

Canada’s civil and labor courts will sometimes permit polygraph results, but not always. According to the web site of Polygraphia, a Quebec City-based polygraph examination firm established (as is apparently often the case) by a retired cop:

The law…as it pertains to the admissibility of such evidence, is unclear and civil courts across Canada have adopted a variety of views, ranging from acceptance of polygraph evidence, to partial acceptance, to non-acceptance.

For the record, American courts have also turned thumbs down on polygraph evidence, for similar reasons. In 1998, the US Supreme Court ruled that “A fundamental premise of our criminal justice system is that ‘the jury is the lie detector.’”


Not-so-true confessions

But the CBRP use their polygraph for criminal investigations, it’s right there on the web page, so what is the point if the evidence is inadmissable in court? Well, it seems to be to scare people into confessing — because when a confession is obtained during a polygraph interview, it can admitted during a voir dire (a hearing to determine the admissability of evidence or the competency of witnesses or jurors.)

Security screening at the Clinton Engineer Works. Lie detector test, circa 1945 (By Ed Westcott, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Security screening at the Clinton Engineer Works. Lie detector test, circa 1945 (By Ed Westcott, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Polygraph skeptics say the examinations — which can last for hours — are stressful and coercive and can lead to false confessions. According to Mark Godsey, a law professor and director of the Center for the Global Study of Wrongful Conviction, 25% of DNA exonerations documented by the Innocence Project involved false confessions and:

The polygraph is an important tool in the extraction of false confessions. Despite the well-documented inaccuracy of the polygraph, police in North America (less so in Europe and other areas) still rely heavily on the ‘lie detector’ and its even less accurate cousin, the voice stress analyzer, in the investigative process. If an innocent suspect fails the polygraph exam, police will use the results to persuade him or her that they must be guilty. In some cases, police will tell the suspect that they failed the exam even when they didn’t in an attempt to obtain a confession.

So remember that the next time you hear a cheery declaration, like that made by Sgt. Brian Richardson of the RCMP’s “truth verification unit” to the Amherst Rotary Club in 2014:

‘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.’

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.

Oh yeah? Tell it to the Canadian and US and Supreme Courts, the Innocence Project and the APA, why doncha?


In the workforce

But what about that second use to which the CBRP puts its polygraph technicians — pre-employment screening?

Source: https://www.cbrps.ca/polygraph-unit.html

She seems pretty happy about being subjected to an “Orwellian instrument of torture.” (Source: CBRP web site)

I asked the CBRP (twice) to tell me who, exactly, in the CBRM is subject to pre-employment screenings but I have yet to receive a response so will have to discuss what happens in Halifax, where wannabe police officers, fire fighters* and municipal staff requiring security clearances are subject to polygraph exams. (It’s “voluntary” but refusal to answer any or all of the questions may result in your “disqualification from the Recruitment Process.”)

First, such candidates must answer the questions in the Halifax Regional Police’s “pre-employment polygraph booklet.” Questions like:

  • Apart from valid medical reasons, how many days have you been absent from work without proper authorization over the past 12 months?
  •  How much money have you spent, wagered, lost or won in the last year as a result of gambling?
  • What does “intoxicated” mean to you?
  • How does your behaviour change after consuming alcohol?
  • Do you associate with anyone who uses illegal drugs or pharmaceutical drugs illegally?
  • Have you ever paid or asked anyone to set a fire for you?
  • Have you ever exposed yourself in public?

Judy Haiven, an associate professor with the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University, co-authored a 2012 report for the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives (CCPA) called, “Labour Standards Reform in Nova Scotia: Reversing the War Against Workers.” In it, she and her co-authors (Larry Haiven and Kyle Buott) raised the issue of polygraphs in the workplace in this province:

More than a few employers use polygraphs to ascertain the truthfulness of their current and prospective employees. This is not only an invasion of employees’ privacy and outright intimidation, but polygraphs are not a valid indicator of truthfulness…

I spoke to Haiven on Tuesday and she said the report’s recommendation that Nova Scotia emulate New Brunswick’s Employment Standards Act, which provides that “No person shall require, request, enable or influence, directly or indirectly, an employee to take or submit to a lie detector test,” has not been implemented.

In Nova Scotia, said Haiven, an employer could ask virtually anything as part of a polygraph test, gathering information about a potential (or existing) employee that was not any of that employer’s business. (See above questions.)

Moreover, while the Halifax Police say the collection, use and disclosure of any information you provide is governed by the Municipal Government Act (MGA), there is no mention made of how long such information is stored or what happens to it ultimately — does it become part of an employee’s file? What if the candidate is not successful?

Haiven made the comparison to fingerprints, which is an interesting one. In Canada, if you are charged with a criminal offense and those charges are dismissed, withdrawn or stayed, you can petition the local police and/or the RCMP to destroy your fingerprints and photo, but it’s up to you to initiate that action and if you have been convicted of another offense, they don’t have to do it.

Some police departments, like the Peel Regional Police, actually include an application for the destruction of fingerprints on their websites.  I couldn’t find such a link on the CBRP site.

The point is, if you don’t initiate the action, the police will keep your information on file…just in case.



Fortunately, perhaps, the high cost of such tests dissuades most Nova Scotian employers from going the polygraph route. (I found this company, which would charge me $2,300 to conduct a polygraph examination in Sydney — the price includes the cost of flying an expert in. Also, I found Halifax-based P.R. Woolridge Polygraph Associates, run by an ex-Mountie, but it did not list prices for services. And of course, the most famous Nova Scotian polygraph company, Integrity Personnel Screening and Interviewing Consultants Inc., the one where Premier Stephen McNeil’s brother — and Halifax cop — Anthony McNeil worked, is no longer in business after a spot of bother about a no-tender contract with the Halifax Fire Department).

(My personal all-time favorite lie-detector scene.)

Still, anyone hoping to become a police officer or firefighter* in Halifax (and presumably the CBRM) or hoping to join the RCMP must submit to polygraph testing. Any non-federal employee requiring access to “restricted or protected” areas of facilities may be required to submit to one. If you are a member of the Canadian Armed Forces suspected of a crime you could be subject to a polygraph by the Canadian Forces National Investigation Services (CFNIS).

Interestingly, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, under pressure to hire an additional 5,000 border guards, has announced it may speed the process by ditching the polygraph tests all potential candidates must currently undergo. Is that a sign the CBP has thrown caution to the wind — or that it’s come to agree with Doug Williams, often billed as the most vocal critic of polygraph tests in the US?

Williams, a former Oklahoma police officer, administered thousands of polygraph tests before deciding they were a complete sham and beginning to teach people how to game them (an undertaking for which he now faces charges). In 2015, Williams spoke to the CBC’s Brent Bambury, who asked him what advice he’d give someone facing a polygraph test. Williams replied:

Never work for any agency that employs this insidious Orwellian instrument of torture because that is nothing but a foreshadowing of all the trauma that you will endure at their hand.


*Brendan Elliott, senior communications adviser with Halifax Regional Municipality, contacted me to say that “lie detector tests are not used in the recruitment process for our firefighters.” I’ve asked when the process was discontinued and why and will update the story when I receive an answer. For the record, I assumed they were still used because the recruitment page of the HRM web site said they were. 



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