Massachusetts Police Face Polygraph Dragnet

Although pre-employment polygraph screening of law enforcement officers is prohibited by law in the state of Massachusetts, such protection against the pseudoscience of polygraphy evidently ceases upon hiring. In the town of Dracut, some 40 police officers either have been polygraphed or face polygraphic interrogation regarding the disappearance in 2003 of a quantity of marijuana that was stored by police as evidence. Reporter Dennis Shaughnessey covers the story for the Lowell Sun in “Police tested on lost drugs”:

DRACUT — With time running out, police have turned to lie-detector tests to find out who was behind the disappearance of $80,000 in marijuana stored as evidence behind the old police station in 2003.

Up to 40 people have taken, or may be called to take, the test. Several told The Sun they are nervous, not because they have something to hide, but because polygraph tests are not perfect.

“It’s like in the old movies where they put you in a room with a big black box with a light bulb on it,” said Tony Archinski, a lieutenant who retired Dec. 31. “They say it’s just an additional tool in the investigative process, but even if it’s 90 percent accurate, and that’s being generous, who wants to be on the short end of a false positive?”

Indeed, it is absurd to suggest that polygraphy is anything near 90% accurate. A statistical analysis (255 kb PDF) of the best field studies of polygraphy suggest that “if a subject fails a polygraph, the probability that she is, in fact, being deceptive is little more than chance alone; that is, one could flip a coin and get virtually the same result for a positive test based on the published data.”

“How do you do this in good conscience?” said one officer, on condition of anonymity. “There were people on the force at the time who are gone now. How do you conduct an investigation?”

But another said the tests have divided the department.

“We want to get rid of the people in this department who have no integrity,” the officer said. “Look around. Look who is running scared. That should tell you something.”

It should tell you who understands that polygraphy has no scientific basis and who, like this anonymous officer, is ill-informed.

The full-scale administrative internal investigation, which includes polygraph tests, is being conducted by the North East Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council‘s Internal Affairs Division, headed by Tewksbury Police Chief Al Donovan. Donovan declined comment, and would not discuss specifics of the tests, administrators or procedures.

Repeated attempts to reach Dracut Police Chief Kevin Richardson and Deputy Police Chief David Chartrand were unsuccessful.

In 2007, Selectman George Malliaros pushed to require any officer who was on the force when the drugs went missing to submit to the lie-detector test.

State police and the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office last year investigated the disappearance of the evidence and did not press criminal charges. Richardson then called for an internal investigation to preserve the “integrity of the department.”

Resorting to a polygraph witch hunt will not preserve the “integrity of the department.” Instead, it is likely to further erode what is left of it: polygraphy is inherently biased against the truthful. Nonetheless, liars can pass using simple countermeasures that polygraphers have no demonstrated ability to detect.

George Maschke, a polygraph expert in the Seattle area who has written extensively on polygraph tests, said a polygraph dragnet is “more likely to misdirect the investigation.” He points to the investigation into the 2000 disappearance and murder of 16-year-old Molly Bish, of Warren, Mass.

“At least 11 individuals failed polygraphs in that investigation,” said Maschke, who writes for a Web site, antipolygraph.org. “There is no raging debate among scientists over its accuracy. There is broad consensus that it’s junk science.”

It should be pointed out that while AntiPolygraph.org’s voice mail and fax number (1-206-666-2570) is indeed in the Seattle area, George Maschke lives and works in The Hague, The Netherlands.

A little more than two months remain before the statute of limitations runs out in the Dracut case.

The North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council would be wise to abort its polygraph dragnet and instead pursue traditional investigative techniques. Relying on such magical thinking as polygraphy is more likely to misdirect investigators than identify the culprit(s). This situation speaks to the need for a Comprehensive Employee Polygraph Protection Act that would extend to all Americans the protections enjoyed by most under existing federal law.

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