Greensboro Polygraph Follies Update

Polygraph “testing” of eight of nine Greensboro City Council members appears set to begin this week in an ostensible attempt to discover who amongst them provided an investigative report on the city’s former police chief to the local News & Record newspaper. To date, none of the city council members have responded to George Maschke’s e-mail cautioning them about polygraphy’s lack of scientific basis, inherent bias against the truthful, and vulnerability to simple countermeasures.

However, commentators at the News & Record well understand that polygraphy is pseudoscientific flapdoodle. In “Let’s play truth or polygraphs,” columnist Edward Cone lampoons the city council’s decision to polygraph itself:

Let’s play truth or polygraphs

Good morning, and welcome to Theater of the Absurd, the reality game show starring your Greensboro City Council!This week’s challenge is called Polygraph Follies. Each council member will be hooked up to a lie detector and asked if he or she was the one who leaked a consultant’s report about former police Chief David Wray to the News & Record.The stakes are high, the issues important, the voters watching … what better time for some stunt politics! Bring on the polygraph, say eight council members.
Wait, hold on … only eight? One of our contestants says she won’t play this game! Councilwoman T. Dianne Bellamy-Small is refusing to join the fun. Even sincere assurances that these machines are guaranteed to be at least as accurate as the average carnival fortune-teller or North Carolina lottery ad won’t make her change her mind.
Now all of the other council members are pointing at her and whispering behind her back. OK, they were doing that already.

Bellamy-Small seems to be talking to someone in the audience … is it someone from the Pulpit Forum?

Oh, this is exciting, I think she’s about to stand up and say, “I did what I allegedly did because it was right, and the public has the right to know, and even my working relationship with my council colleagues has to take a back seat to that, and I’m willing to bear the consequences of my actions, whatever they may be.”

No, never mind, she was just adjusting her chair.

OK, back to the game. Our contestants are playing for the sum of $5,000. But here’s the twist: The money comes from the taxpayers and goes straight to the polygraph operator from Raleigh!

As the council members prepare to make a case, in essence, that they can only be trusted to tell the truth if their statements are uttered while they are strapped to an electronic [barnyard epithet deleted] detector, let’s turn to our readers at home for suggestions on our wildcard round.

Here’s one from Roch Smith Jr., left as a comment at John Robinson’s blog: “I say we throw them all in a lake, the one that floats is guilty.” Great idea, Roch, but Greensboro’s official trial-by-water lake is still filling up behind the Randleman Dam, and we may be headed for a drought. What else?

Ah, from Robinson the blogging editor himself, a proposal that we imagine other topics to consider once the council is hooked up to the polygraph machine.

Folks, I think we have a winner!

Questions about Project Homestead alone could fill an entire episode of our program, if not a whole season. And of course the Wray fray is hardly finished, so there is room to improvise there, too. Tax rates, bond slates, why my leaves are always the last to get picked up…I think this series could be a hit for years to come.

Remember, copyright restrictions dictate that any taped reproduction of this program is strictly prohibited.

Unless conducted in secret by members of the Greensboro Police Department.

Theater of the Absurd, indeed.

Edward Cone (, writes a column for the News & Record most Sundays.

And News & Record editorial page editor Allen Johnson also weighs in with a perceptive commentary:

Truth be told, City Council has painted itself into an uncomfortable corner
Did O.J. really do it?

Did Barry Bonds add all those muscles and slam all those home runs by merely drinking his Ovaltine?

Who’s leveling and who’s lying in the Duke lacrosse scandal?

And who actually did shoot JR?

For inquiring minds who want to know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, right here and right now, have we got a hookup for you.

To a polygraph machine.

If it’s going to work for the Greensboro City Council, surely it can work in all those other cases.

Per Councilman Tom Phillips’ suggestion, he and all but one of his colleagues will submit to lie detector tests over the next two weeks. At issue: Who did or didn’t leak a confidential consultant’s report on its investigation of the Greensboro Police Department?

Only Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small has refused to take the test or sign an affidavit affirming that she is not the source of the leak. This may mean she’s the guilty party. Or not.

It may mean she acted alone. Or not.

It also may mean the matter could be resolved in a couple of weeks. Or not.

That’s because lie detectors don’t always tell the truth.

Based on 80 studies over the last 26 years, polygraph tests have yielded an accuracy rate ranging from 80 percent to 98 percent, the American Polygraph Association says on its Web site.

Do council members really want to base their reputations and credibility on the quivering needles and wires of a potentially fallible piece of technology?

Consider the case of state Court of Appeals judge and Greensboro resident Rick Elmore.

While working as a hotel desk clerk in Raleigh in 1979, Elmore and another employee failed a polygraph test after a bank deposit bag had mysteriously disappeared.

The bag eventually was found during renovation of the hotel’s lobby. It had slipped below a deposit slot behind a wall.

Elmore attributed the false results in his test to a case of nerves, a lack of sleep and too much coffee. The bogus verdict so affected him that he wrote an article on the subject for the N.C. Central University law review.

In 1983, the state Supreme Court cited that article in its ruling that polygraph results be made inadmissible in any civil or criminal trial. “You wonder how many people (were) being railroaded,” Elmore told the News & Record’s Mike Fuchs in a 2003 interview.

On the national level, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in 1998 that lie detectors are no substitutes for human juries. In 2002 the National Research Council concluded that polygraphs had dubious value as spy-catching devices.

Or leak detectors.

“This is another step toward bringing closure to this issue,” Mike Barber, the lone attorney on the City Council, said of the tests. But Barber also conceded Thursday that “the test isn’t foolproof, and I think we’d have to address that.”

Barber added: “I’m not sure the test sets a good precedent, but there were two or three good-faith efforts to get whoever’s culpable to step forward.”

Even Phillips acknowledges that false results are possible. “We do run a risk and it would be an embarrassment if it happened to me or anyone else,” he said Friday.

What a polygraph test may reliably do is gauge how good some people are at lying. And some apparently are pretty darned good.

Soviet spy Aldrich Ames passed two CIA-administered polygraph tests, even as he was costing the lives of 10 U.S. agents in Russia.

That’s why we won’t unravel the simmering Duke lacrosse mystery before final exams by hooking folks up and simply asking, “Did you or didn’t you?”

That’s why Barry Bonds will keep slamming homers and critics will keep slamming Bonds.

And it’s why the council members find themselves in the prickly position of hoping that modern technology really does — or doesn’t — do what it’s supposed to do.

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