An Honest Living
The examiner tells you to sit down in an old, creaky chair with high, worn-down armrests. If the chair had straps to secure your legs, it would look like the one they use to fry people at the pen. Even though the examiner has gone over the questions with you for the past hour and a half--giving you the questions before the test--you're shifting in the chair and sweating.
He cinches black sensor-laden straps across your chest and stomach, inflates the blood-pressure cuff around your biceps and clips three clothespin-like sensors onto three fingers of your right hand. He plugs the leads from all these tentacles into a white box that looks like an old floppy-disk drive. That box full of wires and circuits will determine whether you're telling the truth.
Though the actual test will take only twelve minutes, the examiner has taken more than two hours to explain all of its inner workings. Strapped down, you can see him peering at his instruments, but you can't see all the digital squiggles that represent your body functions.
"Stay still and keep your feet flat on the floor," he says. "The test is about to begin.
"Do you understand that I will ask you only the questions we have discussed?"
"Yes," you say, trying to sound nonchalant. But the finger clamps are making you aware of your pulse, and the strap across your chest is making you take shallow breaths.
The examiner pauses for a few seconds between each question. The only sound in the room comes from the whirring of the computer.
"Regarding the charges that you stole the money, do you intend to answer all of my relevant questions truthfully?"
"Do you live in Colorado?"
Easy question. "Yes."
"I want you to deliberately lie on this question," the examiner drones. "Before 1998, did you ever shoplift?"
You hesitate slightly, even though you know you've been instructed to lie about this on purpose. The lie helps establish what the examiner described as a "norm."
"No," you answer.
"Do you remember stealing any money?"
You've been told that the computerized polygraph test can be used as evidence to prove your innocence.
"No," you answer confidently, trying to see how the examiner reacts to your answer out of the corner of your eye. Nothing.
"Stay still, don't move," the examiner gently chides. "This is a deliberate lie. Prior to 1998, did you ever intentionally take something that wasn't yours?"
"Do you remember stealing money in November?"
"This is a deliberate lie. Before the age of 25, did you ever make a serious mistake in judgment?"
"Have you been completely truthful about your work history?"
You have to go through the same set of questions two more times before the ordeal ends.
When it's over, two and a half hours later, the examiner prints out a graph to pinpoint your body's reactions to every question. The computer scores the responses. If it gives you a mark of 85 percent under the heading "Probability Truthful," you're off the hook. The examiner marks the changes in the squiggles, the peaks and valleys--the truths and the lies.
Your combined score on the three tests comes out to be 0.8983. You're telling the truth about the missing money.
At least as far as the polygraph examiner is concerned.
Most Colorado police departments and DA's offices have staff polygraphers even though lie detector tests haven't been admissible in state courts since 1981. Investigators often use polygraph exams to help determine how to proceed with criminal cases. "It doesn't make or break a case if the suspect passes or fails an examination," says Drew Grant, the Arapahoe County district attorney's chief investigator and polygrapher. "We look at how it fits in with the whole picture we have of the case."
The handful of independent polygraph examiners in Colorado who freelance for attorneys and the public flutter around the world of law enforcement like private dicks (in fact, many are also private investigators). Their test results are mostly used by attorneys to help determine whether clients are telling the truth. Sometimes attorneys use positive results to try to convince a district attorney to reconsider pressing charges. "Of course," says Grant, a twenty-year veteran of the DA's office, "we only see the test if the subject passes."
Polygraph examiners don't have to be licensed by the state. In order to be a professional polygrapher, all you need is about $7,000 to buy the newest equipment. You can attend a polygraph school and get a couple hundred hours of instruction and a diploma to hang on your wall. But it's not necessary.
You can join the forty-odd members of the Colorado Association of Polygraph Examiners (CAPE)--but you don't have to. You can pay the $135 annual membership fee and join the American Polygraph Association (APA) and get on the mailing list--but you don't have to do that, either.
That opens the door for some strange types, says David Raskin, the scientist who helped invent computerized polygraph software at the University of Utah back in the Seventies and Eighties. Before Raskin got ahold of the instrument, polygraphs traced a subject's biological responses onto graph paper that was later deciphered by examiners. Raskin thought he could get more accurate results with a digital test. However, dealing with the other people on the project proved to be almost as much of a challenge as computerizing the polygraph.
"Coming from a scientific and academic background, I never thought I'd get involved with the people I have in the polygraph industry," says Raskin. "There are some good people out there, but for the most part, I've never seen such a collection of operators, con artists and B.S.ers of the highest aptitude in any other profession. From the FBI and the NSA on down to the independent examiners, the whole industry seems to attract a collection of circus barkers."
CAPE president Charles "Chuck" Rode doesn't think the profession is as scummy as Raskin says it is, but he admits that without state oversight, it's a free-for-all.
Sitting in a borrowed office at the polygraph firm of Alverson & Associates, located upstairs from a barber shop just off of Federal Boulevard, Rode wears a pair of dark aviator sunglasses even though the lights are off. "I could teach you how to run the instrument, mechanically, in thirty minutes," says Rode. "But that wouldn't make you a polygraph examiner.
"Still, you could put out an ad in the Yellow Pages and you'd be in business. We don't cast aspersions upon a polygraph examiner just because they're not a member of CAPE, but if you're not a member of any trade group, then you don't have to maintain any ethical guidelines or conduct regulations. We look at membership in CAPE or the APA as like a doctor being a member of the American Medical Association. It's good business."
Some professional examiners have less faith in CAPE's ability to regulate the local industry.
"Several people pulled out [of CAPE] because the old-time examiners wanted to be grandfathered in. They didn't want to have to be recertified or be reviewed in order to prove their competency," Grant says. But CAPE has "done a lot to regroup and push for standardization," so he and the two other polygraphers he works with at the DA's office are reapplying for membership. "But really," he says, "CAPE is just an organization."
When Rode talks about the professional conduct of his fellow examiners, his backup is a wall covered with yellowing certificates. He points at them to emphasize the integrity of CAPE members, some of whom are working outside the office's closed door.
Each office at Alverson & Associates has an examination chair and a desk. Some rooms have the newest digital polygraph instruments, with body-function sensors leading into boxes that look like radar detectors; a single wire connects the boxes to a computer. Other rooms have old-school equipment, which scratches out polygraph charts on graph paper in four different colors of ink. One room has a closed-circuit camera hanging in a corner like a cobweb. The camera points at the examination chair and relays the video to a monitor hidden a few steps away in a converted closet.
If this office represents the search for truth, the truth comes cheaply furnished. But since getting someone to believe you're telling the truth has always been a valuable commodity, Rode is concerned about people who are willing to sell it unethically.
"I'm only aware of a couple examiners here in Colorado who I feel are not qualified," says Rode, but, he adds, "the potential for disaster" is out there. "Conceivably, the biggest negative impact is if a private person looks in the Yellow Pages and picks a guy and isn't going to know enough to ask the right questions to find out if he knows what he's doing. Anyone can say he did tests for the U.S. Department of the Treasury and be lying through his teeth. They can say anything they want in order to sell you.
"Now, if I do this as a member of the APA and CAPE, I could get bounced. But an unscrupulous person out to make money can operate without oversight."
He demonstrates by pulling out a local phone book and looking up "Polygraph and Lie Detection." There are three entries. One is Alverson & Associates; the two others are Colorado Computerized Polygraph and Gene Parker Computerized Polygraph.
"See," says Rode, "this guy Gene Parker isn't even a member of CAPE or the APA."
Gene Parker isn't popular with the examiners of Alverson & Associates. When Rode asks a grim-faced examiner if he'd like to comment on Parker, the examiner shakes his head slowly as if Parker alone is bringing the whole profession to its knees.
"As far as I know," says Rode, "Parker never even graduated from the Rocky Mountain Security Institute."
But, of course, that's difficult to find out for sure, since the school has been out of business for years.
You'll just have to trust him.
Gene Parker doesn't look like a menace to the polygraph industry. If you take away the .25 automatic he wears concealed in a hip holster and the bulletproof Cadillac he drives, Parker comes across like a spry, mischievous grandfather. He has a tendency to toss the word "hi" into the middle of his sentences, as if he's reintroducing himself to you every couple of minutes. When it comes to the business of lie detection, Parker seems as knowledgeable as anyone.
Parker says he "hides out" in Meeker, but today he's in Denver to conduct an examination and give a talk at a local college about his work. Sitting in a booth at a Denver pancake house, Parker smokes Benson & Hedges 100's and talks about different cases he's worked on. Nothing he can talk about on the record, but, Parker says, his work takes him all around the country.
"I don't want to come off like a secret agent or any such thing," he says. "I'm just rather good at what I do." How does he find work outside of Colorado? "People know me," he says cryptically. "You make friends."
Parker says he ran his own security firm for several years in Denver before taking up the truth-or-lie profession. He heard about the computerized polygraph being developed at the University of Utah and decided to check it out for himself. Until that point, he had never been a believer in the polygraph.
"I'm a 1953 Underwood typewriter kind of guy," he says with a little laugh, "but after going out to Utah and learning about this instrument, I felt that they'd done enough to remove the possibility of human error to give it a chance."
Parker explains that polygraphs work by monitoring "automatic" functions in the human body, such as respiration and heart rate, over which an individual has little or no control.
"When you came out of Mommy," Parker explains, "Mr. Automatic did everything. Then you started to notice things--like when you screamed, somebody came to you. You put that into your library, along with the fact that you got yelled at when you kept dirtying yourself. You were sensing stress and realized that it was better to say 'Mommy, potty' as opposed to getting yelled at. That's self-protection."
Those same instincts, Parker says, play into polygraph results.
"If I put a dilemma to you, there will be more oxygen in your bloodstream. That's an automatic function you have no control over. You analyze that and say, hi, I have a change from the norm. The computer monitors oxygen intake closer than the human eye can see just by looking at the polygraph chart. As a result, you don't have humans sitting around saying one squiggle looks different than another squiggle when a human life is at stake. The problem that remains for the human examiner is the formulation of the questions."
Before computerized polygraphs came out, Parker says, the test simply recorded what the body was doing. "This computer analyzes what the body is doing. But the examiner still plays a big part in the process. The examiner has to formulate the questions properly or the test isn't going to be valid. I've been in situations where a life is in my hands and, hi, I've got to figure out if this certain individual committed the crime. It's like flying an airplane upside down--it can't be taken lightly."
Parker explains that the polygraph was never designed to cover multiple issues. As a result, questions must be formulated around a specific allegation. If the examiner wants to find out if an individual stole a blue diamond, three questions will be asked to home in on that specific act: Did you steal the blue diamond? Did you steal the blue diamond from the bathroom? Did you steal the blue diamond from the jewelry box in the bathroom?
The importance of how questions are framed is what makes the guys down at Alverson & Associates concerned about Parker's education and his refusal to join either the APA or CAPE.
Parker remembers that he took exactly 320 academic hours at the polygraph school in 1985 and graduated with a GPA of 83.6 percent. But he says his real education has come from field experience in the years since.
"I'm a guy who doesn't believe in organizations," he says of his lack of membership in the trade associations. "My credibility comes from the instrument that I use and my experience. I'd be more than willing to have any other polygrapher examine my work--that's why I make printouts and audio recordings of every examination.
"But I was a member of the Elks and Lions, if that means anything."
Differences of opinion aren't anything unusual in the world of polygraph examiners.
The scientists who trained Gene Parker at the University of Utah, including David Raskin, were some of the field's modern pioneers.
In 1970, after being approached with the challenge by the U.S. Army, Raskin began to develop a computerized polygraph. Although Raskin is now retired, save for the occasional appearance in court as an expert witness, he talks about his research in Utah as if it happened yesterday. "We improved the test through better circuitry," he says from his house in Homer, Alaska. "Our system uses more sophisticated technology on the same biological responses." The project took more than twenty years and attracted the attention of the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Defense, both of which stepped in with funding.
"The Secret Service was really pleased with the system," Raskin recalls. "Their field study said that they got almost twice as many confessions using our software. That made us realize that there was a market for this which needed to be stimulated, because at that time, the polygraph's status was marginal as far as validity. So part of our motivation was to see if it could be done, but we also wanted to make some money."
But Raskin didn't want the technology used cavalierly. When the CIA wanted him to develop a similar system for its in-house use at the agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia, he turned it down. However, another researcher hanging around the project was Howard Ansley. Ansley was with the National Security Agency, a shadowy intelligence organization that, among other things, monitors military satellite communications.
"In the end, Ansley and the NSA screwed us," Raskin says. "They tried to get me to support them and their cronies in some questionable uses of this software, namely pre-employment screening. But they couldn't just take me down into some basement and make me drink whiskey with them in order to get me to say yes. So Ansley and a former student who's now with the Department of Defense took the technology to Johns Hopkins University's applied physics lab, along with huge amounts of government money, and developed a copycat system so they wouldn't have to deal with us out in Utah."
When reached at his Maryland home, Ansley refuses to comment on Raskin's account. "I'm not the guy to talk to," Ansley says. "I'm out of the business."
Raskin did get a bit of revenge. In 1988, Senators Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch led a movement to ban polygraphs for pre-employment screening. They were responding to an outcry that the tests were being used not only to weed out potentially dangerous employees from sensitive workplaces such as banks and alarm companies, but also to racially and ethnically discriminate against job applicants. They picked Raskin to testify before Congress on their behalf.
"First of all," says Raskin, "pre-employment screening was coercive. People had no right to refuse. Secondly, it was being done by people with poor qualifications. They'd slap 'em on the machine, ask vague questions and have them out the door in fifteen minutes. That's not how the computerized polygraph system was designed to work. And since companies were paying $25 to $30 a pop, it became very haphazard. It was lousy work."
The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 was a devastating blow to independent polygraphers, because it also restricted employers' ability to give lie-detector tests to workers already in their employ. The EPPA went so far as to say that employers couldn't even put polygraphs within sight of employees who were suspected of wrongdoing: "Apparently the threat of being connected to the instrument is often effective in gaining information."
The penalty for an employer found guilty of using a polygraph on an employee was set at $10,000.
"It cut APA members out of their fifteen-minute quickies, which was 90 percent of their work," says Raskin. "The APA still holds this against me, even though it helped save the polygraph industry from charlatans."
Chuck Rode acknowledges that the EPPA hurt individual APA members. "EPPA put out of business a number of examiners who relied on private-industry testing," says Rode. "Some adapted, some didn't. If you've got forty examiners in a state and you cut the business by more than half, it's pretty simple math."
Could any of these guys pass their own tests?
Raskin points out that the computerized polygraph instrument doesn't determine the truth in its idealistic sense. It determines what the individual being tested believes is the truth.
In other words, the trick isn't beating the polygraph; as Bill Clinton probably understands, the trick is beating yourself.
Gene Parker is a sincere man. He looks you straight in the eye and goes out of his way--he actually gets up from his side of the table at the pancake house and moves to your side of the booth--to explain passages in a technical document. He insists on picking up the tab (though he loses the battle).
Over the course of breakfast, Parker has thrown out some details that illustrate the complexities of the truth. He has mentioned that he was "one of eight examiners in the world" who trained on the instrument at the University of Utah. David Kircher, Raskin's research assistant at Utah, says that in fact there are hundreds of examiners who are qualified to use the system. However, Kircher confirms that Parker may have been one of only a handful of people who actually came out to the university for an optional one-day course that had been offered to new buyers of the instrument.
Parker also says he was "chief of security for [former Denver mayor] Bill McNichols's administration." He leaves this little tidbit dangling in the cigarette smoke over the table before going on to describe the other assignments he can't talk about for the record.
In Denver, mayoral security is provided by the Denver Police Department, and the DPD has no record of Parker ever working on the force. Calls to individuals who were part of the McNichols administration also draw blanks.
But while "chief of security" might conjure up the image of the head cop flanking the mayor, Parker explains that his company contracted with the city to provide security for several public buildings. While he wasn't part of McNichols's actual security detail, in his mind he was in charge of protecting the city of Denver.
The computer system designed by Raskin doesn't leave room for these types of nuances. The digits it spits out at the end of an examination are flat and emotionless.
"Examiners are still trained to watch a subject's body language," says DA investigator Grant, "but with this instrument, it all comes down to the analysis and opinion of a competent examiner. In order to have a good test, you have to have a well-trained examiner, a good instrument and good questions. Two of those depend on the examiner. I'll be the first to tell you that this instrument isn't a hundred percent, but it's reliable. And looking at that, it's hard to say if this instrument has replaced an investigator's gut instinct or not."
But, Rode says, his ultimate determination "is made by the charts produced by the instrument. There have been times when I thought someone was overwhelmingly guilty but they tested truthfully. Had I relied upon my gut instinct, I would have done a disservice to that individual."
And the removal of instinct is what makes the computerized polygraph attractive to Gene Parker.
"This instrument takes the human element out of the polygraph," says Parker. "If the questions are formulated properly, it is absolute as to the truth. This instrument represents the civilized world's last attempt to tell the difference between truth and deception.
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