Challenges of a new Polygraph Examiner by by Jared Rockwood, LCSW
Just over a year ago I completed my basic training with Ben Blalock and Chip Morgan from PEAK Credibility Assessment Center. Being a young idealist I was excited to move from the training center into the real world of practical application. I can attest that the 10 weeks of basic polygraph and an additional 40 hours of PCSOT training are a great foundation for the real-world work we face with in our profession. That stated, there were challenges and even ethical dilemmas – that I had not foreseen during the training stages. One year after leaving the academy I know more acutely than ever that I have much to learn and that the “school of experience” will be the refining fire that sharpens my skills as a polygraph examiner. I would like to share a few experiences of success and struggle. My hope is that in sharing some of these ethical dilemmas and emotional struggles I remind you of just how challenging this profession can be. My belief is that these are not unique but have been experienced by many of us starting out on this path. I would also assume that even with years of experiences there are times when you are looking at charts debating with yourself what the next best step will be as you prepare to present information to the anxious eager-eyed client sitting just across from you. I will share two stories of tragedy, and two of triumph. All names have been changed to maintain confidentiality. My goal in sharing these case studies is to explore some of the more impactful lessons I have learned in my first year. While they may not be illustrative of my daily testing, these are examples that stood out due to their impact and the lessons I learned from them. Stanford Psychologist Alford Bandura said; “Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. The value in sharing the outliers is the gold nuggets of learning that can generalize to less extreme cases. Before I get into the specifics of the I would like to say that having a trusted mentor to talk things over, review charts, and illuminate research has been the key to much of my success. The foundations for good practice were taught and enforced in polygraph school. Once leaving polygraph school, the clash of the real-world versus the “school-world” became evident. I will be eternally grateful for John Pickup and his careful tutelage, mentorship, and patience with my inquisitive and at times petulant nature.
Case Study #1: Stew Umped
We have a variety of clients including; many of the local police agencies’-employment testing and PCSOT testing for adults on probation for sexual offenses. We also work with many organizations that treat adolescents who demonstrate sexual behavioural problems. Stew Umped was one of these adolescent boys we were testing under the umbrella of a PCSOT full disclosure exam. Stew was the 10th formal test that I had ever completed in real-world practice. I was a bit rough around the edges and took a long time to review the material during our semi-structured pre test interview. This was due in part to lacking competency with the forms we use and I would stumble through the question format, at times getting lost periodically and occupying time in my own disorientation. In addition, the boy was a bit of a talker and keeping him on target was a skill challenge during the interview. Because of the thorough nature of our semi-structured interview, we expect a pre test interview to last between an hour and ninety minutes, before moving into test construction and data acquisition. In this case the interview had lasted almost 3 hours. This was clearly not effective management of the flow of the interview on my part. After the lengthy interview, I formulated the questions and reviewed them with Stew Umped. I explained the instrumentation and placed it on Stu. As I began the exam it was immediately evident that something was going on. His physiology was measuring as unstable and distorted during the acquaintance test. The distortion were so bad that it was difficult to imagine what was going on with the charts. I assumed it was an issue with the instrumentation and my component placement so I first tried a different cardio cuff (kids size vs adult). When that did not help, I put the cuff on his forearm vs bicep. When that didn’t work, I raised the chair arm to be level with his heart. No matter what I did I could not find stable data. In futility, I attempted to run some charts which culminated at one point in the complete disruption of a heartbeat. It trailed off from the traditional diastolic systolic line into an upward squiggle in a single line; like it had been compressed into a death trail. I was so frustrated, and upset, and self-conscious about my incompetence I wanted to crawl under the desk and disappear. In the end, in consultation with my mentor, it was decided to call the test a “no opinion” and he was scheduled to retest the next week. John ran the follow-up exam because I was too insecure about the first round to face the situation and feared it was my fault that readings came out so distorted. In the end John tested him with more stable physiology. This second time he failed the exam while attempting countermeasures. Months later I was assigned his follow-up test. This time the data were as expected. He added significant disclosures to his original sexual history, and he confessed to trying to alter the outcome of the exam through a combination of movement, flexing, and biting his cheek. One of the lessons, that I learned (and keep in mind), is that bad data is not always about instrumentation, but often is a by product of direct manipulation by the client.
Case Study #2: Kasey Fillmore
My professional background is in counselling and therefore the pre test interview has always been the most comfortable phase of a polygraph for me. It models after all the principles of good therapy: building rapport, allowing for open ended questions and discussion, and a supportive non-confrontational approach. On the other hand, the post test interview is not my most competent area yet. It is more strategic, confrontational, and accusatory. I have used a soft approach in the post test interview such as saying things like: “this did not go well for you, what do you think happened?” Sometimes I think this soft approach is less about the rapport building therapeutic stuff, and more about some of my own doubts about the results and if I did it correctly. Especially early on; I was constantly questioning the science and the validity of the test itself (that is part of my petulant nature I referred to earlier). Kasey was an adult on probation for engaging in sexual abusive behaviours with a child. He had a history with intensive binges of pornography use and he had an interest in child pornography. We completed a semi-structured interview—about his compliance with the terms and conditions of his probation and his engagement and honesty in therapy—and then formulated the test questions. Some of the questions addressed in the exam included if Mr. Fillmore had sexually touched any minors, if he had viewed child pornography, and if he had been alone with any minor (he had several nieces and nephews he had contact with but under supervision as approved by probation). In the screening exam the charts highlighted a specific area of sensitivity regarding the question about child pornography. I had recently attended the local polygraph association training with Skip Webb who provided a day of training on the post test interview. He talked about the need to trust implicitly in your results and when you move to enhanced interview that you set aside any excuses or blame in favor of the core issue of “You are lying to me, tell me about it.” I saw the results of the charts and in place of my passive “what do you think happened” default statement; I leaned in and said, “Let’s talk about the child pornography that you have been watching. ”Kasey Fillmore put his head down and started to talk about nudist websites he had been viewing for the explicit purpose of finding nude children. He talked about his justifications as to why he thought it was ok and laid the problem on the table. One thing I had not expected from such an exchange was the surge of adrenaline that coursed through my veins. I was on “cloud nine” completely convinced that the polygraph could never be wrong. Obtaining that first confession based on the accurate results of the polygraph was both empowering and reinforcing. The goal of polygraph is not to get people in trouble, but it is to hold people accountable and to create a safer society. That day was an important day for me as it enhanced faith in the science, in the process, and in the purpose for polygraph.
Case Study #3: Reggie Ected
Unlike the first two case scenarios where there were formal systems involved the next client was a referral from a family therapist that had been working with a couple around trust issues. There had been some infidelity in the marriage both in terms of an affair and Reggie, the husband, had been frequenting ‘massage parlors’ where he paid for sexual favours. His wife stumbled upon some emails where he was setting up one of these ‘massages’ and that created the current crisis that brought them into therapy. The therapist working with the couple has a unique situation where he works over the internet with couple in therapy, often from out of state. When there was some concerns about trust (had been more infidelity than Reggie had disclosed) the therapist suggested they fly out to Utah, have Reggie take a polygraph, and then they could have an in-person, couples session to review the results and to move things to the next level in therapy. Some of the background that I had learned later on was that the wife had made an ultimatum,… “if you don’t pass the polygraph and you have been lying to me, we are done.” So for Reggie, this potentially could signify the end of the relationship. Reggie is a very intelligent, highly successful, and charming man. He had clearly been working hard on a lifelong struggle with sexual compulsive behaviours as he laid out a very lengthy and complicated sexual development and history in the full disclosure. Often when people are able to talk about, albeit reluctantly, some of the indiscretions and improprieties of their past, it fosters a sense being honest and straight forward. This is someone I expected to do well because he seemed sincere and open in the interview. With some work we were able to define specific time periods, after which, he had stopped specific behaviours. The test had two phases; one addressed infidelity, the other, pornography. The pornography questions were specific to a period of time of sobriety he had identified while attending a 12-step program for support. During the data acquisition phase, Reggie showed some odd patterns of physiology. At times he was almost panting and his body would subtly shake. This was not consistent throughout the entire test but strategically at moments where directed lie questions were presented. After the initial chart I told him he needed to allow his body to “do its thing”, that he should not control it, and that the first test was likely tainted because of some “odd movements.” In the follow-up charts the odd pattern persisted. The breathing channels had clear changes from relevant questions to comparison questions, and if anything, in the follow up test were even more aggressive. In school we had learned a few things about suspected countermeasures.1) Most people cannot pull them off successfully, 2) If you suspect countermeasures score your charts because they are probably going to fail, and 3)Don’t pass them if it seems they are trying to cheat. In this case our session had run very long. In fact immediately after the polygraph Reggie Ected was scheduled to be at a family therapy session with his wife to review the results. I was already late for that family session but I am staring at these charts wondering if I was paranoid and perhaps misjudging the pattern that I see. The scores were strongly in the truthful direction and the computer scoring validated that. He seemed pretty open in the interview but my gut was telling me something was wrong. I believed that Reggie had intentionally manipulated the data. I remember talking with some of my mentors about how many anti-polygraph websites will say that you need to ‘help yourself’ to pass a polygraph. That you can’t trust the process and even if you are being honest you need to aid the process along to make sure it comes out in your favour. I, in that moment, feeling like I did not have time to consult with anyone and needing to make a decision told Reggie he passed, AND that I questioned the quality of the data. Then when I called his therapist I simply told the therapist that his scores were passing scores, neglecting to mention the questionable data. I was so afraid of falsely accusing him of cheating that I hid behind the logic that he had passing scores and most cheaters fail anyways. After he left my office I debated if I should quality control the charts. At the end of the day I think I knew what the results would be and I was hesitant. If I filed this away and did not bring it up, even if I was wrong, no one would likely ever know about it. This was a real struggle, because there is ego involved. To be wrong (which I knew I was) would require reversing a call, looking incompetent, compromising the perception of the infallibility of the polygraph. In the end I had to put my ego to the side and I sent my charts to be reviewed making a note… “these look weird, what do you think?” Inevitably the response that I expected was returned, “There is no question about it, in my opinion, these appear to be classic examples of well-executed countermeasures. Most people can’t pull that off quite as well as he did.” Then the moral dilemma was around the issue of chalking this up as a learning experience, versus contacting the therapist and reversing the call and dealing with the ramifications of all of that. Thankfully I was able to sustain my integrity and do the right thing, even if it was late in the game. This required much time, several phone calls, and a family session online with the couple to clean up what I could have done in a few moments right after the test if I had simply done what I knew was right in the first place. That stated, it is not an issue I have let slide again. I learned my lesson. It is more stressful and time consuming to shirk addressing the issue head on, than it is to clean up the mess afterwards.
Case Study #4: Trey Umph
I have saved my favourite story for last. This is the story of an angry cantankerous man that we will call Trey. Prior to even meeting Trey his reputation proceeded him. In preparation for all of our PCSOT testing we contact the therapist and probation/parole officer to inquire as to issues that they would like highlighted in the exam and to request background information. Both his therapist and his probation officer warned me that he is argumentative and would likely nitpick everything I did, and they wished me good luck… that had never happened before or since. There was a note from John on the schedule that stated “make sure he pays in advance, if he doesn’t pay in advance do not proceed with the test.” Mr. Umph was in his mid-sixties and did not seem to be in good physical shape, as the half-flight of stairs to the office winded him considerably. He would not accept my handshake and asked me when was the last time I had washed my hands. He begrudgingly paid his bill prior to the exam, but in line with the predilection for OCD would not touch the pen I offered him in favor of his own pen. When he challenged the upfront payment expectation I told him it insures integrity of the process. He was not paying for the outcome of the exam but for the service. He responded that he would like to go into the polygraph business because he could just fail everyone that came in and make much more money. He ensured me that everyone should fail at least 2-3 times to maximize the best business model. Nevertheless, I hope you get the picture. Trey Umph was opinionated, strong willed, a bit conspiratorial, and geared up and ready for battle. As it turns out during the full disclosure Trey was convicted of sexually touching his eight year old daughter. There were two stories, the first was the incident that triggered the referral to the police, and the second was something his daughter disclosed when they interviewed her. The initial story was that while in a store, a citizen reported to the police that he was inappropriately touchy with his daughter. He said he frequently ‘balances’ himself by holding onto his daughters shoulder or putting his hand atop her head. When the police interviewed the little girl she said she could not remember anything odd about the grocery store visit. They asked if he had ever touched her inappropriately and she said that he had. One time they were in a truck that has a single bench seat and Trey had touched her bottom. Trey explained that he pulled her over to drive with the wheel as he worked the peddles (which was something they did from time to time) and that when he put his hand over to pull her close to the wheel his hand “slid into her shorts and I pulled her over to me touching her bare thigh.” Trey indicated that he remembered the incident she was referring to and had confirmed with the police that he in fact touched her skin to skin on the thigh in the vehicle a few weeks earlier when he pulled her close to him. He was arrested and charged but claimed he had never sexually touched his daughter. When I asked him why he did not fight the charges he said that his lawyer told him his daughter would have to be on the stand and testify and he feared it would be traumatic for her so he took the plea deal. Now he was under supervision and in therapy where everyone was pushing him to take accountability for sexually molesting his daughter; which he was denying ever happened. In this situation the instant offense was the target of interest. I set it up using a Single-Issue Utah Exam targeting if he had ever sexually touched the private parts of his daughter’s body. It seemed fairly straight forward. Going into the test I, like his therapist, peers in group, and probation officer, believed he was going to fail the exam. I was expectant that this could be a huge growing moment for him where he could be more accountable for his actions and finally take ownership of his sexually abusive behaviours towards his daughter. The test result was no significant response/ no deception indicated, Trey Umph passed the single-issue Utah exam stating he had never sexually touched his daughter. I will admit to being somewhat surprised. As I told him the results, tears flooded from this cantankerous old man. He wept saying, “no one believes me, “no one even ever gave me a chance.” He stood up, firmly shook my hand, and thanked me for not judging him. He even apologized for his earlier bravado. When someone is falsely accused of something, how can they ‘prove innocence?’ Often times there is no recourse. They tell their story and people will either believe them, or they will not. That day I learned that polygraph offers a unique sanctuary to the innocent that have nowhere to go for exoneration. Trey Umph could hold his head high and hang onto that moment, when his body spoke the truth. It may not change everyone’s mind, there are likely people that would question the results. But I don’t. I was there as this man melted in gratitude, because someone believed him for the first time. And I did not believe him because I wanted to, or because I was nice, or because I hoped it could be true. I believed him because that is the story that his body told. When polygraph works, it is beautiful. These are just a few of the many trying and beautiful experiences I have had over the last year as I have waded into the laudable profession of polygraph. After working for 18 years in group homes with troubled youth, I am thankful that this change in my career path continues to have the objective that I have always had as a therapist. I want to help people. I want to help society, and I want to get at the truth. Because in the end it is the truth that sets us free.