“Lie Detectors Spark Debate on Reliability: Police Asking for Tests in City Hall Flooding”

Paul Hughes reports for the Waterbury, Connecticut Republican-American:

WATERBURY — Polygraph examiner Leighton R. Hammond says lie detector tests of some city employees should speed the police investigation into whether any of them are responsible for the flooding of City Hall last weekend.

“It certainly would narrow the field down very quickly,” said Hammond, who has conducted polygraph examinations for 25 years.

However, he said no employees can be forced to take a lie detector test.

A 1975 state law forbids the polygraph testing of private and public employees without their permission. The only exemptions are police officers and employees of the state Department of Corrections.

The law says polygraphs cannot be used to screen prospective employees. No private employer or arm of state and local government can require employees to submit to a lie detector test or dismiss or discipline an employee for not taking a polygraph.

A 1988 federal law also regulates the use of polygraphs in private and public workplaces.

Police Chief Neil O’Leary announced Wednesday that police will ask some City Hall employees and firefighters to take a lie detector test to assist in the investigation of the last weekend’s flooding.

The source of the flooding was a standpipe in a closed office on the fourth floor of City Hall. Police want to test any city workers who had access to that room and firefighters from the firehouse adjoining City Hall. A standpipe is a high vertical pipe used for storing water and keeping it at a desired pressure.

Police believe a standpipe valve in that fourth-floor office was opened sometime late Saturday, flooding the entire building. Investigators doubt a mechanical failure was the cause, though the possibility has not been ruled out yet.

H. James Haselkamp Jr., the city’s director of human resources, said state law leaves the decision of whether or not to submit to a polygraph test to individual employees. He said he expects city unions will advise members not to be tested.

“It would not surprise me at all if the employee unions say no,” Hammond said.

Stephen Laccone, president of the city’s blue collar union, said individual union members are free to decide whether or not to undergo testing.

O’Leary reported some blue collar workers agreed to talk to police and take a polygraph test. “We’ve done some interviews,” he said.

It was unclear Wednesday what the firefighters union was recommending its members do. Union president Daniel French said Tuesday he would consult with the union’s lawyers. French did not immediately respond for requests for comment Wednesday.

A polygraph records bodily changes assumed to occur when a subject lies. The devices record breathing, blood pressure, pulse rate and perspiration. The physiological responses are charted and the examiner analyzes the charts and renders an opinion on the truthfulness of the person.

Proponents of polygraph testing and its critics disagree over the accuracy and reliability of polygraph evidence.

If properly conducted, Hammond said, polygraph results are nearly 100 percent accurate.

John Hovarth [sic], a polygraph examiner with 30 years experience and criminal justice professor at Michigan State University, said the accuracy rate ranges from 85 to 95 percent, give or take. Lie detector tests are not admissible in Connecticut courts. The state Supreme Court has repeatedly held that polygraph evidence is inadmissible because of the questionable accuracy.

The American Polygraph Association reports some states and federal district courts allow the use of polygraph evidence under certain circumstances. The only state that allows the unhindered use of polygraph evidence is New Mexico. Horvath said it is treated the same as other scientific evidence in courts.

The American Polygraph Association contends scientific evidence shows polygraph examinations are highly accurate and reliable. The association also concedes the polygraph is not infallible and errors do occur. It recommends examiners follow certain procedures to reduce the possibility for errors.

“Nothing is perfect,” said Hammond, who works as an examiner for 60 Connecticut police departments and the state Office of the Chief Public Defender.

The National Research Council concluded in a 2002 study that polygraph examinations are too inaccurate for the U.S. government to screen job seekers and employees for spies or other national security risks. However, the study found the tests can be useful in the investigation of specific, known events, such as crimes.

In these cases, the council said, tests can differentiate lying from telling the truth at rates well above chance, but they are far from perfect.

Horvath said much of the accuracy and reliability rests on the credentials, experience and conduct of the examiner.

According to the American Polygraph Association, there are 29 states with laws that license polygraph examiners. Connecticut is not one of them.

Hammond said there are 15 members enrolled in the Connecticut chapter of the American Polygraph Association. The association sets training and educational requirements for members. It also has bylaws and a code of ethics that members must follow.

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