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  Thursday, December 19, 2002
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Back to IndexPublished on 12/17/02
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Police applicants face testing with polygraph

By RYAN GOUDELOCKE
rgoudelocke@theadvocate.com

Advocate staff writer

They're called "lie detectors" for a reason: For decades polygraph operators have claimed the ability to sniff out deception by asking searching questions and watching squiggly lines drawn on paper.

And it's a staple of crime fiction: Usually there's a harshly lit room where the machine operator glares at a trembling perp -- optionally smoking a shaking cigarette -- until he breaks down.

"It's kind of like the closer they get to the lie detector, the better their memory gets," Baton Rouge polygrapher Larry Carroll said.

In 1988, Congress prohibited private-sector employers from requiring polygraph tests as part of pre-employment screenings. Before then, Carroll said, 15 to 20 local firms offered polygraph tests. Now he's alone under "lie detectors" in the Yellow Pages.

Lawmakers left many exceptions, including government agencies at every level. The Employee Polygraph Protection Act virtually ended pre-employment polygraphing outside law enforcement and security-sensitive positions, such as nuclear power plant guards.

Recent research has cast doubt on even those uses, and at least one lawsuit is challenging their use by the federal government. But if you're looking for a job in local law enforcement, get ready to get hooked up to the lie machine.

"If we didn't feel it was useful, we wouldn't be doing it," East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Lt. Darrell O'Neal said.

The Sheriff's Office has two trained polygraphers; one administers tests, and another, among other job duties, reviews the results. Every job applicant is tested.

"If people put too much weight behind a polygraph, that might not be good," O'Neal said. "But it's a tool that's only part of a criminal or background investigation."

Both the State Police and Baton Rouge Police Department routinely administer polygraph tests to prospective employees, though State Police applicants can choose not to take the test.

In-house specialists at all three agencies give those tests and assist in criminal and internal investigations. You won't see polygraph results in a courtroom in a criminal trial.

Federal courts have upheld the right of local jurisdictions to exclude polygraphs from proceedings. In a 1998 opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas spoke for a U.S. Supreme Court majority when he wrote, "There is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable."

In October, a National Academy of Sciences panel released a review of literature on polygraph reliability in employment screening. Their conclusion: "(Polygraph) accuracy ... is insufficient to justify reliance on its use in employee screening in federal agencies."

George Mason University researcher Kathryn B. Laskey sat on that panel. She doesn't advocate throwing polygraphs out the window.

But law enforcement should not rely solely on test results, she said.

"If you look at the studies, the best the polygraph community has to offer, the levels of detection are better than chance," Laskey said. "But they're nowhere near perfect."

Reliance on polygraphs has stymied research into potential alternatives, such as facial-movement recognition or brain imaging, Laskey said.

So Laskey recommends the multipronged approach to employee screening that local law enforcement agencies claim to use.

Police spokesman Cpl. Don Kelly, for example, called the polygraph a "subjective tool that's dependent on the skill of the operator," not the sole determinant of hiring and firing.

"It's a piece of the puzzle," agreed State Police spokesman Lt. William Davis.

A March 2000 lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C., illustrates the problems posed by what Laskey called the "inevitable false positives" of polygraphy. Seven plaintiffs accuse the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Secret Service of rejecting their applications based on faulty polygraph tests.

Laskey warns that false positives aren't the only danger of relying on polygraphs to weed out people unfit for law enforcement jobs.

While the tests flag some honest people as liars, she said, they also let some potentially dangerous ones slip through.

Ryan Goudelocke is a general assignment reporter for The Advocate.

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