About ten years ago I was applying for employment at several municipal police agencies in Connecticut. During the application process for a large city in the central part of the state, after passing the written test, physical agility test, several interviews, and the background investigation, I had to undergo a polygraph "test" conducted by a private firm in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Although I am an honest person I was very nervous about the polygraph. There were only two serious incidents I was worried about and both had already come out during the oral board interview: one was smoking marijuana two times in high school, and the other was stealing a pair of sunglasses off the dashboard of a convertible in a parking lot, also while I was in high school (which was about ten years prior to taking this polygraph). I had been assured that neither incident was serious enough to keep me from becoming a police officer but I was still anxious about them. I knew virtually nothing about the procedure but was extremely worried because I have an excellent memory. My concern was that I would be asked a question and would answer honestly, but then my subconscious would continue thinking and would recall some additional facts that might make my first answer less than truthful. I know now that such a reaction is exactly what the polygrapher is looking for on their "control" questions, but I had no idea of that at the time.
I answered all the questions truthfully, including some rather specific questions about whether I had stolen any equipment from the Army when I was on active duty. (I had not been on active duty for some seven years at the time this polygraph "test" was being conducted.) I responded truthfully by saying that I had not stolen any equipment whatsoever.
In what I now recognize was a post-test interview, the polygrapher casually asked me if, when I returned home from the army, I had discovered any forgotten army equipment packed away with my other belongings. After thinking about it for a minute or so (remember, this had occurred some seven years earlier), I responded that I remembered finding two or three tent stakes and a canteen in one of my bags, and that they must have been extras I had accumulated during my army time, since I had turned in all my issued TA-50 gear when I separated. The polygrapher quickly brushed aside my answer and asked if I had brought home any M-16 rifle magazines. I had to think about it again and realized that I had brought home two or three that also must have been packed away with my other belongings. That was the end of the interview and I left.
Imagine my surprise when I was called in to the detective bureau of the department I had been applying to and was told I had failed my polygraph test. I couldn't imagine why I had failed -- I'd answered every question truthfully and had been honest about admitting to smoking marijuana and stealing the sunglasses in high school. The detective told me that I had failed because I had lied when I initially claimed that I had not stolen any army equipment; they knew I lied because under further questioning I had admitted that I had stolen army equipment. I attempted to explain the situation to him but he just kept holding up the folder with the test results in it and shrugging his shoulders. He was clearly not interested in my explanation; he'd just called me in to tell me I was being removed from the application process.
A couple of weeks later I reached the same point in the application process with another municipal police agency and was sent to the same private firm in West Hartford for another polygraph. I had the same examiner and the first thing I asked about, as politely as I could, was why it had been reported that I lied on my earlier polygraph. Neatly sidestepping my question about lying, the examiner told me that it is common for people to steal as much as they can carry when they get out of the military, so that they can sell it at Army-Navy shops and make extra money. One of the biggest money makers, the examiner said, was M-16 rifle magazines. The examiner went on to say that the magazines were banned in the civilian market and can be sold for a lot of money to collectors and gun enthusiasts.
As calmly and politely as I could, I explained my point of view. I told the examiner that the tent stakes and the canteen were extras that had most likely either been given to me by another soldier in preparation for an upcoming inspection, or had been bought at the clothing sales store for the same reason. I certainly did not intend to "steal" them -- they have no value at all to me and are still sitting in the same cardboard box in my parents' attic where I placed them seven years ago when I got out of the service. I started to explain that the same thing applied to the magazines, but the examiner interrupted me to say that the magazines are extremely rare and valuable items.
Again, as calmly and politely as I could, I countered by saying that, in the army when on active duty, rifle magazines are neither rare nor valuable. Each time you drew your rifle from the arms room you would receive a stack of magazines, and they were not accountable items. You would usually return all of them when you turned in your rifle simply because if you didn't you'd just have that much more junk in your locker. If, during a field exercise, you stuck one of your empty magazines in your rucksack and forgot about it, when you came upon it during your clean-up you would just shove it in a drawer or in the bottom of your locker with the intention of turning it in later, and most likely wind up forgetting about it. The two or three magazines I had brought home with me were also still sitting in the same cardboard box they'd been shipped in. I had not sold them and had no intention of ever doing so.
The examiner made no apology to me but stated that they now understood my position. I then had to go through virtually the same test I'd already endured. The examiner asked more specific questions about the equipment I'd brought home from the army, inquiring if I had intentionally done so in order to sell it or give to someone else to sell. I again answered truthfully and said that I hadn't.
During this post-test interview, the examiner expressed concerns about my reaction to the questions about cocaine use. I was astonished and reiterated that I had never even seen cocaine outside of movies and television, and had certainly never used it in any form. The examiner continued the head-shaking sorrowful act even as I was leaving, muttering things like: "It's too bad. I can't help you if you won't tell the truth." I know now, of course, that the examiner's act was just that -- an act designed to get me to make some sort of admission. Since I was truthful throughout the "test" I had nothing further to admit.
For whatever reasons, this time the examiner reported to the police agency that I had passed my polygraph. I was subsequently hired and am still employed there.
I am still appalled by the examiner's tactics in the first test. The examiner was clearly ignorant on the subject matter and simply assumed that anyone who brought home any equipment from the military did so with the intent to sell it for profit. I was never asked if that was, in fact, the case. There were no questions asked to establish my state of mind at the time, which should have been critical in trying to determine if a criminal or unethical act was committed.
I was lucky -- my experience turned out satisfactorily. But I can't help but wonder how many other honest people are turned down for police jobs because of a similar screw-up. I recall the examiner telling me that when it comes to determining truth or deception, the examiner is the real lie detector and the machine is just there to keep a record. If that were the case you'd think the examiner would have seen that I was being completely honest when I claimed that the equipment I'd brought home from the army was, to me, worthless leftover extras that I'd had no intention of keeping. I wonder how many other examiners report that people "failed" their test because of mistaken assumptions and uninformed conclusions on the part of the examiner.
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