Review of "When They See Us"
What We Can Learn from the Central Park Five
If you are like most people, even if you accept the statistics, you are at a loss as to how a false confession comes about. Why on earth would someone admit to doing something they didn't do? It doesn't make sense. That's because you have never lived in a world where doing the right thing isn't always the best thing. It is foreign to you. In the Netflix drama When They See Us, without the assurance of a trusted adult being present, the terror and disbelief on the boys’ faces, the panic, all combined with the deceptive tactics of the police, we begin to understand what a world like that might be like.
When They See Us is a case study on The Reid Technique Of Investigative Interviewing And Advanced Interrogation Techniques. Lying to a suspect is not only perfectly legal but is promoted by the training. The police, believing their suspect is guilty, do not stop what could be described as a torturous interrogation, until they get what they want – a confession. The Reid Technique is copyrighted. "If it doesn't say "The Reid Technique . . . it's not John Reid & Associates!"
On their website, they state that an interrogation “should only occur when the investigator is reasonably certain of the suspect's involvement in the issue under investigation.” A cynical paraphrase would be “If you believe your suspect is guilty, this technique will help you reach your goal: acquiring a confession.” Or in other words, it is the interrogator's belief in the person's guilt – not the actual guilt of the suspect – that determines the outcome. When the person is guilty, the technique is applauded for producing just results, and no one questions it. When the person is innocent, the path of it’s destruction is deep and wide and it destroys innocent lives.
It is because of exonerations through DNA and other means that this unintended outcome of the Reid Technique has come to light. When people, later proven to be innocent, describe what they experienced and why they made a false confession, the dangers of the Reid Technique are seen in an entirely different light and are horrifying. When They See Us enables us to understand how the technique is employed by usually well-meaning and honest police, producing confessions which later turn out not to be true. When the police are corrupt, it is the tool of choice. No one questions it, because it is the agreed upon protocol of the department.
In the last of four episodes when the real perpetrator confesses and his DNA is a match, it becomes clear the boys have been wrongfully convicted. An officer who had questioned the interrogations at the time, confronts the main architect of the case, stating that the Reid Technique is now discredited. It is definitely on the decline, but going to the Reid site, we find that is not entirely true, In March of 2017, Wicklander-Zulawski, a premier consulting group which has worked with police departments all over the country, said it would no longer use the Reid Technique in training. In fact, they say they will only use it to educate police on the risk and reality of false confessions! Many other groups and police departments have followed suit. However, on the Reid site we find that from now until the end of the year in Michigan there are 7 four-day classes scheduled in Mason, Novi, Marquette, Canton, University Center, Dimondale and Southgate. Do you want the police of your community trained in the Reid method? As a citizen, you have a voice. Talk with your police chief. Ask what is her or his perspective. Raise the issue. Start a constructive dialogue and question how your local police are being trained.
Due to the revelations of wrongful convictions, Reid & Associates has adapted some of their teaching, as demonstrated by the articles on their site under “What’s New?”.
The website says "The Reid Technique . . . is widely recognized as the most effective means available to exonerate the innocent and identify the guilty". I am not in a position to critique the current teaching of Reid & Associates. It suffices to say that past training had cast a broad net that caught both the guilty and the innocent. There are hundreds of thousands who have been wrongfully convicted due in part to this method of interrogation and are still suffering the consequences.
Netflix does a great job of going beyond statistics and enabling the viewer to confront the depth of emotional suffering experienced by the wrongfully convicted. Some scenes are difficult to watch. At the end of the program, each of the boys played by the actors stand with searing looks right into the camera. You become uncomfortable because it feels like they are looking right at you. Then one by one they dissolve into the real Central Park Five. Though a powerful drama in its own right, it drives home that this four-part series is not for entertainment. It informs you and moves you. You look into the eyes of real human beings whose lives have been all but destroyed by our criminal justice system. They are eyes you are unlikely to forget.