WHEN the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ) discovered that 13 of its expensive laptop computers were missing, it called in a lie detector expert. Seven suspects were run through the polygraph test and one was identified as the culprit. Following his confession, he and four people who bought the computers were arrested.
The EOJ is only one of a growing number of Jamaican entities which are regularly turning to lie detectors or polygraph tests to help solve problems of theft and corruption at various levels of their businesses, a local polygrapher discloses in an interview with the Sunday Observer.
Grace, Kennedy; Cool Oasis; Sandals; and Mothers are among the big companies that are regular customers, says Captain Basil Bewry, who is one of four polygraphers operating here. Bewry, a forensic psycho-physiologist who was trained in California, says he has applied lie detector tests to over 1,500 people in Jamaica in the last four years.
Polygraph or lie detector tests grabbed the spotlight last week when Police Commissioner Francis Forbes, clearly desperate to stem corruption in the constabulary, revealed plans to have ambitious cops seeking promotion to sensitive areas of the force undergo integrity tests, including polygraph tests, prior to acceptance.
Forbes’ plan, while seeming to win the approval of some police officers, lawyers and psychologists interviewed by this newspaper, drew scepticism from human rights groups such as Jamaicans For Justice (JFJ) and Families Against State Terrorism (FAST), and the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), ostensibly over concerns about the reliability of the lie detector tests.
“The commissioner spoke about other relevant and important measures and instead this has been latched on to. These tests are not even used in the US court, partially because of the doubt surrounding their accuracy,” remarks Carolyn Gomes, executive director of JFJ, stressing that here is need for a quick implementation of more pressing reforms.
Gomes disagrees with the attention being paid to polygraph testing as a major corruption deterrent, insisting that the procedures for hiring and firing cops need to be examined and that the Police Public Complaints Authority should implement corruption prevention measures more quickly.
Detractors generally point to the United States where polygraph testing has been dogged by controversy. Since the 2001 scandal which broke over the arrest of an FBI agent, Robert Hanssen, who was charged with spying for Russia, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) routinely require new applicants to undergo lie detector tests.
But the controversy worsened after it emerged that serial killer, Gary Leon Ridgway, passed the polygraph test in 1984, but was afterwards found guilty of 48 murders, through DNA testing. The man long held to be guilty, Melvin Foster who had in 1982 failed the test, was acquitted.
Opponents also argue that the test can be duped or studied for and thus cheated, and point to the fact that lie detector tests are not permissible as evidence in courts of law.
“Some people who are used to lying easily without flinching may pass the test,” argues Kingston-based Christian psychiatrist, Anthony Allen. “Those who don’t habitually lie can be trained to do so. You can be specifically trained to alter or mask your psychological responses through self-hypnosis, thus inhibiting an anxiety response,” Allen adds.
Not unusual in a polygraph debate, Allen’s colleague, Charles Thesiger, disagrees. “Only a few can actually train themselves to deal with the change in skin resistance, therefore as a screening device, it is reasonable and it is unlikely to get false positives if properly administered,” he counters.
Speaking for the JLP, Derrick Smith, the spokesman on national security, commends the commissioner for wanting to deal with corruption, but is sceptical about the use of polygraph tests.
“Any method used to identify and weed out corrupt policemen is welcome,” says Smith. “However, there is too much uncertainty regarding the effectiveness of this process and it is inadmissable in court.”
Smith would prefer to see corrupt policemen fired from the force instead of the current practice of assigning them “a desk job on Duke Street”.
Insisting that machines are not the way to uproot corruption, Yvonne Sobers, head of FAST, thinks that sting operations aimed at specific individuals would be more effective. “Polygraphing is a net-fishing approach which may actually catch innocent cops, whilst the guilty may actually pass,” she says.
“It has been called junk or voodoo science because it is unreliable, plus you can learn how to pass the test from books on sale via the Internet.”
Scepticism over polygraphing, however, has not prevented its growing popularity, both inside and outside the US, and now Jamaica, aided and abetted by TV talk shows which use them in a bid to boost ratings.
A BBC Internet article appearing on October 30, 2003 reported that a UK insurer had cut its car claims by 25 per cent since employing polygraphing.
Based on the popularity of the tests, a booming business on how to beat polygraphing has mushroomed. A How to beat the Polygraph Compact CD goes for a retail price of US$51 online, and the Lie Behind the Lie Detector can be downloaded free from www.antipolygraph.org.
Bewry, who is managing director of Atlas Protection and a certified member of the American Polygraph Association, swears by the tests: “The test is 95 per cent accurate, but only under the assumption that the examiner is competent,” he tells this newspaper.
According to Bewry, 70 per cent of those found lying on the test confess afterwards. He adds that larceny makes up 72 per cent of the cases and cites a poll sample of 700 that shows the failure rate amongst men is 60 per cent and women 49 per cent.
Bewry operates two US$5,000 polygraph machines. He charges from US$150 to US$250 for a series of three tests. The polygraph looks for changes in blood pressure, sweat, breathing and heart rate over the three and sometimes four tests, and then compares them.
Responding to claims that people can beat the machines through deliberate means or nervousness, Bewry insists: “Nervousness will not skew the test; what the machine looks for is fear, as nervousness is constant, but fear appears at specific questions.”
There was no apparent nervousness among police officers interviewed by the Sunday Observer. “We agree with anything that is being done to aid accountability and improve the image of the force and since there is a need for this, we welcome the decision,” says Inspector Sonia James, the number two at the Constabulary Communication Network, (CCN), information arm of the police force.
Inspector Stephen Moodie, secretary of the Police Federation which represents rank and file cops, also supports the commissioner’s plans, saying that “the test could be a criterion for promotion at senior superintendent and high command levels, to ensure that corruption and abuse of office will decrease”.
Moodie says it will serve as a deterrent to a policeman who is prone to accept ‘gifts’ and who is seeking promotion, and will “hopefully stem the rise of begging in the force”.
“Because we need to ensure that the right person is in the right place, there needs to be a series of security clearances for persons who have access to facilities which have sensitive information,” Moodie adds. “If they can’t clear these hurdles, the system of checks and balances must ensure that they be kept out of these sensitive positions.”
Lawyer Courtney Kazembe believes that “given the nature of corruption, especially in the higher ranks of the force, polygraphing may be helpful”. He thinks they can assist in making administrative decisions, and supports the view that polygraph tests cannot be easily cheated.
Attorney Clinton Morgan, not yet a fan, notes that there is no specific Jamaican law which can compel a person to submit to a lie detector test, as this is mainly a voluntary exercise. “In contrast to the Fingerprint Act, you are not compelled to take a lie detector test, although the private sector is already using it,” says Morgan..
But Bewry, while acknowledging that lie detector tests were inadmissible in court, emphasises that a confession garnered after the test is acceptable to the court.