I've decided to write this statement because I am a police department employee who works in the recruitment bureau, and am uniquely privy to the law enforcement hiring process. My bureau administers polygraphs and background investigations to screen candidates.
I have been through the polygraph myself and was fortunate enough to pass. For years working at the PD, I believed the polygraph was a viable method to separate good candidates from bad ones. If a candidate insisted the test had given him a false positive, I still believed he was hiding something and was compounding the issue by upholding his innocence. Like my coworkers, I believed in the unquestionable gospel of the polygraph exam.
Here's what changed my mind.
My husband (I'll call him "Paul") applied to my department and was the frontrunner candidate for a network administrator job. I gave my word to the MIS Manager that my husband would pass the polygraph and background exams. Now, I have known my husband since we were little kids. He is a saint who has never done anything illegal. He even drives the speed limit. The point: I'm squeaky clean, but he's even squeakier.
When Paul arrived for his polygraph exam, the polygrapher was half an hour late. He was also in a terrible mood. When locked in the room alone with Paul, the first thing the polygrapher said was, "You know, it costs the police department a lot of money to get me out here. I'm one of the best polygraphers around." Immediately, this put Paul on edge. His polygraph was costing the PD lots of money. He felt intense pressure to pass the exam.
Paul made several pretest admissions because they were on his mind. He mentioned that he had recently received a warning from his employer for coming in late to work. Paul also said that though he received this reprimand for not adhering to an 8-5 schedule, his new boss was unaware that Paul's hours had been 7:30-4:30 for years. The polygrapher argued that Paul had left early from work and that's why he was reprimanded. Paul insisted that was not the case. However, in the polygraph write-up, the polygrapher wrote that Paul had consistently arrived late to work and had been reprimanded.
Paul made another seemingly harmless work-related admission, which in the polygraph write-up, was transformed into theft. Amazing.
But foremost on Paul's mind was the piracy his current job had asked him to commit--that is, copying software to multiple company machines under one software license. Paul felt guilty for having been asked to do this, but he didn't want to admit it to the polygrapher for fear of getting his company in trouble or endangering his own job. Paul was never told that his admissions would remain confidential.
During the polygraph exam, the polygrapher reprimanded Paul for breathing too slowly. The polygrapher told him to breathe at his normal rate. Paul responded that he was breathing at his normal rate. (I will personally corroborate that Paul normally maintains a very slow respiratory rate.) The polygrapher informed Paul that he needed to breathe faster, to which Paul responded that he would, but that it would not be his normal breathing rate. For the remainder of the test, Paul concentrated on this new unnatural breathing pattern to please the polygrapher.
In the middle of the test, the polygrapher tried to elicit admissions from Paul. By this point, Paul was very frustrated and worked up at the treatment he had already received from the polygrapher, but it would only get worse. Paul said it bothered him that the hard drive was making noises, because that meant the computer was "thinking" (which to him meant he was doing something wrong on the test). The polygrapher became argumentative, saying that Paul was used to those noises because he worked with computers.
The polygrapher insisted Paul tell him what was on his mind. So, Paul spouted a number of random things that were on his mind. The polygrapher repeatedly and angrily said to Paul that he didn't care about any of that. Paul said he was just following the polygrapher's directions. The polygrapher continued to be confrontational.
Because the polygraph exam had run well over its scheduled time, Paul said he was nervous that he would be late for work. The polygrapher became increasingly aggressive, scolding Paul for not telling his current employer that he was taking the polygraph. The polygrapher said Paul was lying to his current employer. (Of course, no one in his right mind would tell his current employer that he had applied for a job somewhere else, which may or may not cause him to be late to work that morning.)
As a last resort, Paul admitted that he had been asked to pirate software at work. The polygrapher asked Paul what he had pirated and how much each item was worth. Paul repeatedly corrected the polygrapher's accusations that Paul had pirated and sold software for personal gain. Paul also said he had petitioned the company's executives several times to buy licenses for all their software, and that the company was in the process of becoming compliant.
When discussing computer issues, the polygrapher argued with Paul over computer industry-specific knowledge, despite that Paul had worked in the field for many years. The polygrapher outright called Paul a liar.
Needless to say, Paul did not get this job, despite having zero offenses to his record, and I've seen the people my department has hired in comparison--ex DUIs, ex drug users, people who'd hired prostitutes... Paul lost the job not because of low personal integrity, but because of an unscrupulous polygrapher who deliberately lied in his write-up on several issues.
I used to think our department's polygrapher was a nice person who actually wanted to help applicants pass the exam. After the abhorrent treatment my husband received, I no longer believe in the personal integrity of our polygrapher, nor do I believe in the integrity of the polygraph exam. It is a subjective, flawed joke. It makes good people feel bad about themselves. It rewards skilled liars. It makes egotistical polygraphers feel powerful.
I now feel angry and physically ill on days when we administer polygraphs, because I know the hardship that the candidates will suffer over the next few hours and I feel guilty for subjecting them to it. Enduring a polygraph in itself is a traumatizing experience, but coupled with a dodgy polygrapher, it's truly a nightmare.
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